On the Materiality of Simulated Objects

The history of the computer is one of simulation. Alan Turing in his foundational work on the theory of computing defines the computer as a machine capable of simulating any procedural mechanical process. It is this flexibility that allows for the broad application of computing technology in a variety of spheres, and it is this ability to simulate the world through mathematical calculation that has been at the heart of debates surrounding the veracity, authenticity, and value of engagement with computing technology. Are simulated experiences “real” experiences? Are we losing some ineffable connection to the world itself by limiting or simulating it through computation? Or is simulation simply a mask, the “truth which conceals that there is none”?

This paper is not interested in these postmodern speculations. Instead it insists that simulated objects and computer generated artifacts are as much a part of the physical world as any phenomenologically knowable materiality. Through an analysis of Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad computer program, the General Motors DAC-1 computer, and Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard’s Simula programming language I historically ground computational object simulation in the technical, cultural, and social contexts of their conception. In doing so I hope to demonstrate a broad logic of simulation that takes hold at this historical moment, and which has material effects that might be traced well into the contemporary moment. In turn I insist that we not only understand simulation as a deeply material practice, but that we may in turn understand many objects in the physical world as arising from this logic of simulation – as computational objects ab initio. This logic of simulation has come to define the processes by which we imagine, design, and construct the world around us, and these processes are produced and limited by the technical-material functionality of computer simulation.


Jacob Gaboury is a doctoral candidate in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and a staff writer for the art and technology organization Rhizome at the New Museum for Contemporary Art. His dissertation project is titled “Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics,” and it investigates the early history of computer graphics and the role they play in the move toward new forms of simulation and object oriented design. With a focus on the pioneering research center at the University of Utah, the project seeks to uncover this largely neglected history and in doing so describe a fundamental transformation in the way we understand and interface with technical objects.