AT THE END of last century I was charged, for a short time, with helping a major media organisation realise the possibilities of the looming digital world. Looking back from the always-on world of today it seems an odd, self-evident transition: one that could not be ignored, and could, if embraced early and with imaginative flair, generate countless opportunities.
That was not how it felt a little over a decade ago. It was clear that the dominant emotion was shaped by fear and threat, rather than by possibility. Those with the internal megaphone saw only the negative: an unfunded proliferation of new mediums; professionally challenging ways of aggregating, slicing and dicing content; audiences who expected to be treated like equals and who talked back; and costly new equipment. They whispered and grizzled, sending their views like a virus through the organisation.
It was a tricky situation. These naysayers could well have been right. The history of technological transformations has not been especially kind – invariably costly, uncertain and disruptive.
At the time, the Powerhouse Museum had a display examining the transformation of the home in the twentieth century. Among the appliances, it featured an advertisement by the ice industry when it was trying to stall the adoption of electric refrigerators – the argument was that ice is nice, ice is safe, ice is clean, the friendly iceman comes to your home. Fridges were costly, their reliability unknown.
With this ad campaign buzzing in my head, I convened a major meeting and asked the digital media critics to list all the threats they could conceive – I urged them to be as expansive as possible, to imagine the worst. It was a task they undertook with alacrity, real skill and practised dedication, and by the end of the meeting their list read like a doomsday book.
The rest of the group, unfettered by the negative yackety-yak, considered the positive, the possibilities and opportunities that might arise. In clear air, they excelled, seeing in this technological transformation a way forward, a fascinating professional journey, the chance to undertake projects that would once have been impossible and to craft an entirely different relationship with 'the people who were once considered audiences'.
It should be not be surprising that the positive group, rather like electric refrigerators, has prevailed. In that meeting, free of the spiral of negativity, these people were able to consider the concerns of the critics but find ingenious ways to adapt, to take steps on a path from good to great.
In public life in Australia in 2012 it often feels as though the naysayers are pushing the country into a spiral of negativity that is largely without foundation. Unfortunately it is not as easy to quarantine them, as it was at my digital media meeting – but it is significantly more important.
SEVENTY YEARS AGO, with the war in the Pacific raging, most Australians felt under threat. There was no way of knowing Japan's intentions, or its capacity: it was conceivable that Australia could go the way of Shanghai, Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and others, and be subject to Japanese occupation. It is hard to imagine what that must have felt like – subsequent events removed the possibility and the historical record shows that the Japanese Admiralty wiped Australia off its target list after it lost the Battle of Midway, in the middle of the year – but in early 1942 that all lay in the future.
Before this turning point, Vance Palmer penned a cri de coeur in Meanjin. He worried that should Australia fall to the Japanese, there would be little to show for a century and a half of European settlement. 'We have no monuments to speak of, no dreams in stone, no Guernicas, no sacred places,' he wrote. 'We could vanish and leave singularly few signs that for some generations there had lived a people who made a homeland in this Australia... If Australia had no more character than could be seen on its surface, it would be annihilated...but there is an Australia of the spirit, submerged and not very articulate...born of lean loins of the country itself, of the dreams of men who came here to form a new society...it has developed toughness of its own. Sardonic, idealist, tongue-tied perhaps...but it has something to contribute to the world in action and in ideas for the creation of egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies.' Palmer concluded by asking what Australia was for – a hypothetical question that shaped decades of introspection about the national identity in what soon became a postcolonial world.
The rich, cosmopolitan, competitive and globally engaged Australia of today is profoundly different to the one Palmer knew. The sardonic, idealist, perhaps tongue-tied character he described is recognisable in the DNA of twenty-first-century Australia, but it is no longer dominant – it is kept alive through memory and cultural celebration, by writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians who draw on the past to reinterpret the present, and imagine the future with works that are celebrated at home and abroad. Palmer did not anticipate how we would come to recognise and celebrate Indigenous cultures, nor the way the population would swell with millions of people drawn from scores of countries – both enriching cultural life and the sense of national identity.
Despite his political bent, Palmer could not have imagined that the egalitarianism he so valued would morph, as the country experienced unimagined wealth, into a more passive redistributive system. Instead, the big little country perched above the Southern Ocean has become, according to the International Monetary Fund, the world's fifth richest (eleventh in terms of purchasing power), bristling with self-regard but still oddly lacking in confidence.
THERE IS A tendency to ascribe this good fortune to luck, but that is wrong. Australia has been well served by thinkers who developed and articulated new (often initially controversial) approaches, and leaders who have sought and taken opportunities. Australia has often been in the forward pack – not the
leader – of many of the most productive global trends. There are plenty of countries that took the opposite trajectory over the same period: countries where patronage, corruption, passivity and detachment from the world prevailed, with devastating consequences.
The emerging Asian century provides a moment that may make it possible to extend this good fortune for decades. Just as the gold rushes of the nineteenth century created the basis of national infrastructure, cultural identity and character, the current boom provides an opportunity for renewal and reinvigoration.
Since European settlement there has been a school of thought, as Alison Broinowski graphically detailed inThe Yellow Lady (Oxford, 1992), which argued that the southern continent should be a bridge to the diverse Asian countries to its north, rather than an outpost of old Europe. This was a two-way process. People from throughout the region were drawn to the new land during the nineteenth century, and progressive Australasian idealists advocated a regional identity.
This found expression in art and entertainment. Japanese entertainers travelled south even before their government lifted travel bans in 1874; within a decade, following the International Exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, 'japanalia' was essential in every fashionable home and local artists – notably Charles Conder –incorporated japoniste into their paintings as a sign of modernity and elegance. Similar patterns were repeated with art and culture from other countries in the region.
This is now digitally turbocharged – spurred by the lucrative trade in mineral resources. It is the wealth, education and cosmopolitanism of the twenty-first century, given tangible urgency by our openness and the movement of people, products and culture, that is Australia's unique contribution. This depth and tradition of cultural expression and innovation is a mine of creativity from which solutions can be extracted, if we can find the right tone of confidence, without smugness. Australia has much to learn and much to contribute: much more than the minerals that are dug from the ground.
Similar boldness is now required – a reworking of the Australian spirit Palmer described, shaped by opportunity, not by threat. It is, as George Megalogenis has written, an Australian moment, if only we can quieten the noisy naysayers long enough to grasp it and progress more confidently on the journey from good to great.
The essays and stories in this edition of Griffith REVIEW provide the humus from which a new vision of Australia might emerge – and the accompanying ebook, What is Australia For? Some Provocations, explores a series of specific ideas. As ever, responses and debate are welcome.
12 March 2012