Against Cyberbole

By Caroline Bassett, 10 January 1997

Review of From Silver to Silicon

From Silver to Silicon reclaims the (photo-mechanical) past in order to make an argument about the (electronic) future. A CD-ROM about photography, culture and digital technologies, it declares itself as a(nother) speculation on the transition between two technologies of the image. Like many such works, it claims to wear its speculation with a difference.

How so? First, the authors/producers declare their distance from the 'wide... wild' discourses of 'cyberbole' (the term is Brid Cannon's) both in its utopic ('Californian') and dystopic (often Foucauldian) versions. Their claim is that the significance of the new image technologies cannot be understood without writing them into the history of photographic culture, a history which itself is embedded both within the untidy practices of everyday life and the broader sweep of politics and the institutions of the State.

In place of what they deride as unfocused rhetoric (the sin of the cyber-philes), the disc's authors demand reflection, exploration, and an attention to cultural context, and social embeddedness. From Silver to Silicon therefore, sets itself up to be judged as an attempt to provide such a series of critical reflections.

The way in which it provides them is also a means by which this work seeks to be different. As a hypermedia collaboration between artists, writers, photographers and multimedia designers Silver to Silicon, can be understood as a rare attempt to fuse critique and practice; to do what it is talking about.

This cultivated reflexivity might be expected to occasion an explicit consideration of relations between 'form' and 'content' and 'theory' and 'practice' in digital media Ð in particular, it might be used to question the solidity of the boundaries of these categories. In general, however, these issues are not articulated Ð which doesn't mean to say they don't emerge as (productive) tensions within the work.


Under-girding Silver to Silicon (so we are told) is Martin Lister's essay on photographic realism. Lister's contention is that post -modern theorisations of the image mis-represent the old by way of glorifying the polyvalency of the new. These theorisations he argues, simultaneously collapse all 'old' media into a 'mere' photo-realism, and condense all reading/viewing practices into a passive ingestion. Old photographs simply re-present reality and old audiences simply swallow it.

The old order, thus 'relegated', is set to work as a foil for the development of a contrasting (and in fact equally reductive) understanding of new media as automatically open-ended, constitutive, and interactive.

Lister makes his argument against this 'relegation' by way of a survey of the (complex) understandings of the 'nature' of the photographic image which have developed at various points in its history. The sweep of his argument is wide, and ranges beyond production to consumption Ð he considers, for instance, research on reception Ð including studies of television audiences by ethnographic media researchers such as David Morley. These studies which forcibly suggest reception of 'old' media is misunderstood when audiences are regarded as passive receptors.

His conclusion is that there never was an uncomplicated photo-realism to lose Ð and, similarly, there has never been a consumption which was not in some sense interactive. Both the production and consumption of the image have always been culturally-mediated. Plus ca change.

...And Practice

Multimedia explorations focused on specific cultural forms uncoil more or less effectively out of this 'corrected' version of the photographic past. A piece on The Batwa - a tribal people brought to London, photographed, and put on stage by the Victorians, considers the image in relation to Colonialism. A Perfect Society traces the emergence of photographic identification and the increasing importance of the image within surveillant systems, working from an early history of prison photographs to the architecture of Durham Prison today. RAMose and Point and Click look at photographic cultures within everyday life; via accounts of the selections for a family album, the last picture of a dead child, a lost toy, beach pictures. Externally Yours is a play on the technologically assisted re-presentations (constructions/performances) of the body and body image. Finally the Arcade uses gaming to consider media and power, while Losing the Battle considers technology and war through an account of the Valley of the Shadow of Death Ð the way it came to be named, and what it came (variously) to represent.

These explorations too, present a strong case for understanding 'old' photographic culture as much more than by-gone photo-realism and as more than simply 'technology'. Culture is restituted as the shaping force in the development of technologies of the image, and in our understandings of the images themselves.


In making these arguments, the texts focus heavily on the perceived threat of lapsing into determinism. The words of Raymond Williams', flashing sermon-like on the screen in the multimedia version of Lister's essay suggests this priority;

In the early years of any genuinely new technology it is especially important to clear the mind of the habitual technological determinism that almost inevitably comes with it' (Towards 2000)'

This stress can be understood as a response to cyberbole but it could also be argued that a (total) emphasis on cultural continuity means that the force of the new cannot easily be articulated. And it is certainly not accounted for within the arguments of these texts, all of which slew away from the notion of technology as constitutive.

Even Lister, who formally recognises the 'challenges' new media technology presents to 'how we have traditionally made, consumed and thought about images', actually permanently defers consideration of how these 'challenges' might play out. That is, he fails to consider how these technologies might be understood to write themselves back into the cultures that shaped them.


The possibility here then, is that an argument which downplays the technological in a bid to outwit the seductions of determinism, can become as totalising in its stress on (one way) cultural determination as are the cyber-rhetorics it claims to be writing against. At which point, it might be argued, technology is less written into history (the original aim of this CD-ROM's authors) than it is (perversely enough) terminally written out.

This could be the predicament for Silver to Silicon, but although it may veer in this direction, the project never collapses into this 'reverse' absolutism; appropriately enough, it is saved by technology.

First this is because Silver to Silicon is itself a digital artefact, and, as such, it is already standing within the digital grounds it takes as its subject. In other words, the project is inherently reflexive. Even if its authors choose to ignore that reflexivity in its theoretical moment, its readers cannot help but be aware of its 'form'; technology obtrudes.

In addition, of course, Silver to Silicon is about experimentation as well as theorisation. Although it makes formal arguments for cultural determination, it is simultaneously a (series of) conscious experiment(s); a play, a game of technology, which pushes the possibilities of the medium, and which surely therefore aims to exceed its 'own' rather tidy theoretical categorisations.

Much of the interest of this work can be found precisely in the ways in which it explores how digital 'technology' does and is intervening to re-write the history of the image and of imaging. To pick one obvious example; would 'we' understand Galton's measurings, early mug shots, the Panoptic itself, all of which appear in A Perfect Society, one of the works on the disc, in the same way Ð in the same relation Ð if we were not viewing this history precisely from the vantage point provided by a specific technology?

In fact, what is assembled on this disc as evidence of the continuing tradition of an established photographic culture can equally well be understood, in its assemblage, in its selection, arrangement, and in its inter-linkings, to be 'fragments assembled under a new law' (Benjamin, 1992), that is to have been constituted differently by a particular image/media technology?

In this way, almost despite itself, Silver to Silicon does address transformation. While it may formally declare itself to lie within the orbit of Williams' notion of technology Ð understood as that which is always 'pre-figured, desired and invested in', it can also be understood to cleave to Walter Benjamin's vision. This understands technologies of the image as revelatory, as a 'dynamite' productive of 'immense and unexpected fields of action' and as productive of new ways of comprehending the old (1992).


Despite its refusal to directly approach 'the new' in its theoretical moment, let alone admit that it itself may stand as evidence of the ways in which we already have re-written our past, this CD-ROM, is I think, to be respected. As an experiment with new forms, as a coherent antidote to all that falls under the heading of 'cyberbole', and as a lucid contextualisation of the arguments around transformation and acculturation it deserves to be read/viewed/screened/seen.

Caroline Bassett <caroline AT>

From Silver to Silicon is distributed by ArtecProject Directors: Frank Boyd, Martin Lister, Andrew Dewdney