McKenzie Wark on Wed, 14 Apr 1999 18:01:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Island in the Stream: On Being a Sall Country in the Global Village

Wark / page 1

Island in the Stream: 
On Being a Small Country in the Global Village
McKenzie Wark

paper presented at the 
Revisoning the Future Conference
Centre for International Communication
Macquarie University, 14th April

sponsored by the
Journal of International Communincation

The millennial prophesies of the digital revolution never quite 
seem to have had the impact in Australia that they have had in 
the United States, which is surprising, given the very rapid rate at 
which most new media technologies are taken up in Australia. 

Australians face the actual, mundane millenium without too 
strong a sense of 2000 or 2001 as a turning point, either towards 
catastrophe, or towards transcendence. Perhaps, as Meaghan 
Morris once observed, this really is a "relentless secular" culture, 
one in which religious eschatology, being weak in the first place, 
doesn't seek expression through other means. This may well be a 
good thing. I don't think its the end of the world to be living in a 
practical, sceptical, pragmatic culture, one that defines the good 
life in something less than millennial terms.

There was of course one famous Australian millennial prophesy 
of recent years, although the sardonic form that it took is itself 
revealing of the weakness of the millennial genre. I'm talking 
about the notorious reference, in the book Pualine Hanson 
sponsored, called The Truth, to Australia's first president of the 
republic. By the year 2050, Australia will have as its president 
Poona Li Hung, a lesbian of Indian and Chinese extraction. She is 
part machine, and her neuro-cybernetic circuits will have been 
engineered by a joint Korean, Indian and Chinese research team.

Hansonism is the herpes of the body politic. Its contracted 
through illicit contact with sorry old prejudices. It reappears, as 
an itch that can't be scratched, at times of stress. I'm sure it will be 
back, which is why I want to take seriously this millennial 
prediction, which I think speaks about a certain kind of fear that 
the emerging information economy can generate in a culture 
which has otherwise not embraced all that much of the 
millennial vision associated with the information revolution. 

There was one other famous Australian contribution to futurist 
discourse, and a more serious one, also by a political leader, but of 
a different stripe. I'll come back to this alternative view of the 
future for Australia as an island in the data-stream presently.

>From Television to Cyberspace
But first, a bit of backtracking through the prehistory of 
cyberspace. In Europe and the United States, the mass media was 
a topic that incited conflicting passions. Many modern 
intellectuals critiqued of the banality mass media. Canadian 
literary critic Marshall McLuhan became a celebrity by embracing 
it. He imagined print media as a sort of fall from grace, and new 
technology as transcending the limits of print culture and 
launching us into the collective consciousness of the "global 
village."1 In the 90s, the promise of cyberspace also incited a 
range of responses. New York critic Mark Dery's was caustic about 
the revival of McLuhanite "theology of the ejector seat."2 
McLuhan's prophesies about the coming of the global village 
enjoyed a revival, largely sponsored by the Californian 
cyberculture magazine Wired. 

Australian writers were rarely as evangelical in their embrace of 
new media technology. A more practical and sceptical dallying 
with it prevailed among writers such as Dale Spender, Jon 
Casimir, Daniel Petrie and David Harrington.3 As if to (over) 
compensate, John Nieuwenhuizen ranted against cyberspace as 
"cultural AIDS".4 Both Nieuwenhuizen and his opponents in 
this debate tended to over-estimate the novelty of this particular 
'information revolution', as if there had not been a whole series 
of information revolutions in the past century, each of which 
brought a unique set of changes in its wake. 

Its simply not the case that cyberspace represents a unique and 
millennial break. Even before the federation of the colonies, 
Australia was caught up in a whole series of technological 
changes that generated new vectors for storing or distributing 
information. Communications historian K. T. Livingstone lists 
telegraphy (1840s), rotary printing (1840s), the typewriter (1860s), 
transatlantic cable (1866), telephone (1876), motion pictures (1894), 
wireless telegraphy (1899), magnetic tape recording (1890s), radio 
(1806) and television (1923) as significant inventions that created 
new communication possibilities.5 

Rather than see things in a technological determinist fashion, 
where these new vectors drive changes in everything else, I think 
it makes more sense to adopt a 'technological possibilist' view. 
Livingstone has an interesting take on the extent to which the 
possibility of telegraphy made it possible for the competing 
colonies on the Australian continent to think about cooperation. 
He points out that telegraphy was a significant topic of debate 
among political leaders in inter-colonial forums in the long, slow 
process of federating the colonies. New technologies make 
possible new vectors, along which information can travel more 
quickly, more reliably, more accurately or in greater quantity. 
These vectors create a matrix which makes it possible to generate 
new forms of political or cultural action. These forms of political 
and cultural action can in turn shape the way the next generation 
of vectors is implemented. 

The relationship between telegraphy and federation is an 
interesting late 19th century instance of such a relation between a 
vector and the kinds of action it enables, and which in turn 
further the development of the vector. Telegraphy brought 
business and political elites into an emerging national space, 
while many ordinary people lived in a more local matrix of 
vectors. Television and the telephone extended the national 
space into ordinary people's lives, while business and political 
elites connected into a growing global network of 

In the 20th century, television makes it possible to generate vast 
publics, attuned simultaneously to the same message; the 
telephone makes it possible to coordinate personal connections, 
exchanging particular and self generated messages.6 Through the 
television and the telephone, quite different kinds of culture 
coalesce: one based on normative and majoritarian messages; the 
other at least potentially enabling the formation of marginal and 
minority cultures. Through the television and telephone, quite 
different forms of political action can be generated. The election 
campaigns of the major parties use television to spray messages 
as widely as possible, trying to catch the transient attention of 
uncommitted voters. The telephone, on the other hand, is the 
weapon of choice of the machine politician, lobbying and 
persuading one on one. Television and telephone were much 
used vectors, from the 60s to the 90s. 

Communications historians Graeme Osborne and Glen Lewis 
argue that there have been three persistent themes in Australian 
debates about communication. The first is a technocratic concern 
with building infrastructure for national development. For a 
long time debate centred on which kinds of government 
institution ought to implement which kinds of technology, but 
the rise of an argument in favour of market led development in 
the 80s was not unprecedented. A second theme is the view of 
communication as an agent of social control. The critical 
literature which decries the controlling influence of media that 
rose to prominence since the 60s really just reverses the value of 
long held assumptions about the power of communication. 
Wartime propaganda managers of the 40s saw control as a good 
thing, while journalists of the 90s who had to work in the 
shadow of corporate media interests took the contrary view. The 
third theme is the concern over the role of communication in 
community and culture. Some saw commercial media as having 
a particularly poisonous effect on community; others, such as 
McGregor, adopted a more subtle view of the relationship 
between communication and culture. 

Each of these three themes takes on a new inflection as mass 
media gives way to cyberspace. For Osborne and Lewis, the 
technological development of the vector, from the telegraph to 
the internet, "does not appear to have overcome the sense of 
social isolation or the existence of an inarticulate citizenship." It 
is not enough, they argue, to improve the technology. There is 
also "a fundamental sense in which the question of values needs 
to be addressed by students of communication if its role in 
community creation is to be better understood."7 In my 
book,Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, my aim is limited to 
looking into the development of values within the 
communications matrix emerging at the end of the century. 

I agree with writers such as K. T. Livingston, Graeme Osborne 
and Glen Lewis that the historical dimension to communication 
has been unjustly ignored, but I would add that it is also 
necessary to develop concepts out of that history. I'm looking for 
concepts that not only grasp the past, but can articulate possible 
futures; concepts that not only grasp the technical and social 
aspects of communication, but the subjective and experiential 
side as well; concepts that might help articulate a debate about the 
good life on the cusp between the broadcast era of radio and 
television, and the postbroadcast era of cyberspace.

Conceptualising Cyberspace
"I belong to the first generation in Australia born into a world in 
which television already existed", writes Deakin University 
academic Scott McQuire.8 I think he also belongs to the first 
generation of Australian media theorists using this lifetime of 
experience as a background for thinking about how media 
technologies transform both our conscious and unconscious lives 
in an ongoing way. For those of us raised by television, the so-
called Generation X, it is clear that our perceptions are different to 
those who preceded us, who were weaned on cinema and radio. 
We are no better, no worse, just different. What is emerging in 
Australian media studies is a desire to confront the changes to 
media form since television on the basis of this experience of a 
prior transformation of which we are the product.

"Cyberspace is the defining figure for a sensibility produced by 
mediated cultures", write Darren Tofts from Swinburne 
University, another of the TV generation of media theorists.9 In 
his experience, "cyberspace... invokes a tantalising abstraction, the 
state of incorporeally, of disembodied immersion in a 'space' that 
has no co-ordinates in actual space". While it may appear to some 
that technologies like the internet, multimedia, hypertext and so 
on created this space ex nihil, Tofts insists that "cyberspace has its 
own sedimentary record, and accordingly requires an 
archaeology". These are just the latest gadgets in a long process of 
technologising the perceptions through which our bodies 
negotiate the world. 

McQuire and Tofts go looking in different places for the 
conceptual prehistory of cyberspace. Tofts is interested in 
technologies of writing, from the clay tablet to the typewriter to 
the internet. McQuire traces the effects of photography: "The 
ability to witness things outside all previous limits of time and 
space highlights the fact that the camera doesn't only give us a 
new means to represent experience: it changes the nature of 
experience". While he is shy of using the term, he sees in 
photography a cause for the "anxious fascination with 

In my first book, Virtual Geography, I tried to tackle a different 
aspect of the evolution of cyberspace.10 Ever since the telegraph, 
technologies have developed that permit the transmission of 
information that can move more quickly than people or 
things.11 The telegraph, telephone, television are steps in the 
development of telesthesia, or perception at a distance. Being able 
to perceive events elsewhere makes it possible to think and act 
on a scale far beyond the local but with the speed of the 
immediate. The internet extends and refines these capacities. 

While I take a different aspect of the past evolution of media 
form as the basis for thinking about the emergence and potential 
of cyberspace to Tofts and McQuire, I share a similar experience to 
these other two children of television. It is since television 
brought sound and pictures right ito the living room that the 
degree to which media pervade and transform social space has 
really started to sink in, but it is only on the basis of being 
immersed in television that it is possible to think about the 
further potential for the transformation of culture by the 
development of these vectors.

Like Tofts and McQuire I'm too old to experience the cyberhype 
about the internet without some irony. For McLuhan, media was 
a potentially liberating force; for some people cyberspace was also 
meant to liberate us   from the tyranny of pop culture and its 
mass media vectors. The art of writing media theory in the 90s, 
having experienced more than one wave of media change fire up 
the imagination, is to steer between the extremes of cyberhype 
and technofear. But this is not just a matter of muddling through 
to a middle of the road position. Those who stand in the middle 
of the road get run over. Its a question of examining what the real 
potentials are that lurk as yet undiscovered in the media's 
transformations of culture. The writers who gathered around the 
Melbourne-based 21C magazine, including Darren Tofts, Mark 
Dery and myself, tried to articulate a historically and culturally 
sensitive reading of cyberculture that could be critical but not too 
negative, creative but not too naive.12

Thirty years ago there was something of an unholy alliance of the 
new left and the old right 'intellectuals' against new forms of 
media-driven culture. This raised its head again in the 90s. 
Senator Richard Alston, as Minister for Communications and the 
Arts, exerted influence to restrict our liberty to choose what we 
want to see on television, film and video. There would be no 
more "electronic Sodom and Gomorrah", like the popular 
commerical TV sex and relationship show Sex / Life, if Alston 
had his way. As columnist Brian Toohey remarked, "Sadly, a 
wrathful God has yet to turn Sex / Life viewers into pillars of 
salt."13 The deflationary secular irony in the face of millennial 
language is here quite instructive.

Meanwhile, the conservative pundit Robert Manne commanded 
support on both left and right for arguments in favour of 
censorship. He thought the screen versions of Jane Austen's 
novels that were popular in the 90s were good models of family 
love. He seemed not to notice that they portrayed an era when 
women were barred from real jobs, from public life and could not 
even own and transmit property.14 

This kind of nostalgia for a nonexistent past is no less absurd 
than the McLuhanite millennial fervor for an impossibly 
utopian future. But alongside these tired themes of control and 
development, the third theme Osborne and Lewis identify, the 
theme of community and identity, has opened up into a much 
more productive debate. What I would call the virtual 
dimension of change, the creative potential to make things 
otherwise, has opened up within the space created by changing 
media vectors. Cyberspace contains within it many possible forms 
of community and culture that has yet to be actualised. What I 
call urbanity is the art, culture and politics of trying to realise the 
virtuality the celebrities embody, the culture expresses, that 
cyberspace enables. 

The Future of Barry Jones
"Respected by all, feared by none", is how one journalist sums up 
the career of Barry Jones, who among many other things, was 
Minister for Science for seven years under the Hawke 
government.15 If anyone had a vision of where Australia was 
headed, and how Labor culture was failing to anticipate the effect 
of the cascading changes of the 80s and 90s, it was Jones. I want 
finally to revisit his legacy to map out the space Jones anticipated 
Australia would find itself in.

It is fitting that Australia's first postmodern politician became a 
celebrity through his television appearances. In the 60s, he 
appeared 208 times on Bob Dyer's quiz show Pick A Box. If Jones 
is the only Labor politician of his generation who could safely be 
described as lovable, it is in part because his celebrity originated in 
these televised displays of his broad erudition. He was the 
acceptable face of that suburban oddity, the man who knew too 
much. He was the perfect go-between for urbane knowledge to 
the suburban public, and vice versa. With his rumpled suits 
scrunched over his shoulders, his salted beard, and a gaze that 
seemed to search out something on a high diagonal in the sky, 
Jones embodied an idea of what its like to be a politician who is 
an ideas person.

"Am I interested in ideas? Yes. More than power? Yes." It's a fatal 
admission, and a sign of what kept Jones away from real 
authority within the Labor Party or in government. Jones was the 
political celebrity of the lost idea. While he did get some 
additional funding out of Hawke for the sciences, his main legacy 
may well be his perception of the problem building up for Labor 
culture as it confronts an ever more complex cyberspace, and tries 
to turn its cultural values into power through public debate and 
the political process. 

If the premise of democracy is the informed citizen then the 
information revolution is a political revolution too. Jones 
understood more clearly than most that government is as much 
about information as it is about power, and that information 
technology transforms relations of power. This is one of the most 
remarkable themes he took up in his provocative book, Sleepers 
Wake!. While other institutions have modified themselves, 
often beyond recognition, in order to make the transition to 
cyberspace, parliament has change only incrementally. 

In the century since federation, the number of members sitting in 
the House of Representatives went from 75 to 147, and the 
number of people they represented went from 3.7 million to 17.8 
million. The number of people in the public service they had to 
oversee went from 11 thousand to 350 thousand, but the number 
of hours members deliberated went down from 866 to 603.16 The 
amount of public expenditure per person may have increased 
spectacularly, but the amount of it actually brought before the 
House for review in the annual budget papers declined. In short, 
more people and more public service, producing more 
information that is subject to less and less scrutiny by elected 
representatives of the people.

The consequence of this trend, for Jones, is disturbing: "The 
democratic system may become increasingly irrelevant as a 
means of determining and implementing social goals, or 
allocating funds on the basis of community needs, if elected 
persons do not understand how to evaluate and relate segments 
of information in which each expert works." Power has shifted 
from representative government to "strategically placed minority 
groups occupying the commanding heights in particular areas of 
society   technocrats, public servants, corporations, unions." As 
cyberspace accelerates, more vectors carry more information, and 
more information leads to an increased division of labour, as 
people specialise more and more to capture a specific part of the 
information flow and bring it under their authority. 

One unexpected consequence of this shift in the balance of power 
is that it fed into the rise of Hansonite populism. Former Hanson 
minder John Pasquarelli insists that she simply refused to absorb 
his briefings. "In response to my criticism of her slackness, 
Pauline, in a fit of pique, swept some of the briefing notes on the 
floor saying, 'I can't retain, I can't retain'."17 If this is true, it 
worked in her favour out on the fringes of suburbia   at least at 
the time of the Queensland state election. Having witnessed 
popular politicians such as Bob Hawke succumb to the specialist 
apparatus of the public service and elite academic policy 
specialists, part of the appeal of Pauline was the notion of the 
idea-proof politician. 

The Information Proletariat
Jones identified early on that "Australia is an information society 
in which more people are employed in collecting, storing, 
retrieving, amending, and disseminating data than are producing 
food, fibres and minerals, and manufacturing products." This is 
the primary sense in which Australia can be called a 
"postindustrial" nation. Changes to what the economy produces 
also changes its class structure. Jones identified the potential for 
the formation of an "intellectual proletariat" composed of people 
locked out of the benefits of the information economy. Education 
is the main ticket into the urbane knowledge class who have the 
specialised skills to process information, and the urbane protect 
their knowledge assets closely, and try hard to make themselves a 
hereditary caste, passing on the culture of knowledge to their 

Beneath this strata of comfortable and urbane information 
burghers is the information proletariat. A "checkout chick" 
passing groceries over the scanner is doing the manual labour of 
cyberspace, producing the raw information on which, eventually, 
the supermarket's managers will base their business decisions. 
An unemployed machinist who cashes her dole cheque and 
gambles it on the nags is also, strangely enough, part of the 
information proletariat, as her bets contribute to the statistical 
matrix that is the cyberspace of the gambling industry. A couch 
potato lying on his the sofa with a bag of chips zapping the 
remote is part of the information proletariat. The ratings figures, 
on which advertising rates for the commercials being zapped are 
based, is a statistical projection of the number of couch potatoes. 
Information proletariat is what the Kerrigans would be if The 
Castle didn't end happily ever after. 

The information proletariat gets little benefit from the 
information it generates, on which so much of the postindustrial 
economy depends. They are locked out of the education that 
might give them some leverage in this economy. They are 
assumed to be passive objects from which specialists of all kinds, 
in health, education, economics, welfare, marketing, extract 
information and project plans and decisions. But increasingly, 
they not only resent the way information is used as a power over 
and against them, they resist it. The unspeakable majority 
refuses, more and more, to be spoken to or for.

The radical proletariat Karl Marx imagined would be denied the 
material benefits of capitalism and would seek knowledge in 
order to overthrow this unjust order. But what arose in the late 
90s was a radical proletariat that had some minimal level of 
material benefits guaranteed by a Labor-sponsored welfare 
settlement, but was denied the virtual benefits of cyberspace, and 
resisted knowledge and the unjust social order that went with it. 
The lesson, or the moral, is that unless the fruits of the 
production of information are shared, cyberspace capitalism will 
be resisted, just as industrial capitalism was resisted, until the 
labour movement won a share of the material benefits. The 
agenda for Labor in the next millennium is clear: it has to spread 
the cultural and economic benefits of cyberspace. 

This is Labor's problem on the cusp of the year 2000: to make 
itself the power that might broker the interests of the 
information proletariat, the information poor. Blue collar voters 
for Pauline Hanson's One Nation Ltd had to be persuaded that it 
was not really in their interests to resist the postindustrial order, 
but to do so, Labor had to find benefits for those chunks of 
suburbia that had been shut off, or wanted to shut themselves off, 
from absorbing and applying new information. At the same time, 
it had to persuade the urbane beneficiaries of cyberspace that it is 
also in their interests to defuse such resistance. 

"The community is the collective victim of profoundly unequal 
access to information", Barry Jones wrote in 1995. By 1996, I think 
it fair to say that whatever suburbia did not know, it knew that it 
was the victim of this new kind of inequality. Resentment of this 
kind of inequality took the form of what I would call bad 
information. Armed with the attack on "political correctness" 
and "postmodernism" sponsored by Quadrant and the 
Australian, amplified and simplified by talkback radio's 
"emperors of air", resistance flourished as a deliberate flouting of 
the consensus values of cyberspace insiders. 

Ironically, this might involve the use of the same vectors of 
cyberspace for the creation of just such a culture of resistance as 
are used for profitable and productive ends by others. The online 
newspaper the New Australian, with its front page links to both 
One Nation and the National Front is a good example. Writing 
before Pauline Hanson put Ipswich on the map by winning the 
seat of Oxley in 1996, Barry Jones wrote that "in Ipswich, a town 
with higher than average unemployment, nearly 70% of the 
homes with children have computers." He uses Ipswich's local 
government sponsored internet access program as an example of 
the "capacity of computers to enhance the learning experience." 
Some adults may ne learning how to resist the open information 
vectors of cyberspace by using those same vectors to create a cosy 
third nature that can repel new information, reading and writing 
for the New Australian and many other publications flourishing 
on the net.

As John Howard learned the hard way in 1996, playing with bad 
information is playing with fire. This populist resistance only 
looked thoroughly stupid. It was composed of people who no 
matter how humble their formal education had sophisticated and 
finely tuned bullshit detectors. These they fired up the instant 
they came across political celebrity, spreading itself about on 
television, radio, or the popular prints. Hard as it may be for the 
upper layers of suburbia to grasp, the lower layers who make up 
this populist revolt did not need their patronising attempts at 
enlightenment so much as a good reason to actually join the 
emerging public consensus on how to speak and act in 
postindustrial society. 

Irrational resistance was a rational choice, and it worked. All the 
political parties, the urbane media and cultural elites, the 
suburban high moralists, everyone directed their attention to 
figuring out how to prevent the spread of populist culture and 
the bad information in which it revelled and on which it thrived. 
Much rhetoric was aimed at the resistance, but few good reasons 
were given for giving up resistance and joining the public 

Part of the resistance was the National Party's problem. The Nats 
were clearly under pressure after it lost significant ground to One 
Nation at the Queensland election of 1998. But part of the 
resistance was Labor's problem, as blue collar suburban culture 
was clearly a component of the resistance that Pauline Hanson's 
One Nation Ltd was able to coopt. They are the symptom of a 
long term problem for Labor, and the title of Barry Jones's book 
Sleepers Wake! might just as well be directed at the culture of the 
Labor Party. Poona Li Hung, its worth remembering, was built by 
skilled workers   someplace else. 
1 Marshall McLuhan, 

2 Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, 
Grove Press, New York, 1996, p. 8

3 Dale Spender, Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace, 
Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, 1995; Jon Casimir, Postcards from the 
Net, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997; Daniel Petrie and David Harrington, 
The Clever Country?: Australia's Digital Future, Lansdowne Publishing, 
Sydney, 1996

4 John Nieuwenhuizen, Asleep at the Wheel: Australia on the 
Superhighway, ABC Books, Sydney, 1997, p. 180.

5 K. T. Livingston, The Wired Nation Continent, Oxford University Press, 
Melbourne, 1996, p. 9

6 The classic source for this argument is Harold Innis, The Bias of 
Communication, University of Toronto, 1991

7 Graeme Osborne and Glen Lewis, Communication Traditions in 20th 
Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 169-170

8 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, Sage, London, 1998, p. 7, and
p. 2 and p. 85

9 Darren Tofts, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, Gordon + 
Breach Arts International, Sydney, 1998, p. 15

10 McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living With Global Media Events, 
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994

11 An argument first proposed by James Carey, Communication as Culture: 
Essays on Media and Society, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1989

12 Anthologised in Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar (eds), Transit Lounge, 
Craftsman's House, Sydney, 1997

13 Brian Toohey, 'Naked Truth on Redheads', Sun Herald, 28th June, 1998

14 Robert Manne, 'Strong Women, Stronger Morality', Australian, 8th 
April 1996

15 Geoffrey Barker, 'Respected By All, Feared By None', Australian 
Financial Review Magazine, August 1998, pp. 12-17, at p. 14

16 Barry Jones, Sleepers Wake!: Technology and the Future of Work, 
second edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 175ff

17 John Pasquarelli, The Pauline Hanson Story, New Holland Publishers, 
Sydney, 1998, p. 112

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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