Reading – Geoffrey Batchen: Obedient numbers, soft delight (notes)

On page 19 of the course notes we are directed to read Chapter 8 of ‘Each Wild Idea’ by Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Obedient numbers, soft delight’. This essay explores the relationship between photography and computing which Batchen argues is incorrectly considered a new concern. Batchen demonstrates that in fact the invention of both technologies developed at the same time and that photography and computing innovators Henry Fox Talbot and Charles Babbage had a close relationship, shared interests and expertise and took a deep interest in each others work.

While the essay contains much interesting historical information, I am unconvinced by Batchen’s assertion that recent concerns about the impact of computing on photographic practice (such as the ability to manipulate and fabricate images) is misplaced because of their invention at a similar time. While early cameras are still recognisable as instruments that make photographs (and digital cameras are also recognisable as such), Babbage’s early computers cannot be compared with modern machines. However, the link made between the emergence of computing and photography from the cultural and social conditions of the nineteenth century is convincing and a strong reason why we should not be concerned about computers being a risk to the photograph. Indeed, technological advancements in computing and digital imaging develop side by side. Batchen concludes: “computing’s future, like photography’s, is already inscribed in its past. What is demanded from us is a new perception of the relationship between these three moments (past, present, future) – a new perception of history itself.”


Batchen, G. (1998) Obedient numbers, soft delight. In: Each wild idea pp. 165-174. Available at: [accessed 16th January 2019]

2 thoughts on “Reading – Geoffrey Batchen: Obedient numbers, soft delight (notes)

  1. Ariella Azoulay posits we can’t say cameras were invented in the 19th century but rather when Columbus started traipsing around the globe taking people and land because you can’t detach that impulse from the impulse to take images. What would Batchen say to that, I wonder…

    Liked by 1 person

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