The Flight of Ducks

Understanding its Purpose and Theoretical Base

(first available 10th August 1996)
(last updated 14th June 1999)

For ease of reading this guide is designed to be printed.
Updates and relationships to the work it describes is available [on-line]
[Voice] 61 3 94897905 [Email]

(CC) reserved Simon Pockley

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  1. Summary
  2. Research questions
  3. Expectations
  4. Some Background
  5. Working on the web
  6. Navigation
  7. Protocol
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. Research report
  10. Conclusion

1. Summary

The Flight of Ducks is a multi-purpose on-line work built around a collection of archival material from a camel expedition into the central Australian frontier in 1933. This journey was revisited in 1976 and retraced in 1996. As a digital work, it takes the form of a journey through a datascape, telling an important and on-going story of intercultural contact. It demonstrates how different forms of access can be used to create a responsive documentary where it is possible to talk back. Like the stories of journeys in oral epic poetry, it has evolved into a proliferating organism, shaped by its participants, by a continuous refinement of the poetics of the medium and by a concern to facilitate long-term access to its content.

The hypertexts that form this research report are hyper-linked to each other and to the material they describe. They are also embedded in the context of an on-going electronic conversation. Each hypertext examines a question about access:

2. Research Questions:

Tangible outcomes include:

3. Expectations

Mutation and change are characteristics of on-line work. This evolution is driven not only by alterations in content but by developments in technology. In such a fluid environment, a work, such as The Flight of Ducks, may have as many purposes as it has versions.

The hypertexts in this document provide insights into these purposes and locate the project within a larger context. They also form the body of a research report for the University of RMIT. This University accepted the presentation of such a project as an assessable outcome of candidature for the award of a Higher Degree. For the purposes of assessment and the University's need for a cut off date, these hypertexts drilled into a snapshot of material taken in November 1997 (the expected date of submission). Unfortunately, a lack of understanding of this medium by the University caused a delay in the submission process. For this reason some files (describing this delay) were updated. In July 1998 the work was examined and passed by Prof. Robert Rosen (UCLA) and Prof. William Mitchell (MIT).

For ease of reading, these hypertexts (on-line essays) are designed for printing as single files without the need for special software. They are linked to each other and to the material they describe. The order in which you read them [on-line or off-line] is up to you. My expectation is that after reading a printed version, you will return to these essays [on-line] as hyper-texts and use the links as a convenient and structured way to explore some of the material they describe.

The potential for cultural sensitivity in certain areas of the work means that some content is restricted (even to University examiners) and cannot be accessed [on-line] without a password. Because this is also a digital preservation project, it is important that this content should be carried into the future with the rest of the work, but it is not important that these screens be accessed.

4. Some Background

I came to this new medium because I wanted to use the web as a scripting tool. I had in mind a digital documentary based on a 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 rigour.

Like many people in 1995, I thought this was going to be a CD-ROM project but when faced with the hardware and software dependence of the fixed world of CD-ROM, I realised that the web site development was part of the journey as well. It was a journey into unmapped territory where both the medium and the content combined to impose a form of writing that not only reflected its own action but also displayed its own making.

It soon became obvious that the World Wide Web would be a more durable and versatile presentation medium than CD-ROM, as well as being a wonderful documentary tool. The need to develop an infrastructure that could support long-term access also provided a means of building a contextual world in which to present this material.

It is easy to forget that in 1995 (when work began on this project) the idea of a web-based poetic was unfathomable to most people. There were very few on-line photographic databases, metadata was barely understood, and most writing took little account of the implications of having two way communications over mutable digital material. There is still little understanding of the preservation infrastructures necessary to support this type of work.

A review of the web, as it existed at that time, revealed several initiatives such as The Memory of the World program (launched by UNESCO in 1992) which sought to safeguard the world's documentary heritage by digitising original documents. But I could find no practical examples of evolutionary on-line documentaries with the transparency, the scope, and mutable structure of The Flight of Ducks. Most digital preservation initiatives clung to the idea of CD-ROM as a storage and delivery medium. For many University and Museum administrations, this is still the case. They are yet to understand the connection between access and preservation.

To my delight, the World Wide Web revealed itself to be a medium through which other people can and do talk back. This not only provided a means of working in a wider context among experts but also allowed others to participate.

5. Working on the web

For research to be performed in a medium in which other people can participate, it is necessary to re-define concepts of the published work in order to be responsive and accommodate change. Most activities in The Flight of Ducks have been concurrent, public, and in a continuous state of evolution. This has meant that a methodology with the fluidity of improvisation has had to evolve. It is more artistic than scientific. In essence, my own investigations and conversation with my participants has been re-purposed into a composed line of narrative, The National Library of Australia call it an evolving monologue.

I think of The Flight of Ducks as more like a campfire. It has become a communication between its stories and its audience or participants. A collection of digital objects is given meaning, not just because they have historical significance, but because these stories are still unfolding.

In the real world, bandwidth is limited and machines are out of date. The Flight of Ducks is therefore, by intention, a technically simple work without any of the bells and whistles that often characterise sites of less substance.

While soundscapes, moving images and other forms of data recognition will eventually transform the look and feel of the work, my concern has been to keep the content accessible and not restricted by any software or hardware dependence.

This was RMIT University's first experience of the submission, examination and storage of an [on-line] Ph.D. As a result, there was little administrative understanding of either process or issues. Traditional approaches to managing academic work at this level are wedded to the idea of the paper thesis, as object, rather than accessible content. The presentation formats of The Flight of Ducks for submission and examination reflect a profound mistrust (at an administrative level) of electronic media. Ironically, the Higher Degrees Committee have insisted that the work be submitted on a combination of the most ephemeral form of storage media - the CD-ROM, and the traditional paper thesis.

The CD-ROM may be a convenient object and useful transfer medium but it has several limitations:

It was easy enough to transfer the web site onto CD-ROM but the paper Research Report was difficult to produce in the required format. All HTML files had to be transferred into Microsoft Word. Bugs in Office 97 changed spelling and deleted paragraphs at random. An unresolved issue was the handling of references to the live site - as against the capture. Full URLs are part of the metadata for each screen. The RMIT Higher Degrees Committee continues to insist that they only refer to the capture. Even today - two years later, the RMIT library is unable to provide a root URN for this capture because they have no on-line infrastructure to support such a reference.

6. Navigation

[Here, you will need to be looking at this text through a browser]

You may have noticed that a flying duck (top left) appears on every screen. Press this [flying duck] and you will find the primary site index . Locate this paper beneath [words] then [Research Report]. I suggest, that in order to become familiar with the conventions of site navigation, you press the flying duck (above) and then press [about]. Remember - the flying duck will always take you to this primary index.

7. Protocol

I am more than happy to answer any questions. Usually I will answer within 24 hours. An email envelope (see below) can be found at the foot of most screens. For anyone intrested, during the University examination period, Examination Protocol required that all questions from examiners (and my replies) would be sent through the Chair of the Examination Panel.

8. Acknowledgments

The material on which this work is based was a legacy from my father, Dr Francis John Antill Pockley. In some respects this project has been part of the journey of the son around the father, in others, remarkably similar to his own journey into the desert in 1933. In conducting this research, I have had to rely on less tangible gifts, incompletely transferred from him to me by example. Words that come to mind are integrity and tenacity - but they lack a sense of the singular qualities that I remember in him. I shrink from thinking how he would feel about the global distribution of this material. He was a very private man averse to the ignominy of being remembered. His life was shaped by this story and like all family stories - it has become part of mine.

Without the assistance of the following people The Flight of Ducks would never have evolved:

Adjunct Professor John Bird who had the vision and understanding of how to work in this medium; my supervisors, Associate Professor Erica Hallebone and Professor Robin Williams who have been patient and generous with their time; Harry Sokol, webmaster for Cinemedia and voice over my shoulder; Russell Naughton, fellow traveller, friend and confidant; David Atkinson for his quiet reason; Andrew Pam whose generosity of spirit, I can never fully repay; Ria Murch for permission to include a chapter from her book on Arthur Murch; The Late Dr Maurice Joseph for his assistance and recollection of Hermannsburg in 1933; Margaret Phillips at the National Library of Australia who always found time to answer my questions and offer support.

Thanks must go to Liddy Nevile, Philip Des Autels, and Paul Resnick and his students for their help with the PICS filtering architecture.

Thanks must go to Jennifer Hooks and John Smithies at Cinemedia for providing a quiet place to build and maintain this work and a professional context in which to examine many of the larger issues.

Thanks must go to all those people who have contributed to The Flight of Ducks through their advice and participation. In particular, all the central Australian Aboriginal people who have offered on-going consultation and assistance and whose resilient culture this work honours.

Acknowledgment must also go to my wife, Susan, and children: Emily, Bonnie and Jack, who for four years have had to put up with an obsessed (and usually absent) husband and father.

9. Conclusion

This project set out to take a physical collection of archival objects into a digital environment and make it accessible. It set out to discover:

For the last four years the digital surrogates of objects from the physical collection have joined electronically generated objects to become an on-line documentary known as The Flight of Ducks. Versions of this work run on the servers of RMIT University, Cinemedia and The National Library of Australia.

There are six tangible outcomes of this research project that should be noted:

  1. Formal, and public, archiving by the National Library of Australia.

    After being identified as a work of national significance, a collaborative development of a preservation infrastructure resulted in The Flight of Ducks being the first [on-line] work of its kind to be archived by a national library. It is now possible to access captured versions of the site from July 1997 (as well as to refer to the live work). As a member of one of the W3C working groups The Flight of Ducks has also been a pilot for one of the most extensive deployments of Dublin Core type metadata (see source code [on-line]).

    The development of this infrastructure continues. The current focus is to work out an agreement (concerning password protection and responsibilities) that will permit the capture of the password protected area. Technical difficulties with the capture software and the sensitive nature of the material contained in this area of the site have so far kept it outside the capture program.

  2. A description of an infrastructure framework to support digital preservation at Cinemedia.

    Parallel to the work with the National Library of Australia has been the development of an infrastructure capable of supporting the live site at Cinemedia. The current strategy is to build this management infrastructure into the fabric of the new Cinemedia Centre of the Moving Image (to be completed in 2001 at Federation Square). The issues raised by the evolution of The Flight of Ducks have provided insights into what such an infrastructure would look like.

  3. An Award winning on-line (and on-going) documentary, The Flight of Ducks.

    During the course of this research The Flight of Ducks has broken new ground as an [on-line] documentary. As well has attracting over 4,000 individuals each week for the last 2 years it has also been the winner of:

    • 1997 John Bird Award for Excellence On-line.

    • 1996 ATOM Award Best Australian On-line Production

    • 1996 Premiers Gold Award for Best Australian Multimedia Product

  4. The development of an on-line architecture for the handling of Aboriginal cultural sensitivities.

    During the development of the The Flight of Ducks four levels of [on-line] cultural accommodation were employed:

    • Appropriate metadata or content description.

    • The use of `warning screens'.

    • The implementation of the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS).

    • The development of a secure password protected `keeping place'.

  5. Draft Protocols for the submission, storage and examination of on-line projects at the University of RMIT.

    This will be the first on-line Ph.D. (or on-line postgraduate project) that the University of RMIT has been required to archive. The infrastructure is being built in collaboration with the RMIT University Library and The Higher Degrees Committee. Many of the issues have profound implications on the presentation of research. The Flight of Ducks goes beyond the submission of a conventional thesis as a PDF file and explores how the medium can be used in an academic environment. Unfortunately, the limits of administrative understanding at RMIT mean that this submission will be a single archived version rather than a live work with a version history.

  6. University censorship of an approved research project.

    At the conclusion of this research project, the RMIT Human Research Ethics Committee had The Flight of Ducks removed from the University server because it suspected that the research might offend Aboriginal cultural sensitivities. This action effectively froze all examination procedures and infrastructure development for 8 months.

    In context, this academic censorship reflected the political climate in Australia. It was also due (in part) to my own failure to successfully negotiate more extensive Aboriginal involvement in this project. It is to be regretted that levels of restriction used to accommodate Aboriginal cultural sensitivities - though technically adequate - have not evolved from a supportive cultural base (inside and outside the University). As a result, these strategies are destined to languish unused. They may have to be re-invented when the issues are less politically clouded. Without the participation of an Aboriginal on-line community there is little that can be achieved.

    Throughout Australia, important (non-tokenistic) projects involving Australian Aborigines are being left out or passed over because they are seen as `too difficult'. It is ironic that an area built to house restricted Aboriginal cultural material should end up (at the conclusion of this part of the project) containing confidential messages from non-aboriginal people about difficulties with Aboriginal involvement. It is also a poor reflection on our academic environment that constructive inter-cultural dialogue is being subverted to the politics of control.

The pace of change over three years has meant there are many areas of The Flight of Ducks that no longer demonstrate the `current' capacities of this medium. This is inevitable with any on-going digital work. The poetics of the work are very much an archive of a 1996 approach to web development. Already the technology (XML) has moved to the point where the display of variant views of digital resources can be improved through cascading style sheets and layered texts. The current challenge is to migrate this material into XML where it can be more effectively filtered to suit visitors interests.

Just as the academic stage of The Flight of Ducks concluded, some of the Federal Government CD-ROM projects (Australia on CD) begun at the same time, were launched. Many of these also dealt with historical resources. However, they were characterised by a lack of creative focus. This was largely because their huge budgets had been based on convergent relationships between different groups with differing interests. As a result they are often tedious. They are also highly platform dependent and unable to accommodate upgrade and technological change. The Flight of Ducks, on the other hand, has shown itself to be resilient and quite capable of accommodating change.

In writing for this medium, the movement has been towards simplicity. The skills for effective on-line writing have been found to be the skills that have always distinguished good from bad writing. Hypertext imposes even greater restrictions on narrative structure than text on paper. The most effective uses of hypertext, as a means of dramatic writing, appear in what I call the `line' of narrative; the one way street of personal exploration - a form of writing almost poetic in style if not in content. As the contextual universe of the web expands there may be an even greater need for writers to create and support their own worlds or spaces. A poetic based on forms of recorded journeys still seems an entirely appropriate form of writing when both the writer and the reader are compelled travel through these worlds.

If there is an overall conclusion to be drawn at this point, then it must be that infrastructure development (to support and maintain these datascapes) currently involves an on-going process of negotiation with people who have little understanding of any digital medium. Effective long-term access to digital material is dependent on these negotiations and to a large extent on personal advocacy. In the closed world of traditional media there is always the possibility of discovering a prescient mind - long after its decline. In the digital domain, the preservation of important work is much more vulnerable to political challenge, fashion or (like most truly original work) to being disconnected from a supportive community.

(CC) reserved S.Pockley Feb 1995 Flight of Ducks 837 email email