Notes for Matthew G. Kirschenbaum “Extreme Inscription: Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive”

Key concepts: grammatological primitives, hashing, heterogeneity of digital inscription, screen essentialism, subjectivity.


Related theorists: Derrida, Flanagan, Hayles, Heim, Kittler, Manovich, Montfort, Wiener, Zanni.

Extreme inscription as limit case.

(92) The hard drive and magnetic media more generally are mechanisms of extreme inscription – that is, they offer a practical limit case for how the inscriptive act can be imagined and executed. . . Here we will follow the bits all the way down to the metal.

New media scholars have ignored the hard drive despite its consistent presence in this history of electronic computing; Heim and others refer instead to its black box aspect.

(93) basic drive technology remains remarkably unchanged since it was first introduced by IBM in the 1950s. The hard drive is therefore central to any narrative of computing and inscription in the latter half of the twentieth-century, yet it has never received extended consideration from scholarly observers of new media.
(94) That the physical seclusion of the hard drive renders it an almost literal black box should not be underestimated in the extent to which its mechanism has gone unremarked in discussions of electronic textuality.
(95) Little wonder then that electronic writing's first generation of theorists turned their gaze toward the screen rather than the disk. The cathode ray tube was the implicit and often explicit starting point for most discussions of electronic textuality because it was only as bit-mapped fonts on the screen that electronic letterforms become recognizable as writing.

Extend electronic textuality beyond flickering signifiers on the screen.

(95-96) Nick Montfort has recently coined the term “screen essentialismto refer to the bias towards monitors and display devices in new media studies, where the vast preponderance of critical attention has been focused on what happens on the windowed panes of the looking glass. . . . I believe that if we expand its definition to include machine-language markings and machine-readable inscriptions as well as alphanumerical writing, then the history and theory of electronic textuality must come to encompass more than just the screen-deep flickering signifiers that have thus far occupied critics in their investigations of new media.

This Has Been a Day of Solid Achievement”

Random access disk storage public debut in 1958.

(96) Among the attractions at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium, visitors would have beheld Professor RAMAC, a four-ton IBM machine capable of offering up responses to users' queries on a two thousand year historical span ranging from “the birth of Christ to the launching of Sputnik 1.” . . . The RAMAC was capable of storing five million 7-bit characters on 50 vertically stacked disks, each two feet wide and rotating at 1200 RPM. In contemporary parlance this means that the first hard drive had a capacity of about 5 megabytes. The machine leased for $3200 a month, ran on vacuum tubes, and was taken off the market by 1961; some 1500 were manufactured in all.
(96-97) But the advent of random access disk storage goes to the heart of contemporary critical assumptions about new media. . . . Magnetic disk media, more specifically the hard disk drive, was to become that technology and, as much as bitmapped-GUIs and the mouse, usher in a new era of interactive, real-time computing.

The RAMAC Professor the first computer personality.

(98) Computers were thus on record as instruments of prediction and prognostication, not retrospection. The RAMAC, by contrast, represented what was perhaps the first digital library. . . . As perhaps the earliest computational personality on record (almost a decade before Weizenbaum's ELIZA), the Professor was thus marked out as a first-world citizen of a post-colonial present rather than a trans-historical remember of things past.
(99) Like the telegraph's automatic writing or the “call” of the telephone, the book that can be read without being opened offers up a whiff of the uncanny, the hint of haunted media.
(100) Interestingly, one of the leading contenders for data storage prior to magnetic tape and disk was the cathode ray tube, which used electron beams to paint and store lines and dots representing binary numbers.

A Grammatology of the Hard Drive

Grammatological primitives derived from a kind of media specific analysis: signal processor, differential, volumetric, rationalized, motion-dependent, planographic, non-volatile but variable.

(101) What, then, are the essential characteristics – the grammatological primitives, as it were – of the hard disk drive as inscription technology? Here is my list: it is random access; it is a signal processor; it is differential; it is volumetric; it is rationalized (and atomized); it is motion-dependent; it is planographic; and it is non-volatile (but also variable).

Signal processor means analog voltage detection converted to binary representation is second-order because data storage is digital to analog to digital, producing real virtuality but itself unreadable in contrast to printed text.

(101-102) It is a signal processor. . . . Likewise, to read data from the surface of the platter, these patterns of magnetic fields (actually patterns of magnetic resistance), which are received as analog signals, are interpreted by the head's detection circuitry as a voltage spike that is then converted into a binary digital representation (a one or a zero) by the drive's firmware. The relevant points are that writing and reading to the disk is ultimately a form of digital to analog to digital signal processing – not unlike the function of a modem – and that the data contained on the disk is a second-order representation of the actual digital values the data assumes for computation.

Differential means signification dependent upon instantaneous changes in value rather than substance of signal.

(102) It is differential. . . . signification depends upon changes in the value of the signal being received rather than the substance of the signal itself.

Volumetric means traces only detectable by machinery, cannot be read by humans.

(102) It is volumetric. . . . Typical aerial densities are now at around 10,000,000,000 bits (not bytes) per square inch. . . . some researchers speculate that we are about to hit the physical limit of how weak a magnetic field can be and still remain detectable, even by new generations of giant magnetoresistive drive heads and stochasitc decoding techniques. . . . an individual bit representation is currently a rectangular area about 4.0 um high and 0.5 um wide; by contrast, a red blood cell is about 8 um in diameter, an anthrax spore about 6 um. Individual bit representations are visible as traceable inscriptions using laboratory instrumentation like Magnetic Force Microscopy.

Here it is realized that new fantasies via programming emerge with aerial densities (Kittler), beyond anything von Neumann or others could have imagined could be done with machines by programming. Is microdrive long implemented and now more can volumetrically be stored in smaller places down to the bits, high speed bit streams versus analog realities? Can escape to next drive head.

An instrument can see what reader reads: here is that special type of computed reality, like the PET scan. Would never look at the whole 2+ GB file of the ova object. Yes, I must work with the “Open Virtualization Archive” format and all its attendant quirks including Latin egg references remembering how I got Vermachtnis wrong. Similar to asking what is your position on IPv6?

(102 endnote 31) Prior to MFM (Magnetic Force Microscopy), samples of magnetic recording media were imaged by treating them with a ferrofluid, a liquid magnetic suspension that produced patterns visible under an optical microscope. Today MFM is being supplemented by a newer technique call spin-stand imaging. . . . Three monitors provide views: one shows an optical magnification of the surface of the sample, the second displays instrumentation and settings, the third displays reconstructed images, both AFM and MFM. . . . If we do the math – eight bits in a byte – we can see that we might, assuming optimal conditions, be able to image seven or eight bytes per minute. . . . Though recoveries of complete files are theoretically possible (through what is known in the trade as “heroic efforts”) the process would be extremely painstaking and requires weeks or many months.

Good argument in note why codex book is also volumetric in this MSA where book is not a signal processor or differential.

(103 endnote 32) Authors are often asked to add or remove content so as to bring their raw page counts into alignment with the multiples of a signature. . . . These quick examples, from early modern to contemporary publishing, indicate that the codex is volumetric in all three of its dimensions, length, breadth, and depth.

Rationalized means no writing prior to formatting; striated rather than smooth surface; remember formatting tricks on Apple II platform.

(103) It is rationalized. . . . There is thus no such thing as writing to the disk anterior to the overtly rationalized gesture of formatting.

All electronic data is hypermedia, which could be fantasized until actually referenced although seem to realize in note 34; self-representation in future could begin with UNIX-like filesystem ext for example.

Apotheosis of codex links FAT to long history of language machines.

(103) Every formatted hard disk stores its own self-representation, a table of file names and addresses known (on Windows systems) as the File Allocation Table (FAT). . . . The basic unit for file storage is not the sector but rather clusters, larger groupings of typically 32 or 64 contiguous sectors in a track. . . . (In a very basic way, then, all electronic data is “hypermediato the FAT). . . . The FAT – itself a purely textualized constructed – and that data structures it maps, is arguably the apotheosis of a rationalization and an atomization of writing space that began with the discrete pages of another random access device, the codex.

Motion-dependent means inscription and reading only occurs at particular rotational speed, riding on air cushion; rotation limits, try vibration, MSA air bearing technology essential to materiality of hard drive versus book.

(104) It is motion-dependent. . . . Once the computer is turned on, the hard disk is in near constant motion. The spindle motor rotates the platters at up to 10,000 revolutions per minute. . . . once the head is in position at the appropriate track it simply waits for the target sector to rotate past. The rotation of the disk is what allows the head to detect reversals in the magnetic fluctuations on the surface of the platter (see differential, above). . . . (Thus, even the length and breadth of bit representations vastly exceed the flying height of the drive head). The rapid motion of the disk creates an air cushion that floats the head of the drive. Just as a shark must swim to breathe, a hard drive must be in motion to receive or return data. . . . Thus, a key aspect of the hard drive's materiality as an agent of digital inscription is quite literally created out of thin air.

Planographic means surface must be absolutely smooth; compare planographic to lithography (Drucker and McVarish).

(104-105) It is planographic. . . . Hard drives are planographic in that the surface of the disk, in order to fly scant nanometers beneath the air bearings, must be absolutely smooth.

Non-volatile but variable.

(105) It is non-volatile (but variable). . . . Far from being fragile or ephemeral, the magnetic substrate of a drive is one of the stickiest and most persistent surfaces for inscription we've ever devised.

Tie Wiener to Heidegger ready-at-hand, Freud magic slate.

(105) Paradoxically, however, just as important is the fact that the same volumetric area on the surface of the disk can be recycled and rewritten. The ability to erase and change data rapidly was in fact a key characteristic of the computer as envisioned by pioneers like Norbert Wiener. . . . Interestingly, holographic storage, which some see as eventually replacing magnetic media – data is stored in a solid array of crystals – is not generally reusable. . . . Such a technology would explore current conventions of data storage, reconceiving human computer interaction as fundamentally as random-access non-volatile (but variable) storage media did in the 1950s.

You Are Your C”: Reading/Writing Storage
(107) Data mining, technologies that utilize machine-learning algorithms to iterate over vast reserves of archival data in search of unexpected patterns and associations, is a direct outgrowth of the massive quantities of random access storage available from magnetic disks.

Inscription, memory go from scarcity to superfluity, making possible Manovich big data; reference to Derrida Archive Fever.

(107) This is a sea-change in the production and recording of human knowledge, one whose implications go far beyond the hard disk drive as a technology of writing and inscription alone. As Derrida noes in Archive Fever, “what is no longer archived in the same was is no longer lived in the same way” (18).

Interesting examples of new subjectivities by Zanni and Flanagan You are your C.

(108) New subjectivities are also emerging. “You are your C” is the title of a net art project by Carlo Zanni dedicated to “electronic soul mirroring”: when the project is accessed online, the contents of the viewer's hard drive are displayed on the screen as the standard Windows file tree, as though they were simply another component of the World Wide Web. . . . [Phage], which she [Mary Flanagan] describes as a virus, uses fragments of old media files residing on the user's hard drive to enact a 3-D representation of the computer's subconscious (executed in VRML).

Is there a kernel of the subject apart from digital accumulations?

(109) Or to take one final instance: “you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that,” says Don Delillo in the voice of a government technocrat in White Noise (141). While superficially compatible with Gordon Bell's statements, these literary examples all complicate the ambitions of a project of MyLifeBits, whose rhetoric at times is disarmingly literal. . . . The real question . . . how do these accumulations, these massive drifts of data, interact with irreducible reality of lived experience? . . . In other words, for the work to have its real impact the user must retain some sense of self apart from their data, some subjective reserve that says in effect, no, there must be more to me than this.

Question myth of total convergence; heterogeneity of digital inscription; effects of control, docility through DRM.

(110) Part of what enables the myth (or the meme) is the slippage between media convergence and total recall. . . . This essay has worked to discover the heterogeneity of digital inscription to the furthest extent possible, indeed to the nanoscale where, with the aid of a magnetic force microscope, individual bits take on their own weight and heft (like snowflakes, no two are quite alike). Even without the aid of such exotic instrumentation, however, the non-virtual realities of our contemporary media ecology should lead us to question the homogenizing myth of convergence. . . . To put the matter even more bluntly, what happens when the titanic ambition of my desire to save a copy of every song I've ever listened to collides with the iceberg of DRM?

Hashing to produce redundant expressions of original data, immateriality through lack of localized imperfections from highly engineered materiality: like 2x and 10x rules in electrical and electronic circuit design.

(111) Every sector of data on the disk includes error correcting codes derived according to established algorithms; the basic idea is that the mathematics generates a bit sequence that serves as a redundant expression of the original data (this is called hashing). . . . Absent are the range of small, localized glitches characteristic of other media – the typo in the newspaper, the scratch on the vinyl record, snow on the TV channel – that remind us of their mundane materiality. . . . While it is just this kind of behavior that is often cited as evidence of digital media's putative immateriality, the hard drive's error-free performance is in fact the laborious and artificially achieved end product of decades of computer science and engineering.

Must study storage if interested in texts as representations: fits well with my call to study ECT in general if interested in the philosophy of computing.

(111-112) There is a fiction then that computing is all about numbers, especially ones and zeros. But computing is really all about storage. Data cannot subsist without material representation. Given this, the history and technology of storage should be a prime locus of inquiry for anyone interested in computing from the standpoint of technologies of writing, textuality, and inscription – in short, the stuff of representations. . . . In essence you'll never “see” storage in that you'll never encounter your data in its entirety, in a format akin to the tree views we now take for granted (that which “You Are Your C” exploits). Instead you will filter, mine, search, retrieve. . . . The kind of serendipitous discovery of old files and applications recounting in Microserfts will become a function of the fluke search result, not manual tidying.

Read back von Neumann architecture concretized in library building organization, as Japanese artist I cannot recall enacts logic gates.

(112) You can almost see the von Neumann architecture being concretized at the macro-level as the bricks and mortar of the library building – the central processing unit – are re-engineered to house a state of the art media and information center, packed with computers themselves packed with state of the art disk arrays and hard drive clusters. The books meanwhile, the random access devices of old, are being placed – recursively it would seem – in storage, shunted away to a remote locale where they will be available upon request. At a moment when we would clearly not be wrong to speak of storage as a cultural condition – a storage generation or storage fever – the hard drive is not the only relevant technology.


Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “Extreme Inscription: Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive.” Text Technology 13.2 (2004): 91-125. Web. 12 Dec 2012.