Digital devices such as computers and mobile phones are piling up in archives, libraries and museums. What kind of objects are they, what can they tell us, how can we approach them? They are physical objects to display in exhibitions, as well as archives in themselves, storing texts, images and sounds once saved by users. Hard drives from well-known authors are regularly collected by libraries and the content made available to researchers (with some restrictions) as ordinary paper records would be. On a less private level, however, hard drives no longer in use can also be analysed as archives of a different kind. Hard drives record their own history and usage and store data beyond the content created by users. Log files, updates and viruses document the biography of the object and a computer’s journey from brand new, to mundane, to obsolete and unused.
As part of the remains of a fast-changing media culture, a hard drive can provide us with a window into the history of new media, into time specific software, formats and use. In my research I will take the hard drive of an iMac G3 (used by a Swedish family between 1999 and 2007) as a starting point in a discussion about methodological approaches, ethical dilemmas and research potentials presented by computers collected by cultural heritage institutions. The hard drive, donated to the Museum of Technology in Stockholm, has been cloned using a digital forensics tool, making it possible to extract metadata (for software installations, updates, file formats and timestamps) in order to map the biography of the object. The aim is to trace the history of a media device using digital forensics methods as well as ethnography.