As if it were a premonition, in this small essay by Geofrey Batchen, a parallel relationship is established between the origins of photography and the first designs of mechanical numerical calculus devices, between Henry Talbot’s discoveries that led to the announcement in 1839 of chemical procedures aimed at preserving the image captured in a camera obscura and the efforts of mathematician Charles Babbage to build the first analytical machine or mechanical “computer” in 1822.
Both scientists not only participated actively in the scientific community of their time, united by a close relationship of friendship, it is certain that they shared information on the lines of research that both developed, discussing both mathematicians on the complexities of design of the differential machine that occupied Babbage. The latter’s interest is also manifest, as in addition to receiving some copies of Talbot’s early photographs, he was the first person to pose for a stereoscopic portrait (taken by Henry Collen in 1841). In addition, Charles Babbage organized some of London’s most important scientific soirées, and Henry Talbot and Sir John Herschel were able to meet there and learn about their theories of light and cyanotype.
Among the first “photogenic drawings” sent by Talbot to Babbage in 1839 is a photograph of his house with a note on the back that reads “Lacock Abbey self-represented on camera, May 1839,” which reveals Talbot’s conviction that his discovery was an instrument for nature to reveal itself, as the following paragraph confirms: “I believe this building is the first known to have drawn its own image. In a Victorian attempt to reconcile creationism with the advances of evolutionism, Babbage is amazed at the miraculous possibilities of God’s “natural laws. Babbage conceived his computer as a “cultural artifact that enables nature (and consequently God) to represent itself in the form of mathematical equations. No wonder he felt a “gentle delight” for his faithful reproduction of the “obedient numbers”.
Talbot also sent Babbage some “photogenic drawings” of embroidery to demonstrate the accuracy that could be achieved by contact photo printing. This technique allowed to obtain a BINARY representation of the object, in order to the presence/absence of light. These photographs fascinated Babbage who admired the potential of the medium to accurately represent geometric patterns and make mathematics visible. Talbot experimented with the possibility of enlarging both the embroidery and the stained-glass windows of his abbey, revealing the capacity of photography as a measuring and mathematical calculus instrument.
Douglas Nickel suggests that after the development of the textile industry in England are these photographs of Talbot. In 1837, the British industry introduced Jacquard punched cards, which allowed the complicated patterns of embroidery to be reproduced mechanically on a weaver. Babbage acquired a Jacquard portrait woven through one of these mechanical weavers and for which 24,000 punched cards were used, and which he will later cite in his computer notes, adopting the system in his plans for the Analytical Machine.
The first use given to these mechanical computing devices was the calculation of “life tables” for insurance companies, finding us with a first example of the human being converted into data for use by predictive algorithms. In Babbage’s conception of the computer, the user simultaneously becomes subject and object of the apparatus, which will astonish his own creator: “I am amazed at the power I have given to this machine…it seems that all the conditions that allow a finite machine to perform calculations of unlimited extension are fulfilled in the analytical machine.
Photography embodies a similar collapse in the process of linking its conception with the paradoxical disciplinary power play that Michel Foucault has associated with panoptismo: As an effect and vehicle for the exercise of power/knowledge, the modern person is, in other words, a being produced within the interstices of a continuous negotiation of the virtual and the real. Thus, for Foucault, panoptismo is not only an efficient piece of prison design, but also “the diagram of a power mechanism reduced to its ideal shape”.
The computer is the mechanical and electronic manifestation of a conceptual armour that reproduces itself insistently each time we press a key and direct a flow of digital data. The laws of Boole’s logic are the essence of computing. It is also, according to Jacques Derrida, at the heart of Western metaphysics as a whole, providing the philosophical infrastructure for all our thoughts and actions, including both phallus and ethnocentric systematic inequities.
The history embodied and automatically reproduced by digital culture is obviously an unavoidably political history, so if we want to get involved and disturb this history, we must not only use information technology to invent new visual and narrative forms, but also to recognize and exacerbate those unstable “simultaneities” that constitute the very historical identity of information technology.