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DM Assignment 2, Prompt 1

Kirschenbaum describes screen essentialism as “the prevailing bias in new media studies toward display technologies,” the (over-)emphasis on what is made purposely visible rather than what lies underneath (Kirschenbaum, 32). Data is stored as electrical signals converted through a series of abstractions to what is displayed, but we focus only on the highest level of abstraction, the way the corporations constructing our new media devices intend. Visibility thus serves to distract us from studying the totality of new media.

Kirschenbaum uses this notion of what is typically made visible in two ways: (1) to settle and differentiate his study from the prevailing “medial ideology” of new media theory and (2) to provide a basis for studying computer forensics, which seeks to unearth what lies beneath the screen-level understanding of new media.

Kirschenbaum takes a decidedly critical stance towards the notion of screen essentialism, arguing that it limits the study of new media. In contrasting screen essentialism to the way data are actually stored and inscribed, he describes the prevailing ideology as “medial–that is, one that substitutes popular representations of a medium…for a more comprehensive treatment of the material particulars of a given technology” (Kirschenbaum, 36).

In his characterization, much is being left out of discussions of new media. He cites numerous authors, some of whom embody this rift and others who get closer to the “comprehensive treatment of material particulars” for which he advocates. In particular, he finds that in focusing on what is visible, new media theorists lack a realization of the permanence of the technologies they are studying, criticizing several authors’ work as relying on (among others) notions of “speed of light” and ”evanescent electrons” (Kirschenbaum, 43). He does concede that in some cases this “effectively captures what most users experience as the basic phenomenological difference between analog and digital media,” but he finds this lack of regard for the material inscriptions—as well as analysis “at the more general level” of “race, class, and gender”—to be dissatisfying (Kirschenbaum, 43-44).

Kirschenbaum’s study of computer forensics relies heavily on the physical realities of the storage devices that back much of digital media. He tackles the notion that new media is ephemeral, fungible, and fluid by examining the processes of recovering data that—for reasons intentional or unintentional—are difficult or impossible to retrieve through conventional means. These conventional means form the limits of visibility for those who prescribe to the notion of screen essentialism. (Importantly, some of the techniques he describes are screen-based software tools. While this complicates the notion that computer forensics reaches beyond the screen, these tools provide access to data beyond what is typically considered accessible.)

There are various processes by which he describes recovery of the “lost” data, but it can be summed up in his citation of Ordway Hilton: “Virtually all erasures can be detected by a thorough examination” (Kirschenbam, 60). As Kirschenbaum notes, despite this having been written about traditional media, “he may as well have been talking about computer storage media” (Kirschenbam, 60). Thus, screen essentialism operates in this essay by not only offering a critique of prior work and a motivation for his research but also as a counterpoint to computer forensics, which expands the notions of what is visible in the realm of new media theory.

Visibility is approached from a different angle in Bucher’s study of the Facebook News Feed. Bucher contrasts the notion of visibility provided by the EdgeRank algorithm to that of Foucault’s study of the Panopticon, demonstrating that while both structure visibility through architectural means, only the Panopticon treats all subjects equally. She notes that EdgeRank “prioritizes some [subjects] above others,” by multiplying the criteria of Affinity, Weight, and Time Decay as defined by Facebook. For her, “EdgeRank functions as a reversal of the regime instantiated by the Panopticon”, since instead of mandating visibility it requires the subjects to strive for it (Bucher, 1172 & 1166). This structuring of visibility is an inherent byproduct of all media. However, Facebook in particular structures what is visible in a “circular logic” that affects how its users behave when sharing personal and social information in an attempt to gain visibility (Bucher, 1169).

Visibility also shows up in Bucher’s analysis of the structure of EdgeRank itself. She notes that there are other factors than the three she focuses on that are not made public; indeed now over 100,000 are included (McGee). Thus her analysis is complicated by the fact in addition to structuring what is made visible, Facebook itself is only partially visible.

Contrary to Kirschenbaum’s reading of (in)visibility, what is at stake for Bucher is not that what is kept unseen is dangerous because it hides exposable, presumably erased data. Rather, she is concerned with how one can become irrelevant by failing to structure interactions so they rank highly according to EdgeRank’s criteria. However, both of of these authors’ characterizations rely on the idea that something is perceived as being hidden from view in a non-obvious way. Importantly, both the computer forensics industry and Facebook have a profit motive reliant on shaping what is made visible.

Curiously, both authors abstain from criticizing the media themselves for being opaque. Rather, they each call for a broadening of research into what lies beyond the screen. Neither of these authors claims to have produced a truly comprehensive study; it is impossible for either of the media they focus on to be entirely visible. Furthermore, while arguing for comprehensiveness they have still chosen to highlight specific aspects of particular media in the process. This feeds into the call for both a furthering and diversification of research in their domain. Despite their noted limitations, Kirchenbaum’s and Bucher’s respective studies of inscriptions and algorithms expand the visibility of new media, both explicitly in their arguments and implicitly by highlighting media that have not often been studied and pushing for further research.

Works Cited:

Bucher, Taina. “Want to be on the top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook,” New Media & Society 14:7 (2012), 1164- 1180

Kirschenbaum, Matthew, “Every Contact Leaves a Trace,” Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 25-71

McGee, Matt. “EdgeRank Is Dead: Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm Now Has Close To 100K Weight Factors.” Marketing Land. Third Door Media, Inc., 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.