Materiality of Deletion
Essay by Christo de Klerk
It is described as “a kind of suspended animation, a coma or waking death, oddly inert yet irreducibly physically present, hence its association with the uncanny, the unconscious, the dead.” This object resides behind computer screens everywhere, ever expanding in its capacity, ever shrinking in its size, always connected—singular on the periphery or legion in the cloud.  It is the hard disk drive. The icon of digital storage media. Unto it memories are saved, upon it memories are recalled, and from it memories are erased.
Etymologically the words erase and delete are equivalent. Erase comes from the Latin rādĕre—to scrape, scratch. Delete is from the Latin word dēlēre—to blot out, efface.  Reflected in their etymology, both words capture a sense of material engagement. However, usage of these two words within Internet search queries demonstrate that they have come to mean two different things. A distinction that awakes the conscious to the materiality that persists in the shadows of digital media.
Deletion takes place as a performance. It is enacted within a place, upon a ground—a surface of inscription. It often, if not always, requires an implement. Reinforcing this technological orientation of deletion is the required skillful application of the implement. To erase the inscription of a lead pencil one would select a rubber eraser and apply it to the page following a particular motion. Every erasable medium has its own particular procedure, its own rite by which former things are buried.
What is the complete object of deletion? What does it mean to delete it? What are the tools and procedures to perform the deletion? And to what level of certainty do individuals evaluate the effectiveness of a deletion method? Answers to these questions may begin with a web search since finding the tools and procedures is the subject of a number of Internet search queries. For this study Google’s search results and tools are used, because of the quality of documentation the search engine makes available.
In an attempt to make the experience of searching the web more predictive, Google provides users with an autocomplete function as a query is entered into the search field. The list of terms that appears is harvested from a combination of sources, but generally reflect the most popularly searched terms matching a user’s incomplete entry. Google claims the algorithmically generated and frequently updated list represents “fresh and rising search queries.” 
As an experience of popular search terms, we may compare the list presented by the query “how to delete” with “how to erase.” “How to delete” is completed with words such as Facebook, Gmail, Myspace, and browser cookie. “How to erase” is completed with words such as hard drive, CD, DVD, and computer. These lists may largely be divided into two media categories where erasure refers to physical media and deletion refers to content on a network or platform.
The two phrases are also distinct in the number of times they occur within queries. Google provides a tool that helps advertisers determine keywords to use in their campaigns. Known as Google Insights for Search, the tool compares the search volume over time between two or more queries. A comparison between “how to delete” and “how to erase” reveals a stable distinction between the search volume relative to one another between 2004 and mid-2007.  However, in 2007 “how to delete” queries increased steadily in volume over the following three years until present.
The rising volume of “how to delete” queries may correlate with the rising use of social networks. Assuming deletion is indeed more commonly associated with queries pertaining to online platforms such as social networks, the escalating volume would suggest a heightened urgency or difficulty on the part of users to find the appropriate method for deleting something online. The procedure is not as evident or intuitive perhaps as erasing a file from a medium such as a videotape or hard disk drive.
A search for the method to erase a videotape will return such tools as a magnetic media degausser. Powered by electricity, the tool is waved in a circular motion over the top of the videotape to depolarize the magnetic field suspended within it. Finding the right pencil eraser is described by one author as comparable to “fighting your way through [a] jungle.”   Erasers come in different types, made from specific materials that effectively perform an erasure when handled in particular way. A kneaded eraser removes markings by a repeated dabbing action.
A search for the methods and tools for deleting a Facebook account or an old post on Twitter returns descriptions of the steps that must be performed. These steps may be long and are subject to regular updates, as the configuration of settings and the user interface on the platform changes. A tool may assist in performing the steps required for the user. Until recently, Seppukoo was a website that helped Facebook users in closing their account. The “virtual suicide” that the service helped users perform was partly intended to make users aware of Facebook’s policy to only deactivate accounts and not fully delete them. “There’s no death where there’s no life,” the authors of the service write. For even after the virtual suicide, “just a simple login, and your life will be completely restore back [sic].” 
The challenge to delete content on the Internet is the subject of some journalism. A recent New York Times article on “Erasing the Digital Past” not only reiterates the challenges involved, but tells of the industry that has developed to effectively keep names, images, or content offline.  There is the story of bankers spending $10,000 a month to “hide their names online” as news of the financial crisis developed. The methods included “fixing” Wikipedia, gaming search engines, and politely petitioning bloggers to take content offline.
The Internet never forgets—a common refrain in the writing on deleting content online. As a metaphor for memory, the comparison is found in disease. “But like a metastasized cancer, the incriminating data had embedded itself into the nether reaches of cyberspace, etched into archives, algorithms, and a web of hyperlinks,” writes the author of the recent New York Times piece.  And so is invoked a sense of that great unpardonable sin: to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.  In a manner quite like a sin against the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the offence is with a seemingly immaterial presence—something far away, in the “nether reaches of cyberspace,” and yet also right here, on the screen, just behind the glass.
Whether it is erasing a document on a flash drive, deleting a post on a social network, or taking a website offline: What does it mean to delete something? These questions are the very opposite of what the archivist would ask.
“What does it mean to preserve digital objects?” asks Kenneth Thibodeau in his essay on digital preservation. In the challenge of adequately embalming the digital object for preservation, the corresponding challenge is the disposal of the digital object without trace.11 A challenge that is representational. How to describe the object of preservation to more effectively address “policy questions, institutional roles and relationships, legal issues, and intellectual property rights.” To this end, Thibodeau introduces a model to conjure up a complete picture of the digital object intended for preservation. The digital object takes form within three classes each with unique properties: a physical object, a logical object, and a conceptual object.
Erasing content from a hard drive is to manipulate an object that is altogether physical, logical, and conceptual. The physical object is the inscription on the hard drive—magnetic impressions performed planographically, heads floating on air over the spinning platters. The logical object is the manipulated unit of binary clusters ordered and processed through the computing infrastructure. It is the object that the software negotiates with the hardware. And the conceptual object is the projection on the screen or through the speakers that we recognize. It is the object we handle as if a physical object. Together these three classes form an inseparable unit.
Deleting a picture from a web page may seem straightforward when the “trash can” is on screen, but beyond the pail on the LCD screen the influence of the gesture upon the physical and logical classes of the digital object is concealed from the screen. Removal of the picture is related to the conceptual object of the page at a specific URL hosted from a specific IP address. But the digital object, removed from conceptual awareness, may remain largely unchanged as a logical and physical object. And this does not mean that it is no longer a conceptual object either. It may exist within a different operating environment. The deleted file could still conceivably be seen in the desktop trash can or in the data recovery software. For example, a deleted Facebook picture will remain a file accessible on the Internet for months after it is removed.  All that is required to access the deleted image is knowledge of its precise URL.
As illustrated above, deletion takes place at the site of the three different classes of the digital object. The representation is deceiving, but meaningful. The conceptual object here is a music file. It will bypass the “trash can” when the shift key is held and the file dragged. However, within a hex or disk viewer the digital object will still be accessible, verifying that as a logical object the digital object is still intact. Only if the file is securely wiped will the disk editor represent that the logical object was removed.
Even methods of logically deleting a file vary as Peter Gutmann’s discussion on secure methods of erasing hard drives has demonstrated.  Furthermore, there is the presence of a blank space to consider within the logical composition of the hard disk. A palimpsest indicating something was here—an absence that in the ordering of the rest of the disk drive, may be rather telling.
The representation of the hard drive performing a file deletion is also problematic. Behind the arbitrary seeming motions over the flat surface are targeted inscriptions. Under a Magnetic Force Microscope it is evident that these inscriptions are not necessarily perfectly inscribed, so deletions or overwrites can be detected. Somewhat like the frayed edges of a billboard, the physical inscription on a hard drive can be imperfectly overlaid, preserving some trace of the deleted digital object at the physical level.
To better frame the materiality that possesses the digital object beyond the screen, Matthew Kirschenbaum foregrounds the mechanisms that facilitate inscription and transmission in his book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.  Kirschenbaum argues that textual understanding of the digital object relies on an awareness of the forensic and formal materiality of a digital object. Forensic materiality is used to refer to the physical manipulation of magnetic impressions on the rotating platters of a hard drive. He emphasizes the stability of the trace on the hard disk drive, which he says “rests upon the principle of individualization (basic to modern forensic science and criminalistics), the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike.”  At the forensic level, the magnetic trace is remarkably persistent. The forensic materiality of digital objects is evident in stories of data recovered from “deleted” drives sold on eBay and in the hard drives excavated and completely restored from the Ground Zero site at the World Trade Center.
Formal materiality on the other hand is an emphasis on the manipulation of symbols. It is the experience of buttons on the screen or blank pages that fill with writing. These are negotiations between applications and the operating system, conceptual and logical objects, beneath which occurs the material exchanges of inscription and erasure on the physical object, the hard disk drive. Formally a deletion may take place on the computer screen as a file in the trash can. The file, however, forensically may remain intact on the hard drive as a physical object.
“A digital environment is an abstract projection supported and sustained by its capacity to propagate the illusion of immaterial behavior: identification without ambiguity, transmission without loss, repetition without originality,” says Kirschenbaum. However this tension between the formal and forensic materiality of the inscription reinforces the notion of symbolic exchanges, by taking place upon a computer tethered to a local hard drive.  We sense the gravity of a crashed hard drive somewhere near to the surface of the screen. The drive is here, the capacity for forensic analysis a daunting possibility.
But as solid state hard drives become the norm and online digital storage becomes more widely adopted, the forensic materiality of the digital object will recede even further into the background—reinforcing the dominance of the screen. Indeed, the background itself is in doubt as new mobile devices present themselves as essentially just a screen. For example, the iPad not only conceals the location of digital storage, but also the infrastructure for transmission of digital objects. All there is to see is a screen suspended within a black frame.
While we interface through personal devices, the storage metaphor for memory is transforming—rising up and away from the personal computer to Cloud computing environments where physical location of digital storage is unknown. Emails are on The Cloud. Documents are on The Cloud. Accounts are maintained and shared across networks.
Where the unifying feature of the storage metaphor for memory is its personal nature, it is characterized by a much more social nature online. Websites share server space and emails are transmitted by being copied across nodes to their destination. A document shared online by multiple users over the Google Docs office suite is still committed to storage by clicking the icon of a floppy disk. This icon illustrates just how far removed the representation of the physical trace is from the reality of the digital object. Like the idea of the horseless carriage to represent the automobile, here the floppy disk represents something yet to be more adequately represented.
The personal desktop computer with its local digital storage device clarified modern psychology’s description of the working of the mind. Douwe Draaisma in Metaphors of Memory traces the use of inscription media through history. Portable devices such as the ancient wax tablet and the renaissance writing tables were significant metaphors in the discourse of memory.  They emphasized its locatability and its orientation to the individual.
The inscription metaphor for memory has had a strong grip on the imagination since Plato and Aristotle. Anne Whitehead follows the inscription metaphor through to contemporary directions in the field of memory studies to emphasize continuity in academic thought on the subject.  Noticeable in this account is the increasingly subtle connection between memory and the transformations that took place in writing technology since the wax tablet. Reading and writing become simply remembering or forgetting, as if electronic writing technology is completely volatile and traceless in effortless reproduction. The conception of mind as a wax tablet endures though the mechanism of inscription has changed.
Recognizing the shift to collective memory under the inscribing trauma of wars in the twentieth century and in reflection on the different perspectives of Ricoeur and Derrida, Whitehead argues that the emphasis on memory studies today is footed in forgetting.  It is a precarious foothold, tense with materiality—objects against forgiveness. A tense space held between the hard places of amnesia and amnesty. In amnesia the psychological and material trace is buried and ignored. In amnesty the trace is put out of reach by law. A challenge focused on forgetting without amnesia, and forgiving without erasing the medium.
Forgetting is equated with erasure. It is discussed as a virtue and even a right. The European Union’s data protection reform bill aims to give Internet users the right to be forgotten from the Internet. The EU’s rights commissioner describes the right to be forgotten as “essential in today’s digital world.”  Phrases such as “permanently delete” and “data fully removed” pepper speech on the reform, but what will effectively guarantee the complete elimination of the material trace? Even to remember that someone is to be forgotten requires keeping some sort of record. While the EU’s data protection reform bill is represented as a mechanism to delete the digital object, it will likely do no more than enforce an awkward amnesty. The digital object will remain, but outside the reach of law until it is legal again to do so.
A similar scheme that makes light of the forensic materiality of the digital object, is Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s policy proposal at the end of his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Mayer-Schonberger argues that the development of digital memory runs counter to the biologically evolved faculty of memory. Forgetting is natural and even key to our survival.  Self-deletion ought to be a mechanism of digital storage, he argues proposing that digital content should have an expiry date. As a method of deletion, selecting an erase-by date would expand awareness of the materiality of digital inscription. He argues that this awareness would help realign user expectations of digital storage and subsequently digital storage to more closely resemble the human faculty.
Key to Mayer-Schönberger’s argument for the institution of self-deletion technology is the assumption that memory threatens the present with haunting potentiality. While it is tempting to look past this presupposition to the policy recommendations and their explanations, a community’s image of the past matters as much as the material it is inscribed upon. It shapes the object of deletion and establishes its association with individuals.
The shape of the past forms the reliable present, says classical historian Harriet Flower.  For ancient Romans, the threatening shape of the past was oblivion. Framing this particular image of the past was the limited distribution and public control of the surfaces of inscription. Publishing memory required effort and capital, with texts taking form in surfaces mostly fixed to place. The monuments, texts, and rituals that comprise the three essential media afforded a significant ability to target cultural memory with erasures and rewrites. Where a victory in battle today may be published and distributed through the trusted and archival media of film and newsprint, the Roman publication of victory would take form in a monument or ritual. These were among the accepted methods of remembrance; methods that gave place to memory in the public forum, but also identified the place for rewriting or erasing memory.
Flower establishes the common practice of systematic erasure in this era. Orders of erasure such as the anti-tyranny law of Ilion targeted specific inscriptions to be removed from public. The method of erasure demanded a competency in the performance of an erasure, detailing the technical treatment of the inscription surface in order to deeply eliminate the trace.  Erasures from the stone base of monuments were re-attributed. Ritual and social orders were also treated like an inscription surface communicative of cultural memory. Appointments to the priesthood were not only removed but also replaced in order to mask the erasure.
For Flower, the acute awareness of the materiality and place of cultural memory defined the resident of the city and the city itself. It furnished a kind of media literacy, where every act of remembrance was recognized to be political because the order to erase or rewrite was public. Unlike digital storage media where the physically inscribed surface can be far removed from the place of retrieval, in ancient Rome the place of memory would also be the place of physical inscription. The distance, diversity, and distribution of memory practice today may furnish a sense of security from oblivion. However, the appearance of the record as severed from material presence means memory is out there and beyond any control—awaiting in suspended animation to be reconstructed.
The places of private memory are public. They were public in antiquity and they are becoming public again. Instead of fearing this we can recognize continuity with the ancient Roman experience of the place of memory in the public square. Recognizing that in the materiality of our symbolic exchanges, we are bound to make inadequate preservation of the present and incomplete erasures of the past. If not any more intentional with our preservation or certain of our erasures, we may at least become less fearful and more forgiving: laying to rest the past with adequate ceremony. Not with fearful trepidation, but with hopeful expectation of resurrection.
1. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 97.
2. OED Online, s.v. “delete,” accessed March 2011, oed.com/view/Entry/49325?rskey=IzF8xD&result=2&isAdvanced=false; OED Online, s.v. “erase,” accessed March 2011, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63898?rskey=ql5icq&result=2&isAdvanced=false.
3. “ Autocomplete: Features,” Google Web Search Help, n.d., google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?&answer=106230&hl=en.
4. “ Announcing Google Insights for Search,” Inside Adwords (blog), August 5, 2008, adwords.blogspot.com/2008/08/announcinggoogleinsightsfor-search.html.
5. “ Erasing Used Tapes,” Tapeheads.Net, November 23, 2009, tapeheads.net/showpost.php?s=01fda47394408d9cdb84159bda62319e&p=72295&postcount=7.
6. Greg Albert and Rachel Rubin Wolf, Basic Drawing Techniques (North Light Books, 1991), 9.
7. “ Viral Suicide Goes Pandemic,” The Seppukoo Blog, November 25, 2009, blog.seppukoo.com/2009/11/25/viral-suicide-goespandemic/.
8. Nick Bilton, “Erasing Individual’s Digital Past,” New York Times, April 1, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/fashion/03reputation.html.
10. Mark 3:29.
11. Kenneth Thibodeau, “Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years,” Council on Library and Information Resources, July 10, 2002, clir.org/pubs/reports/pub107/thibodeau.html.
13. Jacqui Cheng, “‘Deleted’ Facebook Photos Still Not Deleted: A Followup,” Ars Technica (blog), October 2010, arstechnica.com/business/2010/10/facebook-may-be-makingstrides/.
14. Peter Gutmann, “Secure Deletion of Data from Magnetic and SolidState Memory,” (Sixth USENIX Security Symposium Proceedings, San Jose, 1996), cs.auckland.ac.nz/%7Epgut001/pubs/secure_del.html.
15. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms, 11.
16. Ibid., 10.
17. Ibid., 11.
18. D. Draaisma, Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas about the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
19. Anne Whitehead, Memory (Taylor & Francis, 2009).
20. Ibid., 153.
21. Bruno Waterfield, “EU Push for Online ‘Right to be Forgotten,’” Sydney Morning Herald, November 6, 2010, smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/eu-push-for-online-right-tobe-forgotten-20101107-17hht.html.
22. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 68.
23. Harriet I Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace & Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
24. Ibid., 276.
Christo de Klerk is a design researcher and artist interested in the interface between publics and the city through media technology for accountable governance. His current project, MicroAct, aims to understand and support place-based community action by documenting tactical urbanism and media methods around the world.
www.christodeklerk.com | @mujalifah