It can’t happen here… but it did!

January 18, 2010
Free Speech, originally uploaded by Pam Rosengren.

For me, the issue of internet censorship goes back to before the internet even existed. This piece of history isn’t taught in schools and seems to have been largely forgotten, so I will briefly talk about it here.

The declaration of a State of Emergency in Queensland in the 1970s under Joh Bjelke-Peterson meant that our political and environmental protests were suddenly transformed into a struggle for basic freedom of speech. It first became illegal to carry posters, then it became illegal to march in the streets. Ciaron O’Reilly* (pictured above, in Bundaberg in the early 1980s) was one of the people who did jail time for the crime of assembling in a group greater than three.

Now that won’t happen again, you say. The street march ban has been repealed. But unfortunately, it could. A State of Emergency can be declared at any time, by someone as lowly as a Justice of the Peace. That happened during the Palm Island riots. Then all those old statutes can be brought into effect. Lex Wootton was charged under the colonial statutes of Riot and Affray, and faced a life sentence – which mercifully he did not get.

OK we probably won’t be rioting, and anyway what is the connection with internet censorship? The connection is the vague definition of “Refused Classification” (RC) content, and what concerns me most is the part about instruction in crime.

The notion of crime changes over time.

Some things become decriminalised after a period of public discourse and as society grows tolerant of particular things: in Queensland in the 1970s homosexuality was a crime, and so was prostitution. The latter had to be legalised because of widespread police corruption.

Grey areas exist where people disagree about what constitues crime – for example street art is seen as a valid and necessary form of artistic expression by some (including me), whereas to others it is only vandalism.

Sometimes detailed instruction in crime can have a public benefit. A case in point is instruction in safe injecting of illegal drugs, to protect against hepatitis B, C and HIV. There should be no restriction of access to this.

New laws are enacted as society changes, and the interpretation of existing laws may become more rigid. This is where Conroy’s proposed internet censorship becomes a major worry. When I read the news over the last few days, I see a disturbing trend in definitions of crime that forms the real-life context for this proposed censorship. Three are in Australia, one is overseas.

The first is a change to the film classification act in South Australia, which came into effect on January 10, 2010. All R-rated movies for sale or rent must be in plain packaging and no posters or pamphlets may be displayed in the shops. Film distributors found out about this change after the event. Films such as Apocalypse Now and Mad Max are R-rated.

The second is a proposed change to the Crimes Act (s 91H(4)) in New South Wales which would take away the defence of artistic merit when in possession of images or words that appear to sexualise persons “under 16 or who looks like a child under 16″. The problem with “appear to sexualise” is that this crime is very much in the eye of the beholder. I am thinking of the Bill Henson case, where the police regarded the images as pornography whereas they were ultimately classified as safe for children.

The third is in Italy, where the Berlusconi government is proposing a law that will require Italians to get an “uploader’s licence” in order to put any moving images on the internet. Under this law uploads will require ministerial authorisation. Opposition Democratic Party spokesman Paolo Gentiloni told a press conference that the government was “also keen to restrict the uncontrollable circulation of information over the Internet to preserve its monopoly over television news”.

Back to Australia for the fourth one. The government of Western Australia is proposing anti-association laws. Hundreds of people attended a rally to protest this at the weekend. The attorney-general says the laws would only be used to combat organised crime. That is not the experience we had in Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen, where the definition of crime was stretched so far that when a Bundaberg dentist, Harry Akers, announced he and his dog were staging a protest march down a local street at midnight the cops turned up en masse.

I hope that you now understand the past and present contexts of my concerns about internet censorship. Thank you for reading this.

*update June 4 21012 – I dissociate myself from Ciaron’s recent public outburst of violence. That is not the Ciaron I knew.

Terms of Service and civic rights

February 21, 2009

The most recent Facebook faux pas has been analysed as a lesson in customer managment for online businesses. (This post is adapted from my comment there.)

I argue that there is a larger context in which this issue resides. Clues to its existence can be found in John Sviokla’s observation that Facebook is ‘the 6th largest “country” on the planet”, and that ‘every firm will eventually have a social media strategy’.

Social media is creating a public sphere of unprecedented dimensions, with characteristics that make regulation difficult and which challenge notions of ownership, and which has powerful agency for change.

This online public sphere exists almost exclusively in proprietary spaces. Online terms of service, regulation, and notions of ownership will need to be framed not just in terms of consumer rights, but civic rights.

Rebelling against personal branding

January 31, 2009

This post was prepared as a response to Just How Valuable is Personal Branding on Des Walsh’s blog Thinking Home Business. I have modified it slightly here.

Re personal branding, I am with the contrarians. The term ‘personal brand’ began to peeve me some time ago, perhaps because I have always hated anyone’s attempts to pigeonhole me. I wondered how I was going to do that to myself. Then I decided I wouldn’t, no matter how fashionable it is.

I am in the process of re-starting this blog yet again, a blog which I think shows some of the pitfalls involved in personal branding. Initially, I spent a lot of time developing a clear focus for the blog, which was to be an academic blog about the shared nature of creativity. I called it ‘Culture is a Conversation’ based on a phrase in a book by JD Lasica. That brand ended up being a conversation stopper, which constrained me from posting most of my thoughts.

I decided to move from that focus, and explained why. It would be possible to read that post either way, as a further exploration of how to arrive at a personal brand, or as a rejection of personal branding in favour of emergent practice. I favour the latter.

Today I was editing the ‘about me’ page of this blog when a tweet came past about Des’ discussion. There I state the limits of my self-branding:

‘I like the education I have had, as it gives me the ability to approach anything from a humanities, scientific or creative perspective; and to see things from the intersection of all three. Emphasising this diversity is as close as I am prepared to get to the current notion of ‘personal branding’. I mistrust anything that might make my life smaller, and I have no interest in defining any presets for my thinking. I will use whatever tools I have in whatever way my content requires.’

To constrain myself to a ‘brand’ would risk limiting my vision to things that already exist. Then again, maybe I could just add ‘contrarian’ to that brand-like list above, because I usually end up being one ;-)

How many use real radio now?

January 5, 2009

Today on Twitter I found that a friend and colleague (Nic Suzor) was to speak on am radio “right now”. I had to quickly figure out where my old radio was, then messed around for a couple of minutes getting it to work as it has been a long time (and there was a line in – pulling that out did the trick). After the program I found out that Nic doesn’t even have a radio. Now I know Nic and I are not exactly alone in using the web for all our audio (except this one time). In fact I can only think of two or three people I know who still regularly use actual radios.

I wonder if this degree of change in media usage has dawned on the people attempting to architect the proposed ISP-level internet filtering to be trialled in Australia shortly.  That is what Nic Suzor was speaking against.

First, we have an enormous amount of audio data to push through the filter’s bottleneck. Second, by what means is the filter going to censor real-time audio? And last but not least, with this shift in audio consumption from radio to the web there will be censorship of society’s major audio communications medium. That has a distinctly totalitarian feel.

Perhaps we will all be buying CB radios again, if the censorship proposal is not defeated.

rental crisis, ghettoes in Darwin, and the future of the arts

September 11, 2008

Earlier this year I had to move house, and the rents have gone up so much that, sadly, I am unable to live in Brisbane any more. I was lucky to get a place at all. The area I live now is pleasant enough, but I am feeling amputated from my real-world culture.

The rental crisis is widespread, and getting worse. The other day there was a news item re concern over the likelihood of ghettoes forming around Darwin, due to aboriginal people wanting to access the services they need that are not provided out bush. To me the article possibly had racist undertones, along the lines of “quick we’d better get some services out there or they’ll come here”, but it does underscore a point about housing affordability in Australia. Maybe I’ll be off to Darwin to join them when it gets worse here.

However, there is more to affordable rental than having a roof over your head. What you can do under that roof matters. Vanity Fair recently ran an essay by Christopher Hitchens on the necessity of “Bohemia” for the renewal of culture. “In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals.” Well the rental increases are so steep here in Brisbane that even the Chinese Club has had to move out of Chinatown.

Where will high cost of accommodation leave artists, musicians and other cultural practitioners? It will physically scatter us, robbing us of the contact that is so necessary for cross-fertilisation of ideas. And in downsizing our accommodation, artists won’t have room to do things like painting and sculpture. I have just acquired sets of artist’s coloured pencils because this place is so small I have nowhere to paint, and nowhere to store canvases.

Creative people are imaginative and resourceful and will adapt as best they can. We have the internet now – if we can afford it and all the gear to run it. The web is building creative networks as never before. Our work can be produced digitally (software is available at no cost) and exhibited online. But there is no substitute for physical cultural spaces accessible to people outside the mainstream. It is well known that the cost of failure has to be low for innovation to occur. These rents are making the cost of failure prohibitive.

What will become of art in the cities, and where will artists go?

I denied being a goth when my friend asked, but

August 27, 2008

Caterpillar#5bis, originally uploaded by Frederik en Katleen.

I must be. I’m so in love with this Caterpillar that artist Wim Delvoye has laser-cut into fine lace. It is on the Belgian coastline, near Middelkerke. There are several others, shown on Delvoye’s web site; and then there are his other gothic works, including stained glass windows made with x-rays of guts and stuff. They are amazing too.

Some say this Caterpillar is parodying religion and industrialism at the same time. Others say it is Steampunk elevated to High Art. It definitely has the pseudo-Victorian look of steampunk. The artist himself describes it as gothic. As always, the interpretation of these things is in the eye of the beholder, so I am not going to try for the “correct” one. I wonder if there is a photo of it against the sunset, reverently bowing its head?

something I found on TED.com

July 13, 2008

Yes I know I blog irregularly and inconsistently. There is a reason for both. (Ask me if you really need to know.) Today I have been watching ooblecks, listening to my son and his dad squabble on Skype, and checking out the talks on TED.

I just found a nice performance by Vusi Mahlasela on the ted.com site. I went to a Vusi concert earlier this year, and have a signed CD. Vusi is a leading South African singer/songwriter, who was part of the struggle against apartheid. If you haven’t seen or heard Vusi before, play this video. (I had a few goes at posting this. As a Firefox 3 user I have to use VodPod to post video to WordPress. The quality of the TED videos is good – don’t be misled by this image.)

more about “something I found on TED.com“, posted with vodpod

Interactive shoot-em-up news broadcasts?

June 25, 2008

Today at the Creating Value: Between Commerce and Commons conference in Brisbane I had the pleasure of meeting Henry Jenkins. Professor Kerry Raymond of QUT was talking about how the Wii had improved her global news: when the Wii is connected to the Internet with the Wii Channel active and Wii News selected, a world appears and you get news from whichever part of the world you click on.

I wanted to know if I could still keep hitting my virtual punching bag while the news came in. Kerry said no. I was disappointed. That’s when Henry Jenkins said “I want news you can shoot!”

Such fine convergent thinking. And I have to say it would be good.

A hundred years…

April 4, 2008

Dad aged 6

Today is the centenary of the birth of my father. If it were possible to communicate with the dead*, I don’ know how I would begin to explain to him what I am doing now.

Dad was born in a horse-drawn cab in one of the main streets of Sydney, New South Wales. His parents were old-fashioned, and dressed him in velvet and lace, with waist-length ringlets, until he was six. (Photos of that were purposely destroyed – he hated it. The one above is the first after those ringlets were cut.) He became a double orphan at age twelve, and rather than see himself and his sisters put into orphanages he pretended to be fifteen and got a job pushing barrows at Sydney’s Paddy’s Market. After he had paid for the education of his sisters, he set about getting himself educated. He worked as a telegraph operator, translating the ticker tape messages into English at 120 words per minute. Riding out the Great Depression in the Navy as radio officer, he got his education at Duntroon Naval College. After he left the Navy he trained as a draughtsman and later became a design engineer in his forties. That’s about when I turned up. Dad died in 1982, an era ago.

Dad worked in electronics at one stage, so he would comprehend some of the science behind the technology I use. If I showed him how easy it is to use this stuff he might even want it himself – after all, I did get my late mother-in-law onto the internet. But explaining the social changes that have taken place since computers became a communications medium via the Internet would be daunting. Explaining the political issues at stake would be as difficult. As for the cultural effects – dad wasn’t really into culture, he had been preoccupied with survival – so that would be harder still.

“I’m doing Internet Studies.” That didn’t exist then. Nor did much of the vocabulary I use every day (even if I avoid using kittah). “I’m doing it because…” Communication would be lost about there.

One thing dad would understand for sure about today is climate change. He often told me that the climate was changing, based on his detailed memory of his early years. He blamed it on industry and pollution. He used to get put down for saying this, but he wasn’t wrong.

“Andy” as he was called by his Navy mates

“Andy” as he was called by his Navy mates.

Image restored in MacPaint years ago by my son


* I don’t believe in that, I’m just trying to stretch my imagination across an epochal gap.

The collision of fronts

December 11, 2007

I have been thinking for a while now about a post on Design Research about the problems with Facebook’s attempt to monetize its social network assets (that’s us) by making us into unwitting viral marketers. The author, Sam Ladner, reminds us of Erving Goffman’s notion of “the front”:

Using the theatre as a metaphor Goffman argued that we actually “perform” multiple selves. Each place we go has a “front” that we learn to incorporate. A front has a wardrobe, a setting, a decor, make-up, a script and stage direction.

Ladner argues that

Facebook’s Beacon didn’t work because it forces people to use multiple fronts AT THE SAME TIME.

In my view, even without Beacon, Facebook has that propensity. And so does blogging, particularly this kind of blogging where some of us are attempting to integrate blogging about our research and blogging about whatever else we want to blog about, including ourselves. We can choose what we blog about, which is a lot better than having our online purchases broadcast to everyone on our social network (surely they thought how embarrassing that could be?). But if we are going to blog in our real names about real things then there will be a collision of fronts.

Sam Ladner has pinpointed for me the issue that I felt but wasn’t articulating so well, which has been holding me back from “research blogging”. Now all I have to do is work out how to use multiple fronts at the same time without worrying. No – I have to start enjoying it!


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