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  • Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age by Alexander R. Galloway
  • Jacob Gaboury (bio)
Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age By Alexander R. Galloway. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2021. Pp. 288.

First, a warning: this book is not "about" uncomputability per se—though Galloway engages briefly with a range of recent work on the theoretical origins of computation and its inverse, uncomputability. Instead, uncomputability is a frame for thinking through the presumed inevitability of computation by foregrounding those various moments in the history of what would become our computational culture, in which computing fails to emerge, networks fray, and the digital atrophies. To accomplish this requires a privileging of the past over a broad philosophy of technology, and indeed that is the principal contribution of Uncomputable. Working through six splintered sections, the book's investments are implicitly media archaeological. This historical formation produces a clear refutation of the inevitability of computing and the computational culture that we have all become subject to and live with, not by imagining alternate trajectories or tactically producing new potential futures, but by unraveling, pulling apart, disentangling, and uncomputing.

Each section is comprised of multiple chapters that work through a single conceptual frame. In this they trod some familiar territory, but often in surprising new ways. Section 1, for example, engages the history of chronophotography and the relationship between photographic visualization and the fraught visual regime of computation. In many ways, this debate forms the foundation of a long-standing genealogy of the visual that begins with the optical toys of the nineteenth century and leads us to the cinema, computer graphics, and visual simulation. Contrary to this now often-problematized narrative, Galloway explores an expanded field of early photographic work, adding not only the chronophotography of Etienne Jules Marey but also François Willème's photosculpture, produced using a reverse panopticon that photographs and thereby measures a subject for the production of an indexical three-dimensional model that shatters the privileged perspective of photographic form. [End Page 1007]

Nearly all the book's sections contain this reversal by addition, so that in addition to someone like Ada Lovelace in section 2—often described as the first computer programmer and one of the first to note the connection between Charles Babbage's difference engine and the punch card looms of Joseph Marie Jacquard—we have a different Ada, Ada K. Dietz, who worked throughout the midcentury to produce novel algorithmic weavings of rendered polynomials that evoked, in her terms, an aesthetic of "regular irregularity."

Each articulation—itself an often-surprising reinterpretation of these well-known figures—is troubled by an engagement with a figure who throws us backward or forward in such a way as to rework the historical narratives that have shaped contemporary computation. The goal of this work seems less to find precedents for popular historical narratives around the emergence of computation, or to simply surface marginal or otherwise untold histories, but instead to offer a kind of expansive dilation on our investment in the historical by pulling apart its coherent legibility such that we are left with a collection of emergent strands that make the whole feel fundamentally incomplete.

Alongside this archaeological gesture sits a second method, sometimes explicit but often glossed over in Galloway's treatment of these historical frames. He calls this method alternately "algorithmic research" and "algorithmic reenactment," and it consists of practice-based work in which some of the algorithmic objects of the book are implemented or enacted by the author himself. This method is particularly useful as many of these objects are alternately speculative, historically inaccessible, or materially unrepresentable.

In some cases, this work is explicitly computational, such as the digital implementation of Guy Debord's Game of War in section 5, which is perhaps the most self-reflexive treatment of this method in that the making seems to explicitly provide new knowledge of the thing undergoing transformation through computation. But the method is likewise deployed in Galloway's heavily archival treatment of the artificial evolution experiments of the mathematician Nils Aall Barricelli in the 1950s, which are recreated in section 4 using the visual programming language Processing, and which...