Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics

by Jacob Gaboury, The MIT Press, 2021, 312 pp. 
Hardcover $35.00, ISBN: 9780262045032.

Image Objects

Despite digital media’s ubiquity, there has been little examination of the computer’s history as a visual rather than procedural device. In Image Objects: An Archeology of Computer Graphics, Jacob Gaboury remedies this by tracing the development of computer graphics during the thirty years before the technology's proliferation in popular visual culture. Drawing on media archeology, he chronologically inspects five “image objects:” an algorithm, an interface, an object standard, a programming paradigm, and a hardware platform. Gaboury's amalgamation of images with objects attempts to direct attention to the ways that materials constrain computer visualizations and also how the digital informs the physical. Through its detailed and nuanced analyses, Image Objects makes evident that “the development of computer graphics… marks a reorientation of computer science toward the object world such that it could be made subject to computational forms of simulation, transforming the computer from a tool for procedural calculation into a medium structured by a distinct ontological claim” (7). 

Gaboury begins by inspecting the neglected "secondary" sites of research in the history of computing—notably the University of Utah—and disentangling the teleological narratives of new media's relationship with the old. To counterbalance utopian accounts of computer graphics, media scholars have often emphasized the digital's continuation of older visual media practices. These accounts, however, fail to address those elements of new media that are, in fact, distinct. For instance, computers must render all materials in an environment before determining which parts to hide to the viewer. In contrast, early practitioners of film and photography oriented their discourses around how to make objects more visible and realistic through the manipulation of light. It was not until the frame buffer's rise that computer graphics’ so-called "hidden surface problem" received a widely adopted solution. The frame buffer allowed computers to access certain parts of an image randomly as opposed to the linearity of television and film, cutting down on processing and memory usage. 

Next, Gaboury continues by assessing how graphical researchers made distinct ontological claims about the material world by decoupling physical objects from their properties. For example, although a wooden table is unable to pop like a balloon, a computer simulation can apply the "balloon" property to a table. This separation of objects from their properties and the intensive labor required to model new objects resulted in the circulation of a select group of real-world objects amongst researchers. Most famous amongst these was/is the Utah teapot. "The teapot has become a kind of shorthand for computer graphics itself—a metonymy that stands in for an industry, art form, and field of practice," notes Gaboury (89). In addition, the unraveling of objects from their properties resulted in a new way of thinking about the relation of objects in a network, and this shift in focus provided the catalyst for broader transformations in computational culture, such as the rise of object-oriented programming.  

The book concludes by highlighting the GPU's development as a distinct object and its implications for modern computing. While popular narratives perpetuate a belief that the GPU emerged extemporaneously, the author makes evident that the GPU was the result of thirty years of computational research. What is notable about the GPU is not just the fact that it helped push graphical power but the ways that it foregrounded parallel processing. This new paradigm challenged the image of the computer as a singular device and replaced it with one where machines contained other machines inside them. Thus, the GPU has in many ways replaced the CPU as the primary driver of technological change due to its applications in cryptocurrency, cloud computing, and deep learning.  

Image Objects provides an engaging read with a detailed and compelling analysis. Gaboury supplies insights into a neglected part of the history of computing while still keeping an eye on broader philosophical issues. The biggest shortfalls of the work are where Gaboury introduces issues of identity but fails to adequately address them. For instance, in his discussion of commonly modeled objects, Gaboury talks about the ways that male researchers often relied on their wives to serve as graphical models for their research. Likewise Martin Newell, who initially modeled the Utah teapot, got the idea to use it from his partner Sandra after she picked it up at a Mormon department store in Salt Lake City Utah. Gaboury asks, "What does it mean that what few women we find in this history are wives and partners offering teapots, and in more than one instance, their faces or bodies to be modeled and measured?" (117) While it is commendable that Gaboury recognizes this shortcoming and seeks to briefly rectify it, a more comprehensive account surrounding issues of gender would be welcome.  

Overall, Image Objects is a nuanced account into the history of computer graphics that researchers have often ignored. Gaboury's blend of philosophical inquiry with media archeology exemplifies a unique methodology for those seeking new ways to understand the entanglement of the digital with the material world. Ultimately, Image Objects shows that the ubiquity of digital images in our current computing environment did not emerge spontaneously but was the result of a decades-long process of transforming the computer as a visual medium.

Nabeel Siddiqui, Susquehanna University