to index/mediabase
Ms Adrienne Patterson
University Secretariat
RMIT - City campus
GPO Box 2476V
Melbourne, Vic. 3001
3 Treasury Place
Melbourne, 3002
(03) 96511510
17th December 1997

Dear Ms Patterson

Thank you for your letter of the 10th of December regarding your concerns about the ethics of handling historical material relating to Aborigines. I too believe these are important concerns. I welcome the opportunity to assist RMIT's Ethics Committee develop an understanding of the complex and largely unexplored issues which are unique to the digital networked medium of the World Wide Web.

Actually, the development of strategies for accommodating Australian Aboriginal cultural sensitivities on-line has been a significant part of my research for the last three years.

First, let me assure you that (to my knowledge) my research project, The Flight of Ducks , does not, has not and does not intend to permit public access to Australian Aboriginal secret/sacred material.

For the purposes of infrastructure development, the digital surrogates of objects similar to those which are considered, by some interests, to be secret or sacred are kept in a secure and non accessible area. None of these objects have been identified as either secret or sacred. Unlike print media, the flexibility of the networked medium in which I have been working means that if any other material becomes secret or sacred it can be removed from public access immediately.

Following our telephone conversation, I understand that members of the committee have particular concerns about sections 7, 8, 10, 11 and 15 of the NHMRC Guidelines. Following a general outline of my project and of the ways in which on-line work simply does not fit many of these sections, I will reply to each of these concerns. I will assume that the committee has seen my PhD proposal (in particular: 6.2, 6.3, 6.4, 8, 9,):

General outline of the project

The Flight of Ducks ( is the title of my research project. It complies with (often exceeds) the requirements for the submission of a traditional thesis. It is hoped that it will be RMIT's first on-line PhD. It is a deeply layered web site which has currently evolved into almost 1,000 screens. It moves away from the idea of a closed research report/thesis towards a more accessible and evolving outcome which shows what it is telling, does what it says, displays its own making and reflects its own action. It is a project that will not end with the completion of my PhD.

Some of the concerns in the NHMRC Guidelines (sections 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) refer to the traditional nature of `publication'. To properly understand how research can be carried out in this new networked medium it is necessary to abandon ideas about the finished work and to redefine concepts of the published work. Publication in this medium is neither a single event nor an outcome. It is a continuous process because people can and do talk back. Effective on-line work is responsive and to be genuinely responsive the work must be free to change beneath the weight of comment, suggestion and upgrade. While editorial control resides with the creator, one cannot predetermine or script the direction the work might take. Just as one cannot predict tomorrow's news.

One cannot honestly go to a community or a committee with a script (like a film) and say, "This is what I intend to do on-line. May I do it?". Those of us working in this medium are still inventing how to use it. Like consultation, it is similar to making a campfire. One can invite people to sit around the fire but one cannot predict what stories will be told (see `Consultation' below) or the kind of intercultural dialogue which may or may not take place.

My research began in 1995 with the evolution of an on-line model for the presentation of an important collection of historical/archival material relating to an expedition into the Central Australian frontier in 1933. The aim was to render this material accessible and compelling without losing historical rigor. At first, I thought this was going to be a CD-ROM project but the hardware and software dependence of CD-ROM and the realisation that the web site development was part of the journey as well, inevitably led to the choice of the World Wide Web as a presentation medium, a research tool, and as a means of preserving an important collection of digital material (see the on-line paper Killing the Duck to Keep the Quack (

As outlined in my PhD proposal, this research led to several complex and important questions about access:

The research work has been concerned to answer these questions by developing a transparent example. This work is explained in a series of published (comment encrusted) `papers' now forming the body of the research report. One of these papers ( Blinding the Duck : explores the complex issues of Aboriginal representation on-line (attached).

Context of the research

I believe that an appreciation of the larger context in which this research has been carried out should convince the Ethics Committee that the project is not only exemplary and pathfinding but has been lent a credibility through which the committee itself might come to understand some of the changes in outlook necessary when considering the development of protocols for on-line research.

In 1996 The Flight of Ducks was identified by the National Library of Australia (NLA) as being of national significance and was selected to pilot their PANDORA digital preservation project.

we are pleased to be preserving Flight of Ducks because of its innovative approach, because you are setting high standards for online publication, including metadata, and you are willing to discuss these issues with us and to cooperate with us. This will help us to develop our own understanding of online publishing and assist us to develop a national model for preserving it. (NLA email: May 30th 1997)

In November 1997, as an outcome of my small involvement with this project, The Flight of Ducks was one of the world's first websites to be formally archived and catalogued by the NLA. The questions raised during the process of evolving an effective metadata implementation over the site were (and continue to be) directly responsible for changes and additions to NLA concerns and policy about Aboriginal cultural sensitivity.

I do not know of any protocols for the handling of Aboriginal material on-line but I am very interested in joining with you and others to develop an appropriate protocol. This issue is of direct relevance to me since we intend to mount the NLA guide to indigenous materials on to the NLA Web Site. (NLA email: July 22nd 1997)
In September 1997, after raising questions about how an internet filtering architecture (used to block pornography) could be adapted to accommodate cultural sensitivity, Paul Resnick (PICS - University of Michigan) used the site as an implementation assignment for his students in order to demonstrate (for the first time) how an on-line filtering architecture could be used to accommodate Aboriginal cultural sensitivities. This was based on my own descriptors of cultural sensitivities which were not intended to be prescriptive but to provide an example of the kinds of material which might be regarded as culturally sensitive (see Blinding the Duck :

Rating System Descriptors for Aboriginal Cultural Sensitivities

Textual References

1. Names of deceased people
2. Secret/sacred objects
3. Secret/sacred sites
4. Derogatory descriptions

Pictorial References

1. Images of deceased people
2. Names of deceased people
3. Secret/sacred objects
4. Secret/sacred sites
5. Derogatory descriptions

The Flight of Ducks is not unlike most historical accounts of pre-settlement contact in that it is possible to identify examples of most of these sensitivities. However, the ways in which various levels of sensitivity are accommodated using the World Wide Web make this site an exemplar of how stories of intercultural contact can be told.

Cultural Accommodations

In the closing stages of this PhD research, issues of privacy, propriety and preservation have been of considerable concern as the politics of power and control begin to intrude on the conduct of path finding scholarship.

For this reason I am concerned that the examination of my research project which is scheduled for January/February/March is not delayed by the slowness of existing consultation/negotiation proceedures or my failure to elicit more Aboriginal community input.


It is important to ask why I have been unable to elicit more Aboriginal interest in this work. Apart from my own personal failings as a communicator it is certainly not for want of good will or of trying. (see conversation:

In 1995, at the suggestion of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) I invited Aboriginal input through the Central Land Council. I then sent copies of all the 1933 archival material to their American adviser who described himself over the telephone as the `thought police'. This material was never acknowledged and has (as far as I can find out) `disappeared' (as has the adviser).

After repeated phone calls and letters I received (from another non-Aboriginal adviser) a photocopy of the Central Land Council's position which was that all historical material was deemed to have been aquired by theft. My father's journals tell a different story and I was eager to enter into discussion about these issues but I became disheartened when I was unable to get any reply to my letters.

In 1996, out of frustration, I drove to Central Australia in an effort to locate descendants myself. This trip was part funded by AIATSIS. I was privileged to be granted a 48 hour permit to enter Aboriginal land to retrace my father's route to Mount Liebig but unfortunately, I could find no descendants there.

My failure was not complete because I did find one descendant at Wallace Rockhole who `unofficially' was quite happy for me to use the photographs and very interested in the result. The community at Mount Liebig had only been there for 13 years and I was told (by the administrator) that the population had little historical connection with the surrounding country. I was unlucky in that the other communities of Haasts Bluff and Papunya were all but deserted because of the expected arrival of the feared `Red Ochre' men.

Experienced negotiators tell me these sorts of events are common and that even if I was known to the communities and knew who to contact, I would need at least six months in the field.

What I saw, and came to understand, was that these Aboriginal communities were in distress. It was obvious that the issues I was dealing with were insignificant compared to the social problems many of these communities were suffering. These issues were irrelevant to their concerns and beyond their resources. To expect any form of consultation about on-line issues arising from the use of a technology yet to arrive in these communities is absurd.

Nevertheless, in 1997 following a hostile message from Yuendemu, there has been a glimpse that on-line communication might eventually open the door to an intercultural dialogue and offer a more effective method of consultation:

The problem you seem to be experiencing seems to me to be one of impatience. I appreciate your timeline but you should appreciate ours too. Consultation can take a long time to acheive.

We have been viewing your site. Questions are being asked.

Warlpiri people in Yuendumu seem to think these pictures are well before our time. A couple of pictures are probably of their ancestors. We want to know more about the precise time and place these photos took place. Most seem to be south from here but some could have Warlpiri people in them. We want to see the diary. Can you send us some details? (WMA email: 17 June 1997)

The reality is that the dispersal and relocation of descendants over time, means that anyone seeking consultation with community interests (who might be willing to enter into discussion) has to either hand over all material to the Central Land Council or try to locate them behind the wall of an industry of itinerant non-Aboriginal advisers. (I can speak to you privately about why I am reluctant to do this)

Ownership (NHMRC Guidelines section 10)

The rapid deterioration of the physical material (journals, photographs and artefacts) led me to create digital surrogates in order to preserve the content. Most of these surrogates are now freely accessible through the National Library of Australia - main catalogue. Here The Flight of Ducks comes under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) protocols published by the Australian Library and Information Association (

Legal opinion (letter from University solicitor) is that the physical collection on which The Flight of Ducks is based belongs to my family. Section 10 of the NHMRC Guidelines calls for negotiation with Aboriginal communities for the return, destruction or safe storage of identifiable raw data. In accepting my Masters and PhD proposals RMIT has accepted my rewriting of section 9 which reserves and protects ownership of this material. My family is always open to Aboriginal claim but, as yet, no claim has been made.

Identification (NHMRC Guidelines section 11)

The only Aboriginal names mentioned in the 1933 journal in The Flight of Ducks are the European/Biblical names of the mission men: Rolf, Billy, Hezekiel and Titus. I am unable to identify any of these men in the photographs. On the other hand both Manasseh, and Ntjikitjikurrpa (spelling provided by Paul Albrecht) were identified by Maurice Joseph when I showed him the photographs in 1991. If the committee considers that Ntjikitjikurrpa and Manasseh should not be identified I am happy to remove their names.

Media (NHMRC Guidelines section 15)

I do not believe that these complex issues should be reduced to media `bites'. Earlier in the year I was asked by an ABC radio journalist to comment `on air' about The Flight of Ducks . I refused (see June 29 1997: .

Further issues

From the tone of your letter, I am concerned that The Ethics Committee should infer I have been less than forthright about the content of my research. This work has always been completely open and transparent. In my original 1995 proposal I drew attention to the fact that I would be dealing with these issues (section 9). I marked the box (section 8.1) which asked if my research involved human or animal experimentation with a negative because it does not. That you have sent me guidelines about the conduct of Medical research suggests that there are few (if any) guidelines about how to conduct on-line research in an ethical manner. However, fortunately, as a result of my research, I am happy to assist the committee in developing such protocols.

The most important question that I believe should be asked at this stage is: have I conducted this research in a responsible and ethical manner? Here I can only seek the support of those with whom I have had dealings during the course of my canditature.

I would welcome the opportunity to answer any questions that the Ethics Committee might have concerning the conduct my research or to speak to the committee about what guidelines should be included in the development of an on-line research protocol.

Yours sincerely

Simon Pockley

(CC) reserved S.Pockley Feb 1995: The Flight of Ducks 290