Virtual nation: I want my Telstra

Boris Kelly considers the implications of the sale of Telstra in a new internet context

Anyone who uses on-line services as part of their daily work routine will understand the recurring tension between the value of patience and the lust for speed. Running a high performance modem with a late model computer is no guarantee that travelling the infobahn will be a smooth, economical and productive experience. More like a stop-start traffic jam than a freeway cruise, the negotiation of virtual space can be frustrating, even infuriating, but there’s the salt in the wound of commercial on-line rates to be endured as well. Touring the web for a day can cost almost as much as taking a guided tour of Sydney in a taxi. At this stage in its development the net, and particularly the web, is a place for people with money (presumably through some kind of employer subsidy in most cases), time, determination and patience and that is likely to be the case for some time to come as the technology struggles to keep pace with the needs and expectations of consumers. For although both Optus and Telstra are currently installing hybrid fibre-coax cabling in areas selected for pay TV delivery it is unlikely that the entire continent will be wired—either via cable or digital satellite delivery systems—before the end of the century.

Once the broadband infrastructure is in place, however, the nation will be overlayed with a sophisticated telecommunications grid which will redefine the nature of space, place, community and identity. William J. Mitchell, for example, in his book City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn (1995) proposes a shift in the function of architecture and urban design to meet the needs of the information age:

In a world of ubiquitous computation and telecommunication, electronically augmented bodies, postinfobahn architecture, and big-time bit business, the very idea of a city is challenged and must eventually be reconceived. Computer networks become as fundamental to urban life as street systems. Memory and screen space become valuable, sought-after real estate. Much of the economic, social, political, and cultural action shifts into cyberspace.

Mitchell, Australian-born, is Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Like his colleague, MIT Director Nicholas Negroponte, Mitchell writes in short, sharp grabs which link the historical with the futuristic. He sees architecture as needing to redefine itself as a discipline capable of embracing the reconfigured nature of space, place and time which result from changes in communications technology and which compel society and individuals to negotiate the uncertainties presented by the electronic frontier. In cyberspace, Mitchell argues, the conventional relationship between community and territory is displaced. The notion of a “body of people living in one place, district, or country” becomes a geographically and culturally disparate group inhabiting the “soft city” of common interest defined by access to the virtual space comprised of computer code, software deployment and electronic connectivity.

Although the ‘information superhighway’ metaphor is already rather tired it is useful in considering some of the political implications of scenarios such as those presented by Mitchell, because of the curious relationship between transport and communications which Marcos Novak alludes to in his essay “Transmitting Architecture” in the on-line journal C-Theory.

The history of invention alternates between advances of transport and advances of communication, that is to say from transmitting the subject to transmitting the sign and presence of the subject, establishing a symbiosis of vehicles and media that leads from antiquity all the way to the present.

Just as the promotion of the convenience and status of individual ownership of automobiles belied the consequences for the nature and use of public space, the primacy of a fossil global economy and negative environmental outcomes, so too is the information age being characterised by a muteness in respect to the true value and potential dangers of the communications revolution. The construction of a virtual nation state existing within a corporatised, global superstructure is masked by the lure of by-products like cable television and net surfing. The inevitability and inherent goodness of change is promulgated by the individuals and corporations who have most to benefit from seeing it implemented and there is far too little critical discourse in the public sphere.

It is ironic that the purchase of Telstra as a complete entity is beyond the means of any single Australian owned corporation but within the capacity of the national superannuation fund. In other words, the country’s most valuable, single asset, currently in public ownership, is able, theoretically, to be purchased with the combined savings of the populace. This would appear to be an indication of a relatively healthy economy and society which is why the proposed partial sale of Telstra presents a real dilemma for the nation. There can be little doubt that if the partial sale did go ahead it would be a matter of time before the entire asset was divested of public ownership to pass into the hands of global, corporate interests. Given the compelling arguments of William J. Mitchell and many others assuring that the future is digital, the Australian people need to consider very carefully the degree of political, cultural and economic autonomy which is at stake in the proposed sale of Telstra.

The decision by the Coalition to link the sale with its environmental policy was a cunning political calculation. The launch of the policy was unanimously endorsed by green lobby groups who then, realising the implications of the Telstra link, withdrew their support and made it conditional on the removal of the link. The policy itself, however, remained a winner despite the notable sticking point over uranium policy. The Democrats and Greens in the Senate, although quite rightly standing their ground in the interests of their constituents, may be under considerable moral pressure when comes the time for the big decision.

The Coalition government will be able to level a compelling argument that the minor parties are being dishonest and hypocritical in preventing the delivery of a widely endorsed environmental package by their intransigence on the Telstra question. This could be the midpoint between a rock and a hard place for the minor parties and may result in a double dissolution. If so, the minor parties could be regarded by the electorate as obstructionist and could suffer irreparable damage at the ballot box resulting in a further consolidation of the Coalition’s position. No doubt the Labour Party’s awareness of this will determine their Senate vote on Telstra and could result in a political compromise on their part in which, despite their avowed opposition to the sale, they vote with the Coalition to avoid the long term consequences of a double dissolution.

The cultural implications of the proposed sale need to be carefully considered. The fledgling multimedia industry, stimulated by Keating through the Creative Nation initiatives which have been largely endorsed by the Coalition, is confronted with the kinds of difficulties arising from the imperatives of the global marketplace. In respect of the production of multimedia titles, of which CD ROM is the current delivery system priority, the Australian Multimedia Enterprise (AME) has made it clear that it will only invest in titles with potential on the international market. For this we can read the North American market, meaning that creative material needs to be fashioned first and foremost to the tastes of that constituency at the expense of local cultural and social values. The domestic market then becomes a secondary consideration resulting in a duplication of the case with television in which American product has dominance in the distribution channels despite a clear viewer preference for local product.

Rupert Murdoch would be the first to admit that control of the means of delivery means control of the market and if we, as a nation, surrender that control by selling Telstra at this critical juncture in our history, then we may be signing away the remaining vestiges of our cultural autonomy. As the virtual nation is superimposed on the existing material environment and as “soft cities” become the cyberspace alternatives to transport grids and community space we need to know that whoever owns the ‘streets’ of the future has the best interests of the country and its people at heart. The public ownership of Telstra stands as an important national symbol signifying the resolve of our nation to maintain sovereignty over its culture as we enter the new millennium. The challenge for the Coalition government lies in convincing the electorate that the sale of Telstra is, in the long run, in the public interest and not simply an ideologically driven expediency.

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 23

© Boris Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1996