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a digitalized Adelaide Festival of Ideas (2005)? « Previous | |Next »
July 10, 2005

The Adelaide Festival of Ideas is taking place this weekend. As I noted at junk for code yesterday, very little of the Festival material is online; even though the activist ethos of the festival is all about the public discussion of ideas that help make Australia a better place. In 2003, the conservative response, as expressd by Tim Blair, was to sneer at the social democratic ethos. The Festival has become caught up in the culture wars.

Suprisingly, very little of the discussion at the Festival appears to be devoted to the new digital world disclosed by the internet. Or to the importance of intellectual property rights, fair use of ideas and images, the creative commons, the public domain or sphere, and the public conversation of citizens in a liberal democracy.

John Quiggin is the honourable exception. He is talking about these issues at the Festival. I'm sure whether he took the step to digital democracy.

I'm suprised by the lack of the connection of the ethos of public discussion of ideas and informed debate to the flaws of liberal democracy. It is as if the intellectual property aspect of the US Free Trade Agreement with Australia has been forgotten. There were some big negatives there beyond the FTA being not such a sweet deal for Australia.

It is as if the way that the corporate media is moving to close down public access (subscription only) to their content and commentary is irrelevant to the public discussion of ideas; or seen as not being important for the informed debate amongst citizens

I'm suprised by this blindness given the number of academics. They would realize that most of the academic material is closed behind the walls of subscription only journals, inaccessible and the domain of the privileged. They would be aware that few of the little magazines that sustained the civic conversation in the past have palced their archived material online. And they would know the critical edge of the Senate has been blunted. So Australia's democratic deficit is going to worsen.

Should not the face-to-face public discussion of ideas that matter in the Festival be linked to the newly forming digital world, given the Festival's ethos of a general open community of people who can agree to civilly disagree about important issues?

What the 2005 Festival of Ideas discloses is that it has not stepped into, let alone embraced, our digital world. It is suprising because people in Adelaide now have access to genuine high speed broadband, way beyond what Telstra is willing or prepared to offer us consumers. Those festival talks should be online for people to read and to comment on.

The pre-digital world of the village townhall, with its face-to-face human contact and personal human interactions can be contrasted with the digital world of the bloggers who work from online material that is accesssible to all those with an internet connection. When you've gone digital, and live in that world and think about in terms of the public discussion of ideas, then you start to notice what is now happening behind your back. Let me describe this by pulling out some comments I made here:

Copyright protection and the public interest are seen to be diametrically opposed. That is the consequence of thinking the public domain in terms of a bundle of individual property rights. Standard academic convention is no longer acceptable. You pay or else with the new IP copy right laws the US is imposing on all it cuts a deal with. The "public's" interests should be subordinated to the private interests of the US companies. What has happened is the public commons is being squeezed and the idea of fair use is being removed.

As the bloggers break new ground in the digital world we realize that this world is overwhelmingly driven by the natural marketplace desire to make a money profit, not the desire to enhance democracy.

Cameron Riley observed here that the bloggers need to keep pushing the boundaries. He says:

It is my opinion some of the more trafficked Auian blog sites should make the transition from blog to community site; such as LP, Catallaxy, troppo, surfdom etc. Blogging software has its own limitations, and scoop is the next step from blog to community.

That is probably right as the blogs tend to develop their own little community groupings of readers and commentators. Those little electronic communities represent the public discussion of ideas in the digital world. The blogs can be seen as the innovative use of information technologies by people to educate and empower themselves and so foster the civic conversation upon which the strength of the democracy depends.

The digital flaw with the Adelaide Festival of Ideas highlights the pressing need for public information, ideas and discussions to go online and make them the raw material for the public conversation in the digital world. Without that you get very narrow debates about a narrow set of issues as is happening over at Quiggin's blog

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:53 AM | | Comments (6)


I like to think of it as the tension between scarcity and abundance. The irony being that capitalism is a system which reduces scarcity through commoditization; hence promoting abundance. The internet and software are the historical equivalents to Galileo seeing a pock-marked moon through his telescope.

Since quantum physics knocked reductionism on the head, we have known for a while that we are under-going a human rationality change, but no-one is sure where it will end up. The prefix eco- was a candidate, then e-; but I suspect it will be a post-scarcity rationality. An abundance era. This will ultimately change our culture, our education, our interaction in society, our economic system and force inevitable changes to our forms of government.

I see scarcity not abundance with the current national development of telecommunications in Australia and its use by Australians.

Unlike South Korea or Japan, the Federal Government is not interested in investing in national infrastructure for high speed ADSL2 broadband. It says that is the job for the free market.

Telstra is doing everything in its power to block that development with its anti-competitive behavour and the Governemnt is doing very little to prevent the blockages and constraints on competition.

Telstra is talking in term of a significant lightening of the regulatory control, whilst continuing to act as infrastracture monopolist; and blocking attempts to make it more accountable and transparent in access to to the core Telstra network.

Minister Coonon is talking in terms of models of operational separation for Telstra that fall way short of the strict split of Telstra's wholesale and retail arms. The ALP has backed right away from the strict split.

All the talk from Ministers Costello and Minchin is about getting a big price for the sale of the rest of Telstra and keeping the National's hands off the loot.

Nobody is talking about national infrastructure development for ADSL2. So we consumers are being financially screwed for 1.5k broadband services with very limited downloads. Just like US consumers.

The consequence is scarcity in a digital world. It was digital scarcity that I saw at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, even though the talkfest was a great success at the box office.

Gary, I think I have mentioned this before, but when I was working in Microwave in New York back in 1999, we received brochures from the Au government saying "buy our spectrum at auction".

Not long after I was in a hotel in Nth Sydney and watching a Telstra manager being interviewed on Sunday morning TV. The Telstra bloke laughed at the auctions and said they were big enough to bid up the price so any competitor was over-capitalised and would not have enough money to implement any services once they got the spectrum.

Monopoly and predatory. There is no political will to kill Telstra or reign it in, and releasing it as it is into the market will cause monopoly conditions where it does not have to compete or respond to consumer demands. This is bad. I would dice and slice it six ways then sell it.

Abundance embraces the tail, as this is where innovation comes from. Consequently I would open up the spectrum to the public, with minimum regulation. That would create a whole new telecommunications market and consequent services. It would also make Australia unique in the global market in this area.

most of the discourse around telecommunication, the media and a digital world is market talk: it is about owning media platforms, profits, deregulation, anti-competition, ownership of infrastructure. Everybody has their version the Telstra 'gorilla in the marketplace' story and how the deregulation of the media markets should proceed.

In contrast, there is very little discourse around democracy--it is not a big concern for conservatives or neo-liberals. However, it should be though for those who take the public discussion of ideas seriously and organize festivals of ideas every two years.

Despite the success on the ground in terms of numbers there has been very little discussion of the ideas in the tabloid media (The Advertiser). That is to be expected given its conservative populism, anti-intellectualism, and being on the government drip feed.

There was an insider's preview of the Festival in last weeks issue of The Independent Weekly by Robert Phidian. The Weekly says that it provides a different view for Adelaide. Ideas are given consideration, as this week's issue mentioned the Festival and reported on the ideas of Nigel Rapport from the Centre of Cosmopolitan Studies at Concordia University of Montreal of cosmopolitanism, global citizenship, liberalism(individual rights and tolerance). The message? We must move beyond nationhood and embrace space not place.

The Festival, and its ideas, were previewed in The Adelaide Review, by Mark Cully who encouraged the audience to challenge the ideas being put forward by the speakers. Public debate is a way to contribute to people's understanding of issues whilst informed public debate gives us citizens a better chance that government's might make sensible decisons.

The Review's proud claim is that:

"sees its function as providing insightful review and analysis of the issues, culture and lifestyle shaping Adelaide and South Australia; to be intelligent, informed, critical and independent; to be essential, objective and balanced; to have credibility and integrity."

Yet this week's issue of the Review had not one word about the Festival debates.

From this you would to conclude that the dead tree media is a failure in fostering public debate on important issues. So where does the conversation about the ideas between citizens take place. In the coffee houses? At work? Over dinner at home amongst those who are white, educated and older? Where is the public forum once the window at the end of each presentation has closed?

The organizers know all about this intellectual vacuum of the print media, and its failure to provuide a forum and its evasion of its responsibilities to democracy, all to well. Yet they failed to move forward out of their comfort zone to use the cheap and easily accesible digital medium to post the content. There is little excuse as there was Quiggin's talk on the importance of blogs.

This local example shows that we have a big problem at the consumer end as well as the Telstra infrastrucure end. The Festival of Ideas is locked into the old hierarchies of how knowedge is presented and disseminated: experts talk to the audience, who are allowed to ask a few questions, but who mostly consume the ideas presented to them from on high. There is little space for democratic engagement with the ideas.

This is quite at odds with the decentralized set of relationships in a digital world.


The Festival does a lot but it cannot do everything.

There will be links through the Festival web site to MP3 files of the sessions which were all recorded by Radio Adelaide. These should be up soon.

I also think some of your criticism is a bit rich when you fail to disclose that I contacted you last year about trying to get a number of bloggers, like you, to give a real-time account of the event to people who wanted to participate from afar. I spoke with you twice and left the initiative to you, but you didn't follow up. Think what it might have done for the traffic on this blog if it had been officially listed in the Festival program!

your criticism is accepted.

I should have disclosed that you approached me to blog real time and that I couldn't do it because of job commitments. I'm sorry I did not disclose that. I'm also sorry that I did not get back to you.

(For the record I was in the process of leaving my Senate job and getting another one during June and July)

But my criticism is not of the festival per se. By all accounts it was a success. My criticisms are aimed to highlight problems whose solutions point to the future, not the past or present.

The criticism s are twofold.

The first is that the admirable ideas expressed by the organizers about what the Festival was trying to do is undercut by the failure of the old media to provide a forum for the ideas to be discussed. So we have no archive. Archives are important.

The solution I suggested was for the speeches and talks to be put online. This would enable the shift to a digital democracy.

You can still have the opportunity to put some of them up on your website so that we can then toss the ideas around. Australia sure needs new material introduced to inform its public debate and you have put a lot of material together.

My second criticism was that, from what I could make out, the informed public debate is limited, given the lack of democratic form to discuss the ideas in terms of a ongoing civic conversation, was not being addressed by the speakers. I indicated that I thought John Quiggin might address and explore the issue, but he does not seem to have done so.

The failure of the media to provide a forum is a problem, is it not?

Trying to create stunts to catch the media's attention is not the way to go, given that you really do want citizens to take the ideas seriously.

The issue here is not a question about increasing the traffic to this site. The issue is about how can an admirable Adelaide initiative be built upon so that it becomes even better and continues breaking new ground.

For the record I think that it can be done in more creative ways than blogging real time. By all means introduce this as the first step--and I'm sorry it did not eventuate--- but we do need to think in terms of the digital townhall and digital democracy.

This is being offered in the form of constructive criticism. As I argued over at we need time to digest, mull over, and rework the complex and important ideas that are being presented to us.

Blogging in real time does not allow this. I've always been disappointed trying to follow the ideas presented at an event in the US or Sydney through online blogging. Though it worked well following the US Senate's confirmation of a nominee for a Supreme Court judge.

The Festival can be seen as a continuum over time rather than a 4 day one off event held every two years. That event (spectacle) is a platform upon which to build an online festival that happens during the next two years.

As I said above this can still be done with this festival. I'm willing to help.