BA Phot

Geoffrey Batchen
Obedient Numbers, Soft Delight, 2008

Reading 1.1

Batchen, Geoffrey (2002) Obedient Numbers, Soft Delight, chapter 8 in Each Wild Idea, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 165-174.


[ spellchecked 7 Feb] 

[7Feb23] The 2.7MP Nikon D1 launched in June 1999; Facebook in 2004; the Apple iPhone in 2007; Instagram in 2010. Batchen, writing in 2002 (updating a 1998 essay) on the potential impact of computing on analogue photography, observed that,

[in] most cases, critics have concentrated their anxieties on the computer’s ability to manipulate and fabricate images that look like photographs and then disseminate them electronically to all corners of the globe. Batchen, Each Wild Idea, p.165

Batchen, however, does not discern a threat. Rather, he traces the parallel "inventions" of photography and computers by Fox Talbot and Babbage in the context of a perceived Western intellectual hegemony and how the relationship has now reblossomed to offer a new lease of life to the medium of photography.

Fox Talbot and Babbage were friends within the intellectual and scientific community of the early-to-mid 19th century, along with Herschel, Humphrey Davy and others,all of whom followed closely developments in the field of photography.

Fox Talbot, Babbage's Difference Engine, Faraday and electricity, a little later Darwin and evolution — through these and other discoveries, society, science and culture transformed during this period from faith-based to science-based, although many of these names struggled to reconcile developments with their Christian beliefs.

punch cards
Box A
1960s punch cards
image source:

Batchen sees a link in Fox Talbot's photograms of lace and Babbage's adoption for his computer of the programming cards first used for Jacquard cards used on looms, including lace-making : this is a pleasing and elegant parallel, but there is no logical link between the two.

Batchen also invokes Bentham's panopticon as providing as "exemplary technological metaphor for the operations of modern systems of power" (p.173).

Babbage applied George Boole's ideas, Boolean logic when creating his engines - 1s and 0s and the AND / OR / NOT gates - these have formed the basis of computers ever since and, of course, now they are at the heart of digital cameras and digital imaging. They are also, Batchen states,

according to Jacques Derrida, at the heart of Western metaphysics as a whole, providing the philosophical infrastructure for all our thinking and actions, including the systematic inequities of both phallo- and ethnocentrism.Batchen, Each Wild Idea, p.173

Batchen wraps up what he describes as, "only the briefest of historical sketches" (p. 174) by looking forward to developments in digital imaging subverting the binary orthodoxy.

Such data cards were still in use for some functions on IBM mainframes when I first trained in computing in the 1970s.


Alexander, J. & McMurdo, Wendy (2015) Digital Image and Culture [DIC]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Batchen, Geoffrey (2002) Obedient Numbers, Soft Delight, chapter 8 in Each Wild Idea, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 165-174.

Page created 7-Feb-2023 | Page updated 17-Mar-2023