William Drenttel | Essays

Information Archaeology


The New York Times recently ran a front page story about a U.S. Justice Department report on the agency's diversity efforts. The final assessment was posted on the web last month, but over half of the report was "blacked out." Obviously, a scandal in the making: the agency responsible for enforcing U.S. civil rights laws censors a highly critical report and then publishes the report on the web, deleted sections and all. (The most divisive figure in American politics — Attorney General and Justice Department head John Ashcroft — is nowhere to be seen.)

Enter Russ Kick, "a self-described 'information archaeologist...'"

Mr. Kick, an editor in Tucson, Arizona, found a way around the Justice Department's editing: "he was able to call up the document in its Adobe Acrobat format and, using software that allows editing of PDF documents, then highlighted the blacked out editing bars and deleted them. The original, unedited text then appeared."

We are into new territory here. Adobe's Acrobat product is a newly ubiquitous tool — the new lingua franca of document standardization around the world. Adobe gives Acobat away for free, and thereby it owns an important information pipeline by helping the world to share. Acobat is the ultimate fulfillment of modernism's goal of streamlined communication. However, Acobat not only facilitates the distribution of information, it also facilitates the layering of information in a document — some visible to the world, some visible only to a few. Plus, those extended bars on top of text — the black magic markers of censorship — are easy in Acobat.

How do we get to that level below, that place where the original — perhaps occasionally even the truth — is revealed? Do designers, often experts at using Acrobat, become the new P.I.s, or criminal investigators, at finding what is hidden beneath the seams? Is this a case where running a design process in reverse, undoing the layers of content, is the way to the truth?

Is Russ Kick showing the way for designers?

Posted in: Media, Politics, Technology, Typography

Comments [8]

"Acrobat is the ultimate fulfillment of modernism's goal of streamlined communication."

Is that statement supposed to be ironic? God, I hope so.

Justin Cone

I'd say this is an early gaffe. You can be sure whomever did the "redacting" on the PDF heard about their blunder, and it won't be happening again. Except when someone does it by accident (which will probably be often).

I'd have to concur with the previous post - Acrobat has some nice features, but it's far from the "ultimate fulfillment" in many ways. In fact, as it is now, it's a very poor information conduit. And what does it mean that designers are "experts at using Acrobat"? They can seemlessly convert Quark docs to PDFs, maintaining their layout and type? Successful pre-flighting? That's a completely different direction than "streamlined communication". Streamlined prepress maybe, not streamlined online information delivery though.

What it has done, is allow many print designers to carry on like the web doesn't exist as anything more than a distribution channel. Hopefully Acrobat (or better, PDF, an open standard) will progress as Flash has (albeit slowly), increasing it's flexibility and usefulness. It has quite a ways to go.

Sorry guys, but Acrobat on the web is frequently akin to a Winnebago on the race track.

We frequently see how misunderstanding or making assumptions about a communication medium leads to usage road blocks and, as the DOJ bunnies found out, public embarrassment.

But TG's right - PDF *does* have a promising future; look at what MacOS X is doing with it in its Quartz compositing layer.
troy || tbn97

Everyone wants to be a hacker. Or a bibliographer. The Justice Department made a goof so simple an editor could figure it out. I don't really think designers have the skillz to do much beyond that, except maybe LettError, Dextro, Maeda, and whoever does lots of programming.

The design field, in our relatively middle-upper-class lives, are constantly looking for ways to make our trade honorable. In this instance, a rather passive activity, not directly related to graphic design, has made a stir through exploiting a loop-hole.

Is Russ Kick showing the way for designers?

This seems a common response by designers. Stuck in their corporate office furniture each day, searching for substance in our work.

Put down the Starbucks, find a brightly colored shirt, and stop drooling over the Sagmeister monograph. If you want to "find your way," try looking for it.
Christian Palino

The ubiquity of the PDF format is akin to the ubiquity of Movable Type which has been used to power the back-end of this and many other discussion-based sites. In terms of graphic design, Movable Type may be an even more significant lingua franca because it has facilitated a new format for criticism that hovers between interview and essay. The criticism found on blogs like this one and Speak Up is democratic, international, and immediate (undisciplined?).

Typography and design have always been about the technological translation of the human voice. PDF format and Movable Type are the grandchildren of the printing press. They come from a long tradition of penultimate fulfillments of modernism's goal of streamlined communication.
Dmitri Siegel

How is this even a design issue? The only way this could even be remotely related to that topic is software security design.
This is a case of someone not understanding the tools they use. This is akin to hiding Easter Eggs behind the front door. Russ Kick is certainly an indefatigable researcher (publisher of many works available at disinfo.com), but he certainly hasn't stumbled onto a rabbit hole of any depth.

I wonder if the average reader would have cared about the contents if it had not been blacked out. Suddenly when those lines were censored, it turned the info into selective knowledge for a chosen few. Those black lines become barrier, it's withholding something valuable. Creatives, whether their a designer or maybe a code breaker understand that they're creators. They don't accept things as "just the way it is", perhaps like the average person might. Creatives are used to runarounds, whether getting a mac file to run on a pc, or breaking a cipher. It only seems natural to use those tools to open something up to see what's inside.

Jobs | July 13