A proposal for a wealthier, friendlier, more secure Australia,

The Morrison government has recently made two announcements about extra funding for defence to the tune of $270 billion dollars, and an increase of numbers of students in the tertiary education sector for no extra funding (a move which essentially amounts to less funding per student across the board in tertiary education).

In what follows I’d like to address the value proposition implied in those two decisions, presenting the argument that the government gets far more ‘bang for its buck’ from education than from military spending. I’d also like to present an alternative proposal that would achieve the goals of making Australia more secure, resilient and wealthy than the government’s current plan.

The alternative is this: we would have a more secure Australia if we sunk $270 billion dollars into funding community gardens than we will if we buy new planes, missiles and submarines. It also makes a lot more sense, and this post explains why.

The case for education

Just to be clear in his recent announcement education minister Dan Tehan spelled out that the Australian Government already subsidises universities to the tune of $18 billion dollars a year. TAFEs and other tertiary education entities appear to receive the remaining $20 billion. That’s no small change but the amount the government spends on education as a whole (including schools, and early learning) is still less than defence.

Now while some people go on endlessly about how education is always the best investment, I’m more than aware that such wishy washy arguments aren’t likely to sway Scott Morrison, who likes to base policy on facts . (that is, unless these facts suggest that his party used sports funding to pork barrel the last election or that coal use leads to climate change, which contributes to increased bush fires).

But what I think does make a compelling argument for university education is that the $18 billion dollar investment generates around $37 billion of income for the Australian economy. Critics point out that only about $15 billion of that is direct income for universities in the shape of international student fees – the rest comes from the contribution international students make to the economy. However, I think it is fair to argue that if it wasn’t for Australia’s world leading university sector (Australia has 7 universities in the top 100 in the world, with more than China (6) and only fewer than the US and UK – an impressive result for a small country), these students would not be in Australia spending their money.

While COVID has clearly undermined the income universities receive from international students, the government could, with a little strategising around quarantine, use Australia’s relative COVID-free status to promote Australian universities globally and turn this into a massive windfall for our economy and our society. How many international students would jump at the chance to move to Australia to study considering we are the only country with world class universities that remains COVID free (well us and the University of Auckland)? This could also encourage immigration of the best and brightest from overseas, helping address Australia’s population decline in the best possible way.

But that’s not what they’re doing, choosing instead to defund the industry at its time of greatest need. To paraphrase Rove:

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The case for military spending

Let me just say at the outset that I have massive respect for the people who serve in this country’s armed forces. As I’ve commented on before, I’m the first male of my direct ancestors for four generations that hasn’t served in the Army. I had great grandfathers on both sides of my family in WW1, both of my grandfathers served in WW2, with my mother’s father actually being shot in Borneo. My father did national service during Vietnam; my uncles also both served, with one spending his entire career in the Army. I appreciate the courage and the sacrifice they made – along with every other person who has dedicated themselves to defence.

That does not mean, however, that defence is above or beyond critique, and that we shouldn’t carefully consider how we spend our money in that capacity. We don’t honour our heroes by endorsing militarism, we honour them by creating a world that is good enough to justify their sacrifice.

And with that in mind, I don’t think that the Morrison government’s decision to spend $270 billion dollars over the next decade on new military equipment makes any sense. It doesn’t make sense financially, it doesn’t make sense militarily and it also doesn’t make sense in terms of the strategic goals of Australian people.

Morrison justified the expense by pointing out that the post COVID world was likely to be more mean spiritied, less compassionate and more ruthless. Of course, with people like him in charge, maybe that is the case. But I’d like some explanation as to why, after humanity has been so united as a species in working together to beat this virus, why does he think we will suddenly devolve into trying to kill each other? More to the point, isn’t avoiding conflict, not creating conflict, one of the key skills of leadership? With a massive failure of leadership and imagination, Scott Morrison has fallen back upon the idea that more and bigger guns are what will give Australia security.

Q: Do you know what would give Australia more security than more and bigger guns?

(the answer I want is not ‘anything’, but that is also correct)

A: One of the great stories to come out of COVID is the resurgence in urban farming and communities sharing food. This is something that has happened worldwide and in many senses replicates the emergence of ‘victory gardens’, planted by Aussie communities during the first and second world war, to ensure food security. What a wonderful idea – apparently beyond Scott Morrison – to imagine that a challenge could actually make a community stronger.

Because when you think about armed conflict in the past 50 years, no invading army has been able to subdue and control a country which has a population that resists occupation. Think about Afghanistan (both US and Russian versions), Vietnam (French and US versions), Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands and Iraq. In all of these cases, a far more ‘advanced’ and EXPENSIVE armed force was unable to successfully exercise control over a population that was motivated to resist the aggression.

Conversely the only example I can think of where an armed invasion ended with something like success would be the Russian incursion into Crimea, which is both far from over and is also a situation where a near majority of people in the region (apparently) welcomed the intervention (as was the case in places such as Austria and Vichy France in WW2). So the determining factor in successful defence over the past 50 years seems to be the desire within the invaded population to resist the invading force.

Why then, when history clearly shows this, do we remain so steadfastly focused on buying more and ‘better’ military technology (when having more and better military technology has not led to military success for the US, French, Russians etc)? Funding community gardening programs would do more to increase community unity and resilience in the face of an external military threat. And at much smaller cost.

And when I say much smaller cost, I mean much, much, much smaller. Leaving more tax payers’ money for community inclusion initiatives, combatting domestic violence, toxic online culture and for funding more innovation and community resilience through education.

At this point I just want to point out that I’m not a hippy, I am fascinated by military aircraft and military power in general. There’s something about its potency that is intoxicating. I get it. I made a 1/32 scale model of an F4-J Phantom II during COVID because I think jets look cool. When I was a kid, I wanted to design military aircraft.

looks pretty cool huh?

It’s just that I’ve reaslised that something looking cool, or feeling powerful, shouldn’t determine policy, or truth (sorry Nietzsche).

I know that as an adult that has to look after kids.

But the entire ‘defence’ and international relations sector continues to carry on as though the ultimate purpose of the national economy is to have the best toys. Not education. Not health. Not community prosperity. Not security understood assafety from violence and repression. Not managing global warming and the ecological disasters its bringing.

Just having the coolest new technology that can be used to kill people more quickly, from further away.

So I could talk about the cost of the new attack class submarines (12 at $80 billion dollars), which are replacing the 6 collins class submarines (6 at $5 billion in the 1990s) that never fired a shot in anger. Or I could talk about the cost of invading Iraq (over $5 billion). But because I like jets let’s look at Australia’s procurement of the F-35 – an fighter/attack aircraft (72 aircraft at $9 billion or only $126 million per plane).

For $126 million dollars per plane, the Australian government has bought a plane that can’t fly above the speed of sound without losing its stealth paint coating. According to reports, it has numerous issues with avionics and the cannon can’t shoot straight. In fact the plane still has more than 150 registered design flaws and the patch up job has become so bad that Lockheed Martin have decided just to reclassify ‘deadly’ flaws as less severe. That may be why they keep crashing. And why it is already 10 years behind schedule.

Despite this, the F35 has had it’s share of backers and even now, journalists who will spruik the plane are provided with fully funded ‘fact finding’ trips to various air shows and factories where they can get ‘the facts’. Take this rallying cry about the plane published in Forbes, and note that the author is a heavy hitter in the defence industries and military, and that Lockheed Martin paid for him to gather information on the piece he wrote.

Tom Scott isn't a huge fan of journalism - GIF - Imgur

The lobbying power of the defence industry is phenomenal, hardly surprising when you look at the billions poured into the industry. The industry also enjoys the stewardship of ex-ministers such as former Defence Industry minister Christopher Pyne, who left his role as defence industry minister in the Morrison government to join Saber Aeronatics, a company that have been awarded $2.7 million in government defence contracts.

Nothing Suss - quickmeme

Think of the political influence that hundreds of billions of dollars buys.

And again, for all that spending, we are not necessarily any safer for having a fleet of F-35s. Even our own Defence chiefs have suggested that the aircraft will not serve our needs (whatever they are) when it arrives.

And dear reader, I don’t know what work you do – but I know in my industry if I was so ineffective at my job that I was constantly over budget, late on deadlines and then not coming through with the goods, I’d be out of work and destitute. Why is the defence industry like the rich kid who can’t be relied on to do anything but somehow still gets promoted because his dad is a billionaire (and either owns the company, or owns the guy who does)?

AFI #77 – All the President's Men | The Confusing Middle

So then I think of Pyne, Morrison and Dan Tehan and how they think they can make decisions like taking money from universities and using that to buy more over-priced and ineffective jets from the trillion dollar international arms industry. And I realise that if another country was to come invading the state they have created, I’m not sure I would be that upset about that. I can’t get passionate about defending the version of Australia they are creating. Because they aren’t creating it for us, they are creating it for the trillion dollar international arms industry.

If they were spending $270 billion dollars on community gardening initiatives, I would fight who ever came here until they were thrown back into the sea. I’d have a sense of community, access to food, strong local organisations and local knowledge – and most importantly an Australia I could believe in.

But in Scott Morrison we have a PM who has not just defunded education while boosting military spending. He has also sanctioned the gagging of journalists, he has supported the collection of metadata to spy on his own citizens, he has used taxpayers dollars to illegally secure an election win, he has defunded our most trusted source of news during a fake news crisis and he has continued to celebrate burning coal while his nation burns to the ground, and gone on holiday while it does so.

Tell me this: Who is going to invade Australia, and why would they be worse than Scott Morrison’s government?

If we truly lived in a democracy we would get rid of him.

Spleen venting about the proposed changes to tertiary education funding (and defence spending).

The Australian minister for education Dan Tehan’s recent proposed changes to tertiary funding are, quite frankly, the stupidist policy move that Australia has made since it’s overenthusiastic approach to invading Iraq in 2003.

I typically live and let live in terms of policy but when something this stupid is actually suggested, I like to make a point of making as public statement about it as possible, so that history recognises that I was not stupid enough to believe in these things. I’ve been having it out with my local MP and I will also take this up with various senators as the reform bill moves through parliament.

The reason I oppose the reforms so strongly is not simply because I disagree with them – I do – but I also disagree with a lot of what the government is doing and yet let them get on with things.

The reason I oppose this bill is because it is stupid, it makes no sense, it is unjust and even if it overcame these impediments to achieve its goals (which it won’t) that would still only produce something worse. (Does that sound a little bit like John Howard’s prompting for the US to invade Iraq)?

Just for context, the new legislation will open an extra 38000 places for university students across Australia, with no extra funding provided for those places. So the take away here is that the tertiary education sector is getting less money per student than before.

That’s in the context of the sector currently suffering from a profound COVID-induced crisis. Tehan’s announcement has already seen major lay offs, such as UNSW’s recent cut of almost 500 jobs. For some reason (the Morrison government has given none), employees in the sector were not allowed job keeper or job seeker during the COVID crisis, singled out as pretty much the only industry that did not.

And let’s be clear, while Tehan and Morrison have failed to find any money to save those jobs, they have earmarked $270 billion MORE dollars for defense over the next 10 years. So they do have money for some things (killing, hostility, hatred, the ex-minister for defense industry’s military aircraft company), but not others (education, progress, critical thinking, Australia’s third biggest export industry).

Abandoning the world leading Australian tertiary sector now, at it’s time of greatest historical need and peculiar COVID inspired weakness is – in all ways – a stupid policy.

Wondering why digital everything isn’t the answer?

I really do hope that this COVID-19 event does make us rethink everything, and part of that has got to be a reconsideration of what we can and cannot do digitally.

Generally, I’d say we could do a lot more digitally, and while there are reasonable questions about whether digital activity is environmentally clean, there are clear advantages when it comes to things like saving on travelling time and energy for meetings and conferences.

I am currently attending a digital conference for the first time, and I have to say the flying time and hotel costs are brilliant. However there are some things that we cannot yet do digitally, and the happenstance interactions and embodied awareness experiences are severely missing from the digital experience.

This paper covers some of the ways in which digital experience fails to recapture lived experience, somewhat inevitably. I think its time has certainly come, as an argument, and i guess I’m just saying that if we really want to do something like live music, or a conference, well as a digital experience, we need to make sure that we are addressing some of the aspects of cult value, iteration, and interaction that digital tech often leaves behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I think doing things digitally offers up huge opportunities but we ought not neglect our humanity, our connections and our need for true public engagement and recognition in the process.

Sports has shut down, so here’s a new League Table…

Go to: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries 

Go to the ‘Total Cases’ column and order the countries from largest to smallest number of total cases. Right, this is the new league table. Whoever has the smallest number of total cases wins.

I know this might seem inappropriate but I’ve been trying to think of ways to get people I know to care about Coronavirus. For me, the idea that we have a collective goal is really important. A national campaign is hard to get behind when the notion of a real ‘Australianness’ is quite foreign to us. But a league table and a team speaks to everyone.

As a team member for Australia I’m up there, within touching distance of Brazil and Sweden (see?), which is a source of real motivation to work together to keep away from the worst names like USA and China.

The nation is a pretty empty signifier, but unfortunately it remains the best we’ve got as far as current statistics are concerned.  I believe there’s real potential in localising statistical analysis of new cases and creating local league table. Imagine if you could set Primary school communities, or Suburbs, against each other? Harness the feeling that you could actually contribute to the success of your team by being more vigilant and helping others to do so. The collected data could also be really helpful in tracing the progress of COVID 19.

Of course the game will disadvantage the underprivileged but it will also bring attention to those areas which lack adequate healthcare (USA I’m looking at you) or transparency (ahem, China). And after all, it’s just a game.

Nobody wins but some do better than others. It simply invites reflection on your choices and a way to positively orient your community thinking, you’re doing it for the team.

Thoughts on the coronavirus

Well there are quite a few things that this virus is bringing to mind and, while I listen to my workplace’s ‘townhall’ about how we’re going to deal with this, I’d like to get some of them down.

Nationalism is an embarrasment

Maybe I’m just speaking from an Australian perspective but I find that one of the most interesting things about COVID-19 is that it makes clear that we are a global community. While the recent bushfires indicated that decisions made around carbon production could effect us here in Australia, via global warming, that ‘problem’ was localised and rendered within the Australian nation, and confounded by the inability of our conservative government to honestly assess and act on the situation. COVID effects everyone, it will eventually become ‘part of the furniture’ and its spread indicates how intrinsically connected we are as a planet and a species; just as with global warming.

John Stuart Mill once said that ‘nationalism is a pox on humanity’ and I think that COVID has illustrated how humanity must deal with such poxes collectively. Moreover I am more than a little ashamed of how ‘Australians’ have reacted to the virus. Brawls over toilet paper, hoarding and general self indulgent panic is behaviour that is one million miles away from the national self image. Whereas I was raised thinking that the qualities that made Australia great were courage, community support and primarily ‘mateship and a fair go’, COVID has shown that the national character is now one of profound individualism and selfishness. I believe this has changed. I believe that Australian culture is not as Australian as it once was. When my Nana lived through the depression in Coolgardie they allowed families to share their house and camp on their verandah indefinitely; simply so they could help. Our ANZAC stories are replete with tales of soldiers who would not leave the battlefield without their mates, regardless of their own peril. I know COVID appears to be a slightly different situation but for people to be hoarding toilet paper in a city where there are yet to be any cases of community transmission does NOT speak of courage, mateship and a fair go. It speaks of profound selfish individualism and a cowardly panic inspired by global media. Overall it reflects upon an inability to think of your community or yourself as somehow distinct or different from the individualistic global order.

The neo-liberal world view is dangerous and inefficient

Which brings me to my next realisation. We have all become Americans, at the worst possible time. There is a global culture that has replaced Australian culture and it is that of small state, big individual, responsibilisation that suggests that community is meaningless, the individual matters. It’s here and it rules this place, I suspect it rules everywhere.

I feel very sorry for the US at this time when people’s inability to fund sick leave combined with their incapacity to pay for medical attention is liable to make COVID a particularly thorny problem. This system works to develop herd immunity as quickly as possible (because of, not despite, it’s terrible inefficiency) meaning the sick and the old die quickly and production can return to profitability. A strong social health system would only slow this process, allow more ‘weak’ people to live and be far more expensive. The economic value of refusing to care (in the most literal sense) cannot be refuted. It doesn’t shock me that the US government has taken this route; what shocks me is the extent to which their ideology has become ubiquitous and that the US population can’t see the value in spending some of their trillions on universal health care rather than junk for a military that is, like its health care, already far more expensive than everyone else’s.

Traditional gender stereotypes are still propagated in the most horrible ways

The Australian government is yet to close schools and one of the justifications for this is that they don’t want health care workers to have to stay at home to look after children. Now I can’t for the life of me imagine WHY health care workers would have to take care of children? Surely these health care workers have partners who could perform caring roles?

So the underlying issue is that health care workers are thought of as female and that family caregives are also imagined to be female. Here are the women in our lives being asked to double shift in quite the most impossible way. Of course, not all health care workers are female and not all family caregivers are female; but that’s sort of being forgotten, and ‘by and large’ these traditional gender roles remain unproblematic. Which is such bullshit.

Here’s a revolutionary idea. When the health of the entire community depends upon it, the CEO of BHP can take time off to care for children while their partner, who works in health can continue to do the health work that remains a priority to save lives. Gender is and should be irrelevant.

Are we seriously saying that we’ll endanger the health of our families and communities because we can’t imagine a man taking time off work to look after the kids? The fact that this statement is plausible speaks to the fact we really need to look at how we propagate gender roles, as well as how we underpay and underappreciate care work!

OK, rants over for now. As you can see COVID 19 has bought up a few beefs and I am hopeful that we might learn from this experience. Anyone who reads this, please stay safe and if you need anything to help you through this difficult time, please don’t be afraid to ask. I’ve got enough TP to share.

What I thought of ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is one of those books that I’ve seen being read everywhere. As in, every time you’re on public transport or at a beach, someone seems engrossed in it. There have been a few of these books in my time, such as The Celestine Prophecy, The Secret, Bohos in Paradise, Sophie’s Choice and everything by Alain De Botton and Dan Brown. Sapiens was elevated above simple cult status by being recommended by John Hartley and my Hons student Rebekah Barnett. It was a worthy read in the sense that it was a beautifully crafted story; it didn’t answer all my questions about the history of humankind but it did make a few points that I found provocative and/or interesting, which I’ll spell out here without any commitment to  authorial fidelity.

The argument I found most interesting in this book was that the ascendancy of humans has been, to some extent, a result of their ability to get more energy out of the biosphere than previously possible. This theme is dealt with a number of times throughout the book but made particularly salient at a few points, such as when Harari decribes the wheat plant as a colonising force. Humans, he argues have come to serve the needs of wheat and rice in a manner that those genomes can actually be understood to be the colonising force; using humans like parasites to spread their seed and propogate their species. What is interesting about this for me is that the suggestion that this sort of thing does happen in evolution points toward a sort of ‘divine law’ of production that always sees greater production as an inherent good.

The precise nature of that production is not particularly clear – wheat and rice became the staple diet for humans not because it was a healthier choice – life spans actually shrank as nomadic foragers became stationary farmers; humans reduced the variety of their diet and the amount of exercise they needed to acquire food – which were unhealthy choices. However what was gained from the shift to staple crops was a concentration of calories. More energy could be produced more efficiently (and thus feed a growing, sedentary population).

What fascinates me about this topic is the ‘parasitic’ influence upon human evolution. Elsewhere Harari discusses memes and cultures in a similar way:

 A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the pice of death. The human dies, but the idea spread. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them. .. successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts. p.270

Another interesting point that Harari makes is that while the ‘arrow of history’ seems to suggest that Human ascendancy was somehow a foregone conclusion, deep anthropology makes it clear that we have actually succeeded through a variety of happy coincidences. For instance:

All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices,
declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis
(who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries of biological facts)
and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute
economic truths that could never be refuted).
b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth.This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings – a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens. p.282

What this quote is discussing is the flaws of over determinism but what he’s summarising n the latter point is that the idea that ‘humans’ are in some sense ‘blessed’ or ‘unique’ is an error of judgment; an opinion which does fly in the face of a lot of the history of European philosophy, from Aristotle to Arendt. I don’t necessary agree with this very materialistic perspective; but Harari makes a strong argument for why it is the correct perspective from that materialist position.

Harari’s other great contribution in this book is to provide a quite bare bones analysis of capitalism. Capitalism, he declares, is the reason that Europe became the source of the scientific enlightenment (rather than many other sophisticated cultures that existed at the same time) (p. 349). I find this analysis quite reductive and his ignorance of scientific progress and approaches in the Islamic world prior to the European enlightenment seems a little Orientalist. However he makes a clear point about how capitalism – as the reinvestment of profit into improving the efficiency of production – has become a hegemonic system in the contemporary age. Simply because capitalism created the stable legal and technological systems to continuously improve production. The role of currency, banking and credit in this system is well explained and I feel one of the more useful contibutions of the book. The requirements of commerce, he explains, meant a similar need for freedom of commerce, stable government and tolerance of difference (p.354-365). Capitalism rewarded these systems because they were good for profit, good for growth and essentially good for production. He even points out how this system eventually eroded the relative strength of the community and family:

Parents are obliged to send their children to be educated by the state. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If need be, the state may even imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families. Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one’s parents
were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age. Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to get off in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial. p.404-405

This erosion of family and community has come with the elevation of the state systems necessary for capitalist growth; the production of a neo-liberal subject.

I’m going to end with two more lengthy quotes that impressed me ; the first a binary about how we imagine ‘progress’ that shows the flaws in each argument; and the second a reflection on what brings happiness which I feel is again, very worthy of repeating.

Though few have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost every scholar and layperson has some vague preconception about it. In one common view, human capabilities have increased throughout history. Since humans generally use their capabilities to alleviate miseries and fulfill aspirations, it follows that we must be happier than our medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier than Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

But this progressive account is unconvincing. As we have seen, new aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life. When humans learned to farm in the Agricultural Revolution, their collective power to shape their environment increased, but the lot of many individual humans grew harsher. Peasants had to work harder than foragers to eke out less varied and nutritious food, and they were far more exposed to disease and exploitation. Similarly, the spread of European empires greatly increased the collective power of humankind, by circulating ideas, technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce. Yet this was hardly good news for millions of Africans, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians. Given the proven human propensity for misusing power, it seems naïve to believe that the more clout people have, the happier they will be.
Some challengers of this view take a diametrically opposed position. They argue for a reverse correlation between human capabilities and happiness. Power corrupts,  they say, and as humankind gained more and more power, it created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our real needs. Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition first to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings. Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. Every new invention just puts another mile between us and the Garden of Eden.

Yet this romantic insistence on seeing a dark shadow behind each invention is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress. Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it’s not all bad. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33 per cent to less than 5 per cent. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families and friends?

A more nuanced position takes the middle road. Until the Scienti􀉹c Revolution there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-gatherer forebears. But in the last few centuries humans have learned to use their capacities more wisely. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example. Other unprecedented achievements include the steep drop in violence, the virtual disappearance of international wars, and the near elimination of large-scale famines.

Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. Firstly, it bases its optimistic assessment on a very small sample of years. The majority of humans began to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850, and the drastic drop in child mortality is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Mass famines continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the twentieth century. During Communist China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958–61, somewhere between 10 and 50 million human beings starved to death. International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of nuclear annihilation. Hence, though the last few decades have been an unprecedented golden age for humanity, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history or an ephemeral eddy of good fortune. When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a twenty-first-century middle-class Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict or Tasmanian Aborigine. Truganini is no less important than Homer Simpson.

Secondly, even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, we have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in myriad new ways, with what seem likely to be dire consequences. A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless
consumption.

Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans. (422-424)

and…

Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than experiencing pleasant bodily sensations. Since our biochemistry limits the volume and duration of these sensations, the only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to manipulate their biochemical system.

But that definition of happiness is contested by some scholars. In a famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, asked people to recount a typical work day, going through it episode by episode and evaluating how much they enjoyed or disliked each moment. He discovered what seems to be a paradox in most people’s view of their lives. Take the work involved in raising a child. Kahneman found that when counting moments of joy and moments of drudgery, bringing up a child turns out to be a rather unpleasant affair. It consists largely of changing nappies, washing dishes and dealing with temper tantrums, which nobody likes to do. Yet most parents declare that their children are their chief source of happiness. Does it mean that people don’t really know what’s good for them?

That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’.2 As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is. (p.437)

 

Being woke; or identity politics destroys my mind, pt.2

So a few things have happened lately that have bought my issues with identity politics back to my mind.

First, I had a student complain that I used the N-word in a lecture.

Second, the UWA student guild made a motion to stop the Dalai Lama (or his representatives) from speaking on campus, because it might offend our Chinese students.

Third, I went to see Jonathan Pie – an excellent comedian who somewhat echoed my concerns about where this was all leading us.

Finally, this:

Kendrick Lamar’s Onstage Outrage: Why Rap Should Retire the N-Word for Good

So to deal with the first issue first, before you stop reading because I am such a horrible racist.

I was conducting a lecture on how language carries power through discourse. We were discussing Ed Sheeran as a group (funny how he keeps coming up in these discussions). He had just toured and a lot of the students had just been to the concert at Optus stadium, so I knew that his ‘power’ would be tangible for them. But I asked ‘is he really any good?’ and then (after fielding some yes and no answers) offered this unwise and unnecessary perspective which I will quote at length to ensure that you get the context:

I thought it was interesting because the music editor from The West panned him and said ‘well his music is all a bit same-ish’. And I have to say that I think within the frame of discourse he’s a fine musician and clearly a nice and sincere person but I don’t think that 20 years ago he would have been successful as he is.

He only sticks out now because so much of contemporary pop music is facile and horrible, and talks about ‘bitches’ and ‘niggas’ and whatever I’m buying; and he doesn’t do that, and so he sticks out.

By saying this I offended someone and was reported to the faculty.

Now let me say I am a little mortified that I offended one of my students – that was -hopefully clearly – never my intention; and I didn’t think that my use of the N-word was derogatory, inflamatory or even capable of creating offence.  But it was, and for that, I’m sorry.

But I do think that I have every right to say the word. Based on the idea that if anyone can say a word, then I can too. The word was on my mind because I had been conducting a rhetorical analysis of Kendrick Lemar’s ‘Humble’. Which is peppered with the ‘N-word’ and the ‘B-word’. That’s why this issue was on my mind and I do think this kind of language is culturally toxic. But I discussed the lyric to ‘Humble’ in the following lecture and received no complaints. So from that I can only deduct that it’s ok for a rapper to use the word, just not ok for me to use it. And I’m not ok with that.

It is not about being free to spout my racist views, or being free to use language to perscute people; I don’t want to do those things and I’d happily be censured on the grounds of offence if I did that. It is about my freedom to use a word which others are allowed to use. I was not directing it at anyone, I was not calling anyone the ‘n-word’, I was discussing the fact that this is a word that was proliferating in popular music. It is happening, so I think I can defend my right to use the same word to describe what’s happening.

Do not give me the ‘only a ginger can call another ginger “ginger“‘ defence. Kendrick is not a woman and yet he is allowed to use the word ‘bitch’; despite the long and horrible history of female oppression and the continued use of that word to segregate and demean a group of powerless people.  So, where’s the consistency Lemar? Maybe he self- identifies as a woman? great, but can’t I identify with a black person then?

The only way for Lemar to defend his position is to suggest that because he is black he is marginised and therefore can speak for/as/on behalf of all marginalised groups. Whereas I am white, so I can never know what it means to be marginalised. I’ve never heard K.dot make that argument but that’s the only possible way to defend it.

But there are problems with that argument, because why are race and gender the only things that matter in terms of judging marginalisation? They are facile elements of identity and, I would argue, while they do invite summary judgment (because they are apparent on surfaces) they are actually less determining that just about every other aspect of identity (because they only manifest at the level of surfaces).

Now, in saying that I’m not saying that being black/female and being oppressed have nothing to do with each other. What I’m saying is that there is actually nothing innate about being black or female that contributes to that oppression. The long history of African slavery did not happen because of blackness, blackness was used as a reverse justification for the economic exploitation of a human resource. It was the system of slavery that created the racism and the N-word, not blackness.

Yes a large number of black people are poor, marginalised and powerless (and a large number of women) – but so are a large number of white people, and a large number of men. Do you know who is not poor, marginalised or powerless? Kendrick Lemar. That’s who. He’s also famous, he’s beautiful. He has a freaking Pulitzer Prize. These are the things that are determining.

Black people, women (along with white people and men); they do all kinds of things, have a wide variety of experiences, they suffer, they succeed, it is almost impossible to tell who they’d be or what they’d be interested in based upon their gender or their race.

However, if you are born poor, you are likely to die poor, and your poverty is likely to determine (and limit) your education, your employment prospects and your experience of the world.

If you are born unattractive by conventional standards, you are likely to die unattractive by conventional standards, and your relative attractiveness is likely to determine your social standing, your group of friends, your mate and yes, even your employment prospects. Where is the representation for the marginalisation of ugly people?

I see nothing consistent here, just a fashionable form of group think which is doing exactly what it is supposedly fighting against – perpetrating race/gender as determining categories (‘you are black so you can…’ is the same logical premise as ‘you are black so you cannot…’). Understanding the world only in terms of surfaces (the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, so he must be offensive; a white person said ‘nigga’ so we must be offended) is the best way to create a world where only surfaces matter. And surfaces shouldn’t matter.

And on that, I’ll finish with this quote from Arendt.

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. Only the good has depth and can be radical. [1]

[1] Arendt, The Jew as Pariah, p250-251

 

The video of Iranian women sneaking in to watch a football match made my day

I loved seeing this story last night about 5 Iranian women dressing up like men to sneak in to a football ground and watch their team win the league.

It tickled me for a number of reasons. First, it reminded me of this:

While I’m generally all for respecting regional custom and law, the prohibition of women doing things because of their gender is unequivocally abhorrent and an aspect that needs to change in any culture it is rooted (including my own obvs). So, the fact that these Iranians flouted the law, supported by the fact that so many of the other football supporters at least implicitly enabled the act, which was then shared through the power of social media, made me really happy for the prospect of humanistic progress in the world.

Also, it made me remember how great sport and play is as a tool for overcoming social and cultural division; something I wrote about in my paper ‘The Smooth Spaces of Play’.

It is rare that I see news that makes me happy – so thanks to those five brave Iranian women!

This page has nothing to do with TAL insurance. Let me tell you why insurance is a con

So Tauel is a strage word and not one that I hear a lot. Imagine my surprise when I heard this TVC for TAL :

Nothing not to love here, right? I dig the Sia cover, the diversity of ‘Australianness’ represented, some beautiful shots and I can also see the clever messaging of starting with young people and finishing with the target market of older people. And then there’s hearing ‘Tauel’ as a brand… sort of intoxicating.

But I HATE it; because if there’s one industry I struggle to respect, it is insurance. And in this post I’m hoping to explain why.

First, a confession. I’ve actually had a lot of really bad experience with insurance companies, so I am in some sense prejudiced by my own experiences. I have repeatedly been in situations where insurance companies have done everything possible to avoid paying out on claims and employed guys in suits to come up with reasons not to pay, or to chase innocent parties up for the costs they’ve incurred.

I’ll mention a few incidents so you get the idea. When I was 18 a mate accidentally caused me to have an accident that totalled my insured car to the value of $1600, the insurance company was going to charge me $800 excess for being young, as well as the loss of my no-claim bonus; and then go after my mate legally to make him pay the full $1600. So just to recap – because they intended to recoup the money it took to fix the car PLUS my $800 excess, they stood to make $800 out of my honest reporting of what was an accident. We subsequently cancelled the claim and my mate and I sorted it out between us.

Another example was when the communal plumbing in a flat complex we were in flooded and caused damage to carpets and flooring in the adjacent rooms. The building insurer refused to pay to repair the flooring based upon the argument that the damage may have pre-existed the flood because there were cracks in some of the bathroom tiles – and couldn’t be attributed to the flooding caused by the burst communal plubming. There was, of course, no flooring damage before the flooding but the insurance company stood by the claim that if we couldn’t prove that there was previously no damage then we couldn’t prove that the damage was the result of the burst plumbing. So they maintained the position that we had tolerated a wet floor and seeping walls for however many months, just waiting for a colossal failure of the plumbing system, which we then used as convenient excuse to ask them to repair a separate problem which just coincidentally looked like being caused by the plumbing issue. That is a ludicrous claim and an ethical operation would stump up the money for repair clearly caused by the plumbing issue.

Finally, when my 1971 VW Beetle (which was in my family for 25 years) was totalled by a driver using their mobile phone, the driver’s insurance company gave me $600 compensation for the written off vehicle. When I complained that sum no way recognised the value of the car I was told that the age of the car depreciated its value… the car was almost 40 years old at that point and almost, but not quite, in the ‘vintage’ range – but no one would really claim that a 40 year old Beetle is depreciated in value because of its age. $600 was not enough to repair the vehicle and I had no money at that point in my life, so I lost my beautiful little car I’d had for 15 years.

All of these incidents have encouraged me to loathe insurance. I see it as a corrupt industry that ought to be avoided at all costs; even those insurers who ‘aren’t very insurancy’.

I also think that it doesn’t make sense financially to use insurance. Let me explain why. If you are running an insurance business then the only way you can make money is to charge your customers significantly more than the value you’re actually ‘risking’. That is, any insurance premium has to equal the net cost of insurance claims PLUS the cost of employing people to handle the claims, PLUS the cost of administration and management, PLUS the cost of advertising your company PLUS the profit your company needs to make.

So, in all cases, if you’re wealthy enough to absorb the financial risks associated with your lifestyle, then you’re better off without insurance. If you can ride out the bad years, overall, you’ll pay less; among other things that’s just less administration, marketing, management and shareholder profit you’re paying for. I understand that not everyone is that wealthy but that makes insurance an even more unfair imposition upon those who are already financially precarious.

Insurers are obligated to their shareholders to do everything possible to ensure that their clients don’t ‘beat the system’- meaning they will try to ensure that every customer pays far more in premiums and excess than they ever receive from the insurer. That means jacking up premiums at the first sign of an added risk (the person is infirm, young, old etc), and avoiding paying claims wherever possible. It also means that, at the lower ends of the spectrum, there are peculiar advantages to making people feel precarious, threatened and isolated in order to motivate them to take out insurance. It’s sort of a self reinforcing system of creating bad karma in exchange for money.

So yeah, I don’t love insurance. I now avoid any form of insurance I can and generally only hold it where it is compulsory. My family has swallowed the pill of ‘if you can afford private health insurance then you should take it out because it places less pressure on medicare. But this bothers me because of the inefficiency created through having multiple private insurers. Since the larger your customer base becomes you would lower your exposure to peculiar risks, the closer your premiums can get to a median value and the fairer your insurance would be. Similarly, the larger your customer base the more efficient your management and administration could be. Similarly if there were just one insurer, there would be no need for advertising expenditure. In short – if there is just one insurer (say medicare, for instance) insurance premiums would be almost entirely used for their purpose – to pay for the claims made against the insurance – instead of used to pay for marketing the need for further insurance, or creating a new brand to appeal to a safer insurance market.

Finally, I think that the idea of spending money to protect the material wealth we already have is a form of intense conservatism which seeks to preserve the worst aspects of our current existence (commodity fetishism, reification, materialism) and inhibits some of the best aspects (challenge, responsibility, compassion). There are reasons to collectively defray the impact of catastrophe – but using profit oriented companies to coordinate that is a misstep. And yeah, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with insurance companies. So I’m certainly not endorsing TAL.

What I thought of ‘The Memory Code’ by Lynne Kelly

Honestly, this was a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year and it did not disappoint me.

It presents a basic argument that the odd structuring of various ancient monuments and artwork is actually attributable to the fact that these once operated as technologies to encode cultural memories.

Kelly’s book speaks about quite a few of my longheld interests in history, oral cultures and indigenous cultures. It also discusses a number of places I’ve visited, such as Stonehenge, Maeshowe, Skara Brae, The Ring of Brogar and Machu Pichu. So possibly I loved it because it related specifically to my interests… but I think it also makes a profound contribution to thinking through how communications technologies shape our humanity.

Let’s get into it.

Kelly starts with an engagement with indigenous Australian memory practices and identifies how in these cultures, the movement within certain spaces was fundamental to inscribing cultural memory (through songlines). She refers to a rhetorical practice of loci used by the ancient greeks to aid memory retention. I had never come across the term ‘loci’ but I do remember this memory practice from Silva Rhetoricae

Orators were encouraged to envision where they would be speaking as a preparation for memorizing their speech. Then, having completed the speech’s composition, they were to divide it into manageable portions, each of which they would assign, in turn, to a different part of the room where the speech was to occur. Thus, by casting their eyes about during their speech, they would be reminded of the next part of their speech to give.

And she also refers to the ‘memory palaces’ that contemporary memory champions and card sharks use to, well, remember things. In each one of these scenarios being in a particular place (or imagining a particular place) is the first step to being able to recall the information.

Kelly was fascinated by the notion that oral cultures used these practices to encode cultural information before writing – and the sheer volume of information is staggering. She points to the Matses people of the Amazon as having recently created a 500 page encylcopedia of medicine based upon cultural memory that was previously passed down through oral traditions. Indigenous cultures need to remember the location of food and water, which plants you can eat when and the various geneologies of everyone in the culture to ensure that inbreeding does not occur. This is far more than most of us could remember in contemporary society but of course, for people without writing, remembering this stuff was integral to survival.

So, in the first few chapters of the book she recounts how she  tested the ‘loci’ system by developing her own memory spaces in her house, on her dog-walking route around her neighbourhood and then using abstract pieces of art, an object or a deck of cards as a further memory aid.

I have divided each room and every garden segment into ten locations as is suggested in the anonymous ancient Greek textbook on the topic, the Rhetorica ad Herennium… every fifth location is marked in some way… that ensures that nothing is missed as there must always be four locations between a marked spot. p.66

By doing this she has been able to memorise the events of world history, the different species of birds in Australia, details about the world’s states and capitals and so on. One location can be used to inscribe any number of types of information

Information may be in either of the songlines. It doesn’t matter. The links started happening from my first ventures into creating the songlines. The term I had used so often when talking about indigenous cultures was emerging. I was creating an ‘integrated knowledge system’. p.67

So she found that these pieces of information would start to relate to each other and take on their own inherent meaning.

After a year or so, I was starting to see patterns in the information even though I was not actively searching for them. I found my stories starting to take on the form of indigenous stories I’d read from all over the world. I was seeing familiar knowledge in a different way – vivid, visual and emotional. I gained insight and pleasure from the process. (p.xvii)

I don’t understand why I am never confused by drawing information from a whole range of memory spaces, but I am not. After a few years of adding data and commentary, stories and mythological characters, I cannot explain it to friends when they ask. It is too like hypertext and too little like the linear flow of a book. p.69

for these reasons:

Trying to separate indigenous practical knowledge from mythology is a process doomed from the start. The two are intricately interwoven. Rituals in non-literate cultures need to be considered on their own terms without trying to find an equivalent in literate cultures. Such an equivalent does not exist. p.6

So after she establishes how important place is to memory, and how places must have been important for storing cultural memory in pre-writing cultures, Kelly then has a revelation while at Stonehenge with her partner. She realises that a possible explanation for the arrangement of the oldest henge – as a huge circle of distinctly different stones – was probably an attempt to recreate songlines once communities had started to settle in one place. Because cultures were no longer nomadic, she argues, they needed to come up with a way to represent the memory spaces they had once used. Monuments such as the oldest henge at stonehenge would have provided the spaces necessary to recreate the traditional performances of songlines, without having to return to the scattered locations throughout the countryside.

Related image

(this is actually an image of nearby woodhenge – but you get the idea) – the outer ring of stones are uniquely different and everyone of them would have served as a ‘memory space’ to recall particular pieces of cultural information. The ditches around the henge, Kelly Argues, are for performances of the information. The ditch serves the twin purposes of amplifying the sounds and effect of the performance, and obscuring the view of anyone who is not permitted to share the knowledge.

Restricting knowledge affords power to those who have been taught and deemed competent by the elders who control that information. But there is another critical purpose. It is all to do with what is inappropriately referred to as ‘the Chinese-whispers effect’. Lots of people repeating the informaton in an uncontrolled way will inevitably lead to corruption of the facts stored within the songs. Distortion cannot be tolerated in information [vital to collective survival]…. the knowledge is not varied, it is sacred. p.9

Having already White and Ong and a few others on orality I had previously held a view that one of the great virtues of oral cultures was their flexibility – that they had the capacity to alter their knowledges as needs and perspectives evolved. Kelly does restate this advantage, but she also made it more clear that storytelling and knowledge itself was the locus of cultural power.

Kelly goes through a number of archeological marvels such as Chaco Canyon, the Ring of Brogar, Newgrange, Maeshowe and even the lines of Nazca and explains how they operated as memory spaces. It made me think of our guide at Machu Pichu, who explained that the purpose of certain rocks and cavities around the city had never been truly understood. Well Kelly came up with a pretty compelling explanation for these things as memory spaces, used to store the cultural memories ofa people who had settled and no longer visited the natural spaces they once did, but still needed to remember the knowledge associated with those spaces. Hence the reason why each of these cultures invested millions of hours of work into building monuments and structures with no discernable productive purpose.

However, her argument is that these stand-in monuments only operated as such during a particular ‘transitory’ phase between nomadism and civilisation.

It was only as societies settled and population centres grew large that heirarchies became established, with those at the top becoming wealthy and their world protected using guards, soldiers and warriors. It is from this time that individual burials with grave goods appear in the archaeological record. The knowedge specialists became the servants of the chiefs. From then until today, the power of knowledge was subjegated by the power of wealth and violence. p.33

Or:

As specialists emerged in the increasingly large and complex communities, no single group could control the knowledge system. Powerful individuals gained wealth. Egalitarianism was a thing of the past as a high staus warrior class emerged. When knowledge had been the prevailing source of power, the memory spaces were the predominant sign of the culture. Once wealth and violence replaced knowledge as the determining factor for control, the massive labour required to build megalithic monuments could no longer be justified by the community… [136] Knowledge specialists were still needed, and probably still powerful, just no longer at the top of the heirarchy… When knowledge was power, the Neolithic peoples built a memory space still unparalleled today. When wealth and violence became power, Stonehenge was abandoned. It had simply lost its purpose. pp.135-136

Increasing city populations, the emergence of specialist experts and the introduction of writing would have eroded the ability of the elders to control information. The elder who could memorise a thousand songs and all the knowledge of the culture was now long gone. p.251

Following the growth and specialisation of knowledge, keeps and fortifications became the dominant public architecture, which I find simply fascinating.

I guess I find it all so fascinating because Kelly is presenting a vivid picture of how practices of encountering and storing cultural knowlege have a direct and profound effect on the culture. My current research is looking at the effect of smart phones and big data upon culture and it isn’t hard to have your mind blown by thinking through the differences between the sort of cultural knowledge of nomadic people, compared to the cultural knowledge and practices imbued by smart phones and Google.

Consider her description of the connection the indigenous cultures have to country and place, (which helps me reflect on our contemporary lack of connection).

Nungarrayi, to use her Warlpiri title, described the catalogue of sounds which are ecoded as far more extensive than just the calls of the birds and other animals. For example, she described the way her people were able to identify trees and bushes and grasses by the sound in a breeze. I found this hard to believe but was assured that if I gave it a try I would discover that it is possible. That afternoon I sat in the bush and listened. What I would have described as silence, on a day which had very little wind, was anything but. I became aware of the bird sounds fairly quickly, but before long I became aware of the sounds of the plants. The eucalypt to my left, the acacias at the fron, and the grasses to the right all made distinctly different sounds.  I could not accurately convey these sounds in writing. In subsequent sessions, I’ve been able to distinguish between different species of eucalypt… p.6

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of place names, a seemingly unemotional task…. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extrordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For the elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embeded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense. p.15

One element of the change is the lack of connection with the natural, or even the viscerally real in contemporary culture; another is the lack of appreciation of wisdom (or knowledge that crosses disciplines) as opposed to knowledge within a specific discipline:

We store our books in neat categories: science on one side of the library, ethics on the other and mythology somewhere else. These silos of generic information are an artefact of literacy, where so much is written and research is so focused that much of the interconnectedness of the human experience is lost. The extraordinary depth within each genre has come at the cost of the intergrated format of oral tradition. p.29

And of course, there is also the issue of pleasure. It seems to me that gaining knowledge used to be intimately tied to experiencing pleasure (forgive the play on words).

…gatherings serve the need for tade and to find marriage partners, as well as being for pure pleasure. Gatherings are also the forums to teach and trade knowledge through ceremony. p.12

While movies about US universities make me think this link between learning and pleasure hasn’t been completely forgotten about, the trend toward digital delivery and ‘blended learning’ in my own university suggests that efficient information transmission is now seen as the sole purpose of communication. But what is the price of the cultural, natural and ritual knowledge we lose as a result of always being online? Kelly doesn’t enter into any of this but that’s just as well, it is my interest, not necessarily hers – but I intend to ask her what she thinks of how digital technology is reconfiguring these memory practices.

And throughout all of this, Kelly has made an indelible contribution to my thinking through communication as ritual, not just information transmission. The songlines and structures she describes are not just about the information but also about the process of coming together to make meaning. The relationality experienced by building these monuments, and then using them to store cultural memories must have made this aspect of people’s communicative existence incredibly meaningful, not to mention the performative and aesthetic aspects of singing, performing and displaying ones knowledge and relationships.

On the use of abstract motifs on art as memory aids:

It was the process that mattered, not the product. I gradually understood why so many indigenous ‘art’ words were simply erased or left to rot after ceremonies and rituals. They had already served their purpose by the very fact that they were made. p.47

So finally, and I know this has been a long one, but I feel that this really has been an important book (and is well worth the read), I’ll finish on Kelly’s reflection on her own experience with training with memory places, which reflects my engagement with her work.

It has been a revelation to learn to think differently. It has also been the most wonderful fun. p.63