The Physical Location of Every Byte on My Hard-Drive

Jeff Thompson

United States
Still Image Award

This project visualizes the exact physical location* of every byte on my laptop’s hard drive. Using digital forensics software, similar to that used by law enforcement, the locations were extracted and drawn not as useful data visualizations but instead a sublime, unknowable self portrait. Presented as 11 large inkjet-printed panels, each individual byte remains visible – dark gray squares indicates data written to the drive, light gray areas with no data. The scale of these tiny squares was carefully calibrated to the inkjet printer and hovers at the edge of the printer's resolution.

Our hard drives hold more of our lives than we do: every word we write, every image we take, even things we have forgotten. Because of the way solid state drives operate, data is constantly being split and moved around the drive. A “broken in” drive will look very different than a new one – this piece is a snapshop amid memories constantly written, re-written, and deleted.

*The exact physical location of individual bytes is impossible to determine without access to the proprietary algorithms used by hard drive manufacturers. This piece gets as close to the exact location as is technically possible, but is also a reminder that our data is a complete abstraction to us and even our own computers.

This project was created while artist-in-residence at Bell Labs.

Software: digital forensics software, custom data-processing and visualization software (Python, Bash)

Hardware: inkjet prints mounted on dibond