The task of writing history (like the more general task of living with and in relation to histories) is a continual confrontation with the unknowable: a confrontation that occurs alongside the ongoing gathering and stringing together of a few known things. For many years now, I have been stringing together instances of bounce and scenes of ball play from many distant and disparate historical moments, thinking about how balls, bodies, and ball courts hold histories and open spaces for speculation. I have researched the rubber bounce in ulama, an indigenous ball game first played over three thousand years ago with a tradition carried forward today by players in Mexico, Belize, and the United States; and the programmed bounce in FIFA Football, a sports video game series first released in 1993 that became the most popular and profitable game of its kind. Working across, and playing with, such long stretches of history is a kind of wish: a wish to have a relationship to history that experiences its gravity but also its momentum by making palpable how different images, objects, beings, and environments hold knownness and unknownness together in different ways, framing and provisionally containing, projecting, and proposing possible worlds.
Imagine a scenic afternoon at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire in the summer of 1666, when the game of court tennis was at its height: Margaret Cavendish, prolific author of works in philosophy, physics, poetry, fiction, and theater, sits with her husband, William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle, in a small viewing gallery, peering through a narrow, netted opening into a large, enclosed court. Two men, her step-grandson William Cavendish, third Earl of Devonshire, and Thomas Hobbes, longtime tutor to the Cavendish family, face each other across a sagging net. Hobbes, standing at the service end, his large body turned away from the audience, raises his wooden racket with its bent head and serves a small ball onto the sloping roof of the far-left wall, initiating play. The ball drops into the back half of the hazard court, and Cavendish returns the shot. As the exchange continues, the ball echoes off racket strings, the lined stone floor, the four walls, and the penthouse roof. Margaret and William observe each player stretch to strike the ball in turn while they engage in a side pursuit: analyzing the vectoral physics of ricochet. She quells his suggestion of a small wager on the outcome of the point with a raised eyebrow. Margaret does not approve of gambling, nor of tennis, generally. In her view, the motion is too violent to qualify as a healthy exercise, and it is moreover a perverse investment: one in which those who lose become “Poor by the Sweat of their Brows.”1 But she grants that the activity compels attention. After a ball leaps off the tambour at an unexpected angle, she leans over to whisper in her husband’s ear that the incident illustrates her own vitalist theory of matter and motion, soon to be published as Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Just then a bell tied to the netting of the winning gallery rings, recalling their attention to the game at hand.
Fast forward three centuries through the downfall of the British aristocracy and the invention of the digital computer, to a night in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the summer of 1991. At an annual conference held by SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques), Pixar cofounder Loren Carpenter and his wife Rachel Carpenter demonstrate a new interactive audience-participation system by way of a giant game of Pong that the gathered crowd of computer-graphics professionals plays collectively using red-and-green-tipped wands they have found waiting for them on their seats.2 The slightly shaky black-and-white documentary footage of the event scans across the backs of people eagerly holding up their individual wands to be read by the Cinematrix camera’s sensors in order to help move their side of the room’s Pong paddle into the right position on the screen to intercept the ball’s trajectory. In order to fulfill Pong’s familiar single instruction—“avoid missing ball for high score”—each group had to quickly and collectively intuit the right mix of red and green wands needed to move the paddle in the right direction at the right speed.3 Each person needed to “be a pixel,” one among many.4 After a few minutes, when both sides of the room seemed to have the hang of it, the speed of the ball increased, and “the crowd faltered but then compensated, playing better than before.”5 Caught up in the collective challenge of keeping the ball bouncing back and forth, they became effervescent.6
The first demonstration of an interactive game of Pong on the Cinematrix at SIGGRAPH 1991. Still frame from “Love and Power” (2011). (Screenshot by author from Adam Curtis, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace , Films for Action, https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/bbc-all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace/.
Fig. 2C from Loren Carpenter’s patent for a Video Imaging Method and Apparatus for Audience Participation. (Loren C. Carpenter, Method and Apparatus for Audience Participation by Electronic Imaging, US Patent 5,210,604, filed December 10, 1991, and issued May 11, 1993)
This footage of the crowd collectively playing Pong appears at the open and close of “Love and Power,” the first segment of Adam Curtis’s three-part series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011). The scene from the Cinematrix demo first appears intercut with an interview with Loren and Rachel Carpenter. Rachel nods silently in agreement as Loren describes the ecstatic response of the crowd. He goes on to explain that the interactive game of Pong was “an experiment” to see what would happen if no hierarchy existed at all. What the experiment revealed was the mysterious amoeba-like capacity of the crowd to come together to successfully play the game. This was, in turn, understood as a demonstration of how a nonhierarchical society made up of free individuals connected by machines might be able to produce its own order and stability.7 In other words, Carpenter’s idea was that the desire (of free individuals) to be part of the effort to keep the Pong ball bouncing back and forth offered a model for how we might use systems of collaborative control to train ourselves to produce a kind of collective attunement at the scale of society.
When the footage returns in a final shot, what was at least a plausibly positive example of cooperative and collective human–machine interaction on first appearance is rendered truly sinister. Curtis’s voice intones: “The original promise … was that the computer would liberate us from all of the old forms of control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today we feel the opposite, that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”8 For Curtis, the Pong demonstration drives home his critique of the combination of radical individualism and cybernetic utopianism that constitutes the Californian ideology. The final scene fully evacuates the effervescence described by Carpenter and others who were present for the demonstration. Instead, viewers of “Love and Power” watch as the projected paddles struggle to arrive just in time to deflect the Pong ball back and forth across the screen. The narrowness of the vision of freedom on offer is palpable. It is a vision in which freedom is reduced to the freedom to choose whether to hold up the red or green side of a wand, the freedom to choose to be a red or green pixel.
We are boxed in: able to play together only if we stay neatly within the given logics, unable to create new logics with each other or with the machines. Curtis is right that the freedom to choose whether to hold up the red or the green side of a paddle is a narrow vision of freedom. Still, one would be rash to dismiss out of hand the excitement that collective computer game play has generated in the last half century, and rash again to dismiss the excitement generated among crowds when they are offered an opportunity to move from the position of spectators to that of players. The problem is not with Pong per se, but rather with what Carpenter thought the collective play of Pong could model. To begin with, Pong dramatically idealizes modes of collision. It presumes that both the objects and environments in question are simple, mathematically regular, and as durable as billiard balls, when of course very few things in the real world (be they human bodies or electrical signals) interact in this way.9 The world is made through many kinds of more qualified interactions. This means that for averaged collective actions to produce successful play, not only do those actions need to be reduced to binary logic (yes or no, 0 or 1, red or green) but a tremendous amount of effort is also needed to make all of the environments and objects in question highly predictable. While this may be innocuous in the context of a game of Pong, and indeed may be directly tied to the pleasure of its play, the transformation of people into pixels warrants pause in other contexts. The desire to create coherent collective bodies risks underwriting moves to make our worlds as regular as our most abstract and simplified electronic ball courts. If the move from the industrial to the informatic is often told as a story of the rise of open networks, the kinds of bouncing balls and bounded games that appear in computing call attention to new kinds of enclosures and new kinds of togetherness that have emerged through these informatic transformations, and to the thinning out of our notion of interaction that has occurred to accommodate them. For Curtis, the Pong demonstration is little more than a device to critique a misdirected social model; he doesn’t ask how the idea originated that a simple game of bounce should come to stand as the example par excellence of human interaction with and through machines.
Atari’s Pong was the first hugely successful arcade video game, but it is just one among many. The early history of electronic games is littered with bouncing balls—from the first bouncing-ball programs written for and demonstrated on the Whirlwind Computer at MIT in 1951, to the game of computer tennis that created lines out the gym door during Brookhaven National Laboratory’s open-house days in 1958, to the tennis and table-tennis games that shipped with the first Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, to the Pong-chip (AY-3-8500) which, developed by Atari and produced by General Instruments, ensured that the hardware-encoded logic of Pong was used as the backbone for all kinds of early video games. Executed in both hardware and software, bounce logics were regularly programmed into the frameworks of early graphical user interfaces by engineers who were tackling and toying with making computers and televisions into real-time machines.
Pong does have a rigid logic, in the sense that the game logic is a simple physics engine encoded directly into the hardware with a range of possibilities that feel both simple and apparent even if the set of combinations is infinite. But while Pong may seem highly deterministic in its logic, the history of its design points toward a somewhat different story about its approach to computing. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was an amusement-park barker before turning his attention to electrical engineering. In an interview with game historian Henry Lowood, Pong engineer Al Alcorn recalls how his boss Nolan Bushnell “designed out the need for the computer, because the computers were so slow at that time ... So there was this brilliant leap that Nolan made about how he could get rid of just a little bit of logic [and still] do the same thing the computer’s going to do, just much, much faster, so he didn’t need the computer.”10 Bushnell was trying to figure out how to “do” the same thing “the computer” could do, but without “the computer” because computers at that time were enormous and expensive machines. In order even to approach this problem, Bushnell had to understand computing as a process that did not belong exclusively to any one type of machine or material.
Because Curtis uses Loren Carpenter as a strawman to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Californian ideology, he does not dwell on the more basic assumptions underwriting the demonstration and Carpenter’s reading of it. How did a collectively played game of Pong come to exemplify interactions with and through machines? And, more strangely, where does the idea that a simple game of bounce might make a good model for a complex society come from? To answer these questions, one can turn to any number of arrays of bouncing balls that have underwritten representation, interaction, and simulation in the contexts of play, game, and sport as well as science, animation, and computing. There is a long history of people using bounding objects and ball games to model their worlds. Across the centuries, these in-between objects and rule-bound rituals have acted as material metaphors for describing and imagining political, social, mathematical, and physical principles and systems. In the process, worldviews have been embedded in the architectures, instruments, and gestures of games of ball. Bouncing between distant moments in history foregrounds the press of history on the present—with all its questions, variations, possibilities, uncertainties, and promises. This text is a way of wondering about the relationships to history and between histories that emerge in a vacillation between long-past and just-past play.
While Curtis redirected documentary footage of the collectively played game of Pong from the SIGGRAPH conference to make his argument in “Love and Power,” the scene that I described of Margaret Cavendish watching Hobbes and her step-grandson at play was speculative from the start. But it is not a far stretch. Long before his fabled encounter with Euclid’s geometry, Hobbes honed his estimation of angles on the asymmetrical and enclosed tennis courts that could be found across England and the Continent at the time. He was hired as a tutor by Margaret’s future husband William Cavendish shortly after his graduation from Oxford and is known to have played tennis with the Cavendish boys. He remained under the family’s patronage for the rest of his life.11 In his writing, Hobbes occasionally used tennis to illustrate arguments, most strikingly in Leviathan where he argues against government by assembly by comparing it to the notion of a group of players carting a tennis player to the ball in a wheelbarrow.12 Unlike Hobbes, Margaret Cavendish does not seem to have played the game, and in fact openly disapproved of it. But although she wrote disparagingly of the “Covetous Humour, that causes men to Venture so much at play,” she found in the ball an excellent object for both poetic and philosophic demonstration.13 In one case she uses the example of a ball being tossed by hand to argue that the hand is only “the occasion” that “the ball move thus or thus … [the ball] does not move by the hand’s motion, but by its own: for there can be no motion imparted, without matter or substance.”14 She claimed in print that she never spoke much to Hobbes, despite clear affiliations in their thinking, their both having been part of the Newcastle Circle in Paris, and Hobbes’s spending the majority of his life under her husband’s patronage.15 Whatever their personal relationship may have been, Hobbes and Cavendish publicly shared a materialist philosophy that rejected the existence in nature of incorporeal (unbodied) souls and refused the possibility of vacuums (unmediated spaces). Motion here is always a matter of matter and substance.
* * *
Logics of bounce look different when enacted in different materials and under different social and political conditions. Hobbes and Loren Carpenter each use ball games to argue for political structures that sit on opposite ends of the spectrum: an absolute monarchy and a self-organizing social system. And both end up using ball play as a metaphor in ways that oversimplify democratic and collective interaction. One of Hobbes’s most striking uses of tennis in his writing comes in his argument against government by assembly, which he compares to the notion of a group of players carting a tennis player to the ball in a wheelbarrow.16 In the wake of England’s civil war, Hobbes argues for a single uncontested and incontestable ruler, unfettered by others. He overlooks the racket, already operating as an assistive device, and cannot imagine his wheelbarrow transformed into the wheelchairs that athletes make such spectacular use of today.
If Hobbes is all object—all eye on the ball—Carpenter is all system, so charmed by the way playing through a machine can change a room that he settles for weak, unsubstantial notions of both interaction and freedom. Curtis in turn oversimplifies Carpenter’s demonstration in service of his argument against the Californian ideology. Cavendish objects to gambling on the game missing, or perhaps just dismissing, the power of that practice to create investment in an activity. But she does not use the game to make an overt political argument. Still, given her insistence that the ball has its own motion, a motion merely occasioned by the hand, perhaps she would allow the idea that we all occasion each other, and perhaps there is a politics to be imagined here. The hand occasions the ball, but also the ball, the hand. If we begin to think about what occasions different kinds of motion carefully, about what moves matter and substance into form and place so that they can be occasioned, then we quickly arrive at material relations. Thinking about how different hands and balls and walls have occasioned each other in different moments in history, then, is a way of thinking about how people enact and naturalize historically mediated theories of the world through materials of play: through playing with materials. We are bodies in motion, always already unfolding with that which is and those who are around us. We need to think not about freedom from the opinions of lower-status advisers, nor about freedom in a logical system (or a system-based equilibrium), but rather freedom with—a freedom together, with others of all kinds.
1. ^ Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters, ed. James Fitzmaurice (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 109.
2. ^ For a firsthand account of the evening, see Phillip Kelly Denslow, “A Report on the Recent Siggraph ’91 Conference: Fun and Games in Las Vegas,” Automation Magazine, September/October 1991; repr., denslow.com, n.d., http://www.denslow.com/articles/sig91.html. The Carpenters were known quantities at SIGGRAPH. Over the past decade, Rachel had curated art exhibitions and animation screenings for the conference, and back in 1980 Loren had been the first to use fractals to generate the graphics for a computer-animated film. Loren was also the co-inventor of the Reyes rendering algorithm, the core rendering engine in Pixar’s RenderMan software, which has been used to render every Pixar film as well as a host of non-Pixar animated films and visual effects for many live-action films. It is the first software package to have garnered an Oscar in 2001 when Ed Catmull, Loren Carpenter, and Rob Cook were awarded an Academy Award of Merit in 2001.
3. ^ This was a loose rather than a precise definition of right. The estimation done by the algorithm smoothed out the inevitable errors of the crowd. Michael Scroggins, a performance-animation and virtual-reality artist who attended the demonstration, remembers accidentally showing green when he meant to show red and vice versa, and also distinctly remembers Loren Carpenter saying “If you think you are on the left you are, and if you think you are on the right, you are.” Michael Scroggins, personal communication, October 5, 2022.
4. ^ The pitch for the demonstration, which was titled “Audience Participation,” pulled people in by saying: “Now’s your chance to be a pixel in a crazy, first time anywhere experiment, consisting of you, reflectors, lights, video cameras, frame grabbers, computers, and lots o’ software.” ACM SIGGRAPH History: Information and Artifacts, “ʻAudience Participationʼ by Carpenter,” 1991, https://history.siggraph.org/animation-video-pod/audience-participation-by-carpenter/.
5. ^ Alexander Briseno, and Jonathan D. Solomon. "306090 06: Shifting Infrastructures." Architecture Journal, Eds. Patricia Acevedo-Ryker, Alexander Briseno, and Jonathan D. Solomon, (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press,March 2004), p.14
6. ^ By winter of 1991, Loren had filed a patent claim on this “method and apparatus for audience participation by electronic imaging” in which “[t]he audience controls the screen image for purposes of voting or playing a game,” and Rachel had become CEO and producer for Cinematrix Interactive Entertainment Systems, a company the couple cofounded that would eventually incorporate in 1993. Loren C. Carpenter, Method and Apparatus for Audience Participation by Electronic Imaging, US Patent 5,210,604, filed December 10, 1991, and issued May 11, 1993, abstract.
7. ^ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, episode 1, “Love and Power,” written and directed by Adam Curtis, aired May 23, 2011, on BBC, 11:17; Films for Action, https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/bbc-all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace/.
8. ^ “Love and Power,” 58:17.
9. ^ Additionally, while the black-and-white footage can give the impression that this system is now simply a historical artifact from earlier and clumsier days of computing interaction, in fact, many of the basic principles from this demonstration are still in use today. In 2013 the BBC presented a demonstration of the exact same system as an experiment on crowd behavior for the show Bang Goes the Theory. The set-up of the system was basically the same, down to the red-and-green-tipped paddles. The only real difference now is that the ball is a friendly cartoon shark.
10. ^ “Oral History of Al Alcorn. Interviewed by Henry Lowood,” Computer History Museum, X4596.2008, transcript, part 1, Apr. 2008, p. 9–11, cited in Henry Lowood, “Videogames in Computer Space: The Complex History of Pong,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 31 (July–September 2009): 19n31.
11. ^ He is known to have played tennis with William’s son and grandson. The grandson, the third Earl of Devonshire, was such a tennis enthusiast that he had the court at Hardwick Hall refurbished in 1663 and employed a resident keeper of the tennis court. See David Best and Brian Rich, Disturb’d with Chaces: Tennis Courts, Celebrities and Scandals of Yesteryear (Oxford: Ronaldson Publications, 2009), 2.
12. ^ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or, the Matter, Forme & Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, ed. A. R. Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press, 1904), 174–75. The other famous example is his explanation of liberty by way of a description of a man deciding whether to play tennis or not when the door of the court is locked so that he cannot play.
13. ^ Cavendish, Sociable Letters, 109.
14. ^ Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, ed. Eileen O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 140, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139164504.
15. ^ Margaret was wooed by William Cavendish when they were both in Paris during the period when British royalists took refuge after the first English civil war. She was there as a lady-in-waiting to the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria. Together with William and William’s brother Charles, she was part of the Newcastle Circle, a group of English philosophers inclined toward mechanical philosophy and theories of atomism that included Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, and Walter Charleton, who were in contact with like-minded continental thinkers such as Rene Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. Upon returning to England, Cavendish began publishing poems, plays, and scientific philosophical treatises. She went on to become the first woman to visit the Royal Society (and the last until 1954). In print, she claimed that she never spoke much to Hobbes. This public disclaimer could be attributed to her well-known shyness, but it may also reflect her desire to be famous for her own ideas. Sarah Hutton argues that a close comparison of their works shows important affiliations. Cavendish is one of the few thinkers who argues along with Hobbes for a materialist philosophy that denies the existence of incorporeal souls in nature. And David Cunning in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “the work of Cavendish is important in that it anticipates some of the central views and arguments that are more commonly associated with figures like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume.” Sarah Hutton, “In Dialogue with Thomas Hobbes: Margaret Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy,” Women’s Writing 4, no. 3 (1997): 421–32, https://doi.org/10.1080/09699089700200024; and David Cunning, “Margaret Lucas Cavendish,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2015 ed., http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/margaret-cavendish/.
16. ^ Hobbes, Leviathan, 174–75. The other famous example is his explanation of liberty by way of a description of a man deciding whether to play tennis or not when the door of the court is locked so that he cannot play.
Illustration from M. de Garsault’s Art du Paumier-Raquetier et de la Paume , 1767. Originally printed in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (1751–72). (Photo courtesy of the author)