You have material

We know that email is not transient or even purely virtual. Whether it is the real material effects when the Send button is pressed, the streams across Blackberry and iPhone windows leaving traces in social and cultural practices or the archives accessible to employers or partners via search, email does not disappear. Google’s engineering founders famously couldn’t understand the need for a delete button on their newly launched Gmail {Auletta 2010: 99}. With unlimited storage, the argued, why delete? Google now offers to Archive email or delete it. Of course with the Internet working via caches, the distinction is to a certain extent moot. Even if I delete an email from my webmail account on one device, it may still be cached on or a different computer or on a server. Email is part of the digital detritus that forms our scoio-technological trails and cv. It becomes the stuff that can be the subject of a theft or a search warrant. It has a materiality and location within governmental systems.

But as well as this dimension of materiality, email can be approached as material in a different sense, as Mark Zuckerberg is finding out. Having disposed of the lawsuit from the Winklevoss twins, he now faces one from another former associate claiming a stake in Facebook. This case hinges amongst other things on email. Paul Ceglia has produced what he claims to be a series of emails between Zuckerberg and himself which he argues show that the founder of Facebook agreed to a 50-50 split in the new site. Facebook of course are claiming the emails are fake, and here is where it gets interesting and even more material.

Business Insider claims that Ceglia’s new lawyers DLA Piper performed “weeks” of due diligence assessing Ceglia’s claims. Presumably this included checking the veracity, even materiality, of the emails. Business Insider notes that the emails “don’t read ‘fake.’” But doubtless the lawyers concerned will base their arguments on more than literary style. They will address the materiality of the mails, their existence as material presences on hard drives, written as digital information at particular moments to particular material devices. Here materiality is not in the effects but in the inscription of data on device, the sort of forensic materiality that Matthew Kirschenbaum talks of{%Kirschenbaum 2008}.

Lawyers on both sides will be working at the forensic level to establish the history and presence of those digital traces. This is more than a digital paper-trail this is an archaeology of matetrial fragments, charges, byte-level inscriptions on magnetic data. Just as Kirschenbaum reports how data-recovery firm Convar claimed to be able to recover 100% of the data from hard drives ‘destroyed’ in the Twin Towers {Kirschenbaum 2008: xii}, so Ceglia and Zuckerberg’s material hard drives (if not their email providers’ servers) will be the sites of a cross between an archaeological excavation and a crime scene. It is not just the hard drives that are material here, the emails are too.

It is important to note that for Kirschenbaum that forensic materiality is not a privileged or separate realm. Rather he looks at that forensic level alongside ‘formal materiality’, the “imposition of a specific formal regimen on a given set of data and the resulting contrast to any other available alternative regimens” {Kirschenbaum 2008 : 13} – in this case how that digital data on a series of hard drives is enfolded with and through the email programmes, software, databases etc within which it was and is located. Kirschenbaum uses the example of an image file, drawing the distinction between the image-information and the metadata that becomes visible in particular software configurations or regimens.

It is in this regard that data-mining must be addressed as a material (forensic) practice. The digital detritus and archives we assign to Facebook, Flickr, Gmail or Twitter or that detritus we inadvertently leave every time do a Google search or shop on Amazon are material traces on material devices – the server farms that in a very real sense house the Internet. Those files are material not only in terms of their carbon footprints within server farms but also in the sense that they have a material location as “pits and lands, tiny depressions on the grooved surface” of a CD-Rom or “flux reversals recoded on magnetic [media]” {Kirschenbaum 2008 : 5} and can can be forensically investigated, securely destroyed or recovered.

Zuckerberg and Ceglia’s digital correspondence has a material form and, as one or other will find out, material consequences. But the same is true for the rest of us. The material digital detritus has a material form and material consequences as we are positioned with regard to healthcare insurance providers, surveillance databases and advertisers.

It should also be noted that the software that searches, registers, traces and positions us through those files for advertisers or governmental apparatuses is also material. It too exists on material drives as material traces.

  • Auletta, K., 2010, Googled: The End of The World As We Know It, Virgin Books, London.
  • Kirschenbaum, M.G., 2008, Mechanisms: New Media And The Forensic Imagination, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..