return to index
NETIES '99: The Flight of Ducks
(Cultural conflict in an on-line documentary)
This text was accompanied by a video presentation for the
4'th International Conference on Networking Entities
- The organisational impact of telematics

18-19 March, 1999 Krems, Austria.

It references the on-line documentary
The Flight of Ducks
For ease of reading the paper is designed to be printed
Updates and relationships to the work it describes are available [on-line]
[Voice] 61 3 94897905 [Email]

(CC) reserved Simon Pockley
  1. Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Cultural Censorship
  4. One History or Many
  5. The Fragility of Cultural Memory
  6. Conclusion
1. Summary:

The Flight of Ducks is an on-line documentary which has been accessible since 1995. This paper examines inter-cultural conflicts arising from new paradigms and poetics of documentary making in a networked electronic environment. It describes the development of an electronic keeping place and the challenges inherent in providing long-term access to digital formats of indigenous historical material that many people in Australia believe should remain inaccessible.

2. Introduction

I came to this new medium at the end of 1994 because I wanted to use the Internet as a scripting tool. I had in mind a digital documentary based on a collection of historical/archival material relating to my father's expedition into the Central Australian frontier in 1933. My aim was to render this material accessible and compelling without losing historical rigour.

Like many people back then, 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 it 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 challenge of constructing 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 1994 (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.

The Flight of Ducks reflects its content by taking its poetics from the conventions and forms of a journey through a datascape, telling an important multi-level story of inter-cultural 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, not only by its participants, but by a continuous refinement of the poetics of the medium and by a concern to facilitate long-term access to its content.

To work in a medium in which other people can participate, it has been necessary, along the way, to throw out the idea of the finished work and 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 - a methodology more artistic than scientific. In essence, 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. In this networked electronic environment 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, XML, 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.

3. Cultural censorship

By the end of 1997, one section of The Flight of Ducks had evolved into an electronic thesis - a doctoral research report for the University of RMIT in Melbourne (Australia). On the eve of examination, the entire site was removed from the University server at the request of the RMIT Human Research Ethics Committee. The reason given for this action was that the committee suspected the research might offend Aboriginal cultural sensitivities. In fact, it was an act of political censorship which effectively froze all possibility of examination for seven months.

In context, this academic censorship reflected the political climate in Australia at the time. I would have to acknowledge that it was also due to my own failure to successfully negotiate token Aboriginal involvement in this project. From this perspective, 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. In Australian Universities there is currently little chance of research into the handling of inter-cultural historical material without token Aboriginal involvement.

It is now common, in Australia, that 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 containing confidential messages from non-aboriginal people about political difficulties with Aboriginal involvement. It is also a poor reflection on our academic environment that constructive inter-cultural dialogue is being subverted to these politics of control.

At its core, the struggle for recognition as `Aboriginal' by people of mixed descent, the reclaiming of land, and the process of cultural reconstruction have led to a re-telling of history that has altered the status of historical images relating to Aborigines. The politics of Aboriginal representation are now part of a discourse on power, involving a wider inter-cultural dialogue through which `Aboriginality' is being continually re-made and re-invented. The consensus of self determination and nationhood now implied by this process includes a desire to control the production and circulation of images about Aborigines.

This struggle has found a persistent and sympathetic audience amongst the `New Age' community who are currently romanticising selected indigenous cultural practices throughout the world to the point where they are threatening to subsume remnant traditional practices into a kind of global enviro-mysticism. To question any of these re-tellings of history, or to present contrary evidence, in Australia today - is to become a pariah.

Although I had spent several years consulting with actual descendants of the indigenous people that were in contact with my father or the subjects of photographs, it was disturbing to receive the following email (below) from a remote community in Central Australia.


Working at Yuendumu in Warlpiri Media, we are surprised and shocked to find this sight without consultation. WMA is the premier interface between outside media and Warlpiri people, we should have been consulted.

The `for aboriginal people'* is both ineffective and irresponsible. The accessibility of the images of passed away people and sacred sights is frankly horrific.

You will be hearing from us in the near future

for aboriginal people refers to the warning screens used throughout the site to warn participants about culturally sensitive material.

I discovered that this email was not written by an Aborigine. but by a recently appointed non-aboriginal advisor attempting to establish local control over another project. It was an attempt to use the Internet to impose control through a form of cultural censorship.

Nevertheless, it is hard to see how control could be considered possible in the kind of open, networked, digital medium that is engulfing even the most remote communities. Images of indigenous people have been freely available in print and in film for over a century. Digitisation allows these images to be removed from their closed (sometimes restricted) media, making them easy to acquire, manipulate and re-context. It is unlikely that their re-use will be accompanied by any sense of responsibility towards the cultural sensitivities of their indigenous subjects unless some form of protocol is explored. The web is not only a most accessible digital medium of dissemination, but a medium in which unrestricted appropriation (Fig.1) has become one of the dominant paradigms.

Foxtell and re-consuming the exotic Fig. 1

There are many examples in The Flight of Ducks of how people are actually using this digital medium to re-purpose and re-consume material. Consider an early example (June 1996) of a woman in the U.S.A who is writing a children's book about beards. She sent the following email:

I saw your pictures of aboriginal men and their beards. I've been searching the WWW for references. I'm working on a book for children called `Weird Beards' -- a pictorial history of facial hair. Not much information available. Would love to include some aboriginal beards -- especially, interesting aboriginal beards. Would also love to know where to find information on their philosophy towards beards. Any? Sure thank you for any direction you might give. (Email 1996)

Anyone alarmed by this message and its implications must understand that this is what happens when the distinction between reading and writing starts to blur. Over the last four years The Flight of Ducks has now become a source, not just of primary historical material, but (unexpectedly) a locus of general inquiry about Aboriginal culture and history quite outside its field of reference. For example:

I would be so grateful if you are able to help me please. For some time I have been looking for the place where my family comes from. My grandmother was D.W. Legge and her husband's descent was from an Aboriginal tribe from the Darling Downs in N.S.W. I think. It is just something that I have always wanted to know. I know for a fact my grandfather was part Aboriginal, but it really frustrates me so much that I am unable to locate my descent. Can you please help me, anything at all. I would be so grateful.(Email 1996)

Messages such as these are heartfelt and carry with them an enormous responsibility to see that they are handled in a responsible and sensitive manner. There are all kinds of requests for information the most common coming from schools.

I am a year 11 student currently studying Religion & Society. We have based our religious studies on the Australian Aboriginal Religion. I was inquiring whether you had information on the following sub-heading, which are a main component of my CAT2:

- The New Dreaming (the re-creation)
- The Stolen Generation
- Deaths in Custody
- Racism in sport
- Reconciliation (including rights)

Any information would be much appreciated. If you do not have any information directly, could you please recommend some Web sites that I could search for this information. (Email 1997)

These messages are all stories in themselves. Yet these, and the main stories of inter-cultural contact told in The Flight of Ducks, are now regarded from some political perspectives as being part of an on-going and continuous invasion of Aboriginal cultural territory. When I spoke at a conference about cultural ownership in 1997 there were calls for The Flight of Ducks to be dismantled because it was `perpetuating the evil of cultural appropriation and an unlawful use of Aboriginal cultural property'. Readers of this paper might like to view the work and judge for themselves.

Regardless of the perspectives from which these stories are told or heard, it is important to acknowledge that the digital representations of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are of real people with descendants who miss them or who may not wish to be reminded that they are now dead. Some may still be alive.

Clearly (with historical material), consultation and discussion with descendants or people who represent their interests is a desirable way to proceed. The dispersal and relocation of descendants over time, now 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 (a non-representative political organisation in Alice Springs) or try to locate people behind the wall of an industry of itinerant non-Aboriginal advisers.

I have now found myself hardening towards people representing Aboriginal interests (who constitute this industry) because they are often more concerned to create cultural division than inter-cultural reconciliation through negotiation. This hardening does not mean that I am any the less responsive to the cultural sensitivities of aboriginal people or that I have no interest in consultation or their participation. On the contrary, it is the diversity of Aboriginal perspectives that is missing from The Flight of Ducks and only these perspectives will make it whole.

Ironically, I suspect that my incremental method of working in this medium is in tune with the very local community' land based methodologies working against hierarchy and paternalism in central Australia. But it will not sit well with the privileged elite who scratch at the sores of official regret with their own form of cultural imperialism.

The web is a powerful medium. It may even pose yet another threat to distinctive Aboriginal languages and cultures. Its arrival can be seen as an extension of the effects of media proliferation that began in Central Australia with the overland telegraph in 1872. One of the very first sequences of screens in The Flight of Ducks sought to emphasise the strong analogy between the advance of the Internet and the advance of the train that followed the telegraph lines. According to Daisy Bates the effects were devastating.

With the railway began the extermination of the Central native groups. Each group through whose territory the track was passing saw its waters used up, the trees and bushes were destroyed for firewood and fence posts, the whole country turned to strange uses. They thought that the train and its people would go away, and leave them the things to play with. They were mesmerised by the trains, the trains became their life, the rhythm of their days. (Bates 1945)

Media proliferation is changing the rhythms of all of our lives and the problem may belong less to the politically indigenous than to all of us who see our cultural paradigms under threat from a technologically driven cultural convergence .

Internet technology is still in its infancy. There may be a breathing space through which remote communities are effectively denied access because of distance, telephone charges, language, lack of hardware or because the World Wide Web may simply be a culturally unsatisfactory medium. At this stage the exponential growth of the web is, in Australia, an urban-based phenomenon. This form of urbanity is not just about living in the city away from the computer corrupting effects of wind born dust. It is about access to the very personal space of the computer screen that also offers connection to the very public space of a networked community. The former may turn out to be anathema to the social, cultural and hierarchical use of media in remote communities. In this respect the World Wide Web may be a culturally biased medium. It is certainly culturally colonised, after all, we are looking at our datascapes through American (Netscape - Microsoft - IBM) eyes and being forced to use American spelling in our markup.

We do not know yet if divergent cultural perspectives will generate forms resilient enough to maintain their integrity in this public access space or if these forms will simply become content - subsumed by larger media conglomerates. Perhaps indigenous interests will, as the Warlpari Media Association did with TV, evolve their own ways of using the medium.

From my perspective, the medium's prime advantage as a means of accessing and shaping historical sources is that the same sources can be reused to tell parallel, contrasting or even conflicting stories.

4. One History or Many

An impasse between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives may lie in the shifting ground on which we attempt to build our histories. Implicit in The Flight of Ducks and enshrined in non-Aboriginal repositories of cultural memory such as the National Library of Australia is the basic assumption that preservation and access to this archive is desirable. Central Australian Aboriginal cultural practice is (somewhat like popular culture) characterised by its insistence on an opposite view, where evidence of the past and of the dead is quickly destroyed. In both places this affects the way we tell our stories and the way we lend them authority. Beyond the simple acknowledgement that there is a difference (and accepting this difference), it seems difficult to accommodate an Aboriginal view of history within the current paradigms of our national thinking. Historians themselves have moved away from the idea of a single narrative towards more pluralist views.

Are there stories that cannot be told?

From 1989-1990 Thomas Theye curated a controversial survey of photographs at the Munich Start museum, Haus Im Kultur der Welt, Berlin, and at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum Volkerkunde, Cologne, entitled Der Geraubte Schatten: Photographie als ethnographisches Dokument [The Stolen Shadow: Photography as Ethnographic Document]. This controversial exhibition was leafleted by a group objecting to `... turning the bodies of ... enslaved people into pornography', while the Berlin tageszeitung demanded `the total abandonment of looking at those documents, or, even better, the complete extermination of the ethnographic photo archives'. (Nordstrom 1991)

In 1940 Mountford, an anthropologist, undertook a field trip into Central Australia. The Pitjantjatjara people revealed tribal sites and items of cultural and religious significance to the anthropologist. Mountford recorded the information and later wrote a book, Nomads of the Australian Desert that was distributed for sale in the Northern Territory.

In 1982, an injunction was granted to stop publication. The Pitjantjatjara Council proved that an obligation of confidence was placed on Mountford at the time he took photographs. The Court granted an order that the photographs be handed over to the Pitjantjatjara Council to check for any which "related to or recorded any of the philosophical or religious traditions of the Pitjantjatjara". Furthermore, the Court declared that "the property in and ownership of the slides, photographs and negatives vested in the Pitjantjatjara Council for and on behalf of the Pitjantjatjara Yankunjatjara and Ngaayatjara peoples".

To bring a breach-of-confidence action, it is necessary to show that the relationship of confidence existed at the time the information was relayed. However, under indigenous law, it is not relevant whether such 'secrecy' is in existence. If sacred material has been disseminated amongst people not authorised to receive it, then it follows that a breach of indigenous law has occurred.

It is ironic (perhaps necessary) that historical material that is regarded as part of a living culture, and returned, is often destroyed (or sold to dealers) because in its original context it was never intended to be preserved in perpetuity. Having survived the eras of intrusion and assimilation it is lost in the process of cultural reconstruction.

Similarly, on the one hand (in Central Australia) we have Aboriginal communities which seek to erase physical evidence of the past but at the same time insist that the telling of a story is itself authoritative evidence. On the other, a non-aboriginal community which seeks to preserve evidence of the past but at the same time is capable of what the historian, Bain Atwood, cites as a `cult of forgetfulness or disremembering' on a national scale.

My own attempts to rediscover in The Flight of Ducks, a fragmented family history have only made me less confident in the reliability of recall and more confident in our collective ability to forget the origins of our cultural diversity.

Functionally, this has less to do with a form of deliberate forgetting and more to do with a form of benign neglect which is endemic to the migration of historical records and now arising from the inherent difficulty of preserving digital material - a kind of `death in custody'.

5. The Fragility of Cultural Memory

The rush to digital technology has been so sudden that we have barely had time to work out how we can practically apply the process to records of the past, let alone consider the questions necessary to ensure the durability of the present. Nor have we had time to quietly reflect on the stability and durability of the means of mediation; computers and software.

In the past, the custodians of cultural records had to continually balance the preservation of manuscripts, books, recordings, film and video against their availability for public access. Digital paradigms reverse this balance. Preservation is now largely dependent on an infrastructure capable of supporting long-term access.

While there are well-developed protective measures useful for prolonging the material life of this collection, most, (removal from light etc) restrict accessibility. Digital formats of physical material have the advantage of being infinitely replicable without degradation. Common practice, when it comes to archiving, has been to record these digital surrogates onto storage media such as CD-ROM, which soon become redundant. The development of the World Wide Web has created the opportunity, not only to replicate content, but also to distribute it widely.

The Flight of Ducks has pioneered a personal preservation strategy using the World Wide Web, as a `keeping place' - as a viable long-term repository for digital material. The problem of hardware obsolescence is simply pushed out to a single point at the server level where backward compatibility and incremental upgrade is the norm. As an evolving medium for the distribution of digital work, its paradigms are transitional and may well be flexible enough to carry digital content into the future.

One problem with digital archives is that there is always the possibility of keeping everything. The Flight of Ducks has now grown to over a thousand screens. There is a tendency towards electronic copia that is becoming a characteristic of sites which are concerned with collections. One of the primary challenges for the creator is selecting, not what should be included, but what should be left out. These selection decisions now reach down into the digital fabric of the material, as resolution is traded off against file size. In the swamp of digital data, beneath which our libraries are sinking, we find ourselves losing the ability to recall (with precision).

The digital revolution is having profound effects on the operation of institutions previously responsible for holding archival material. It is becoming more obvious that many are unlikely to be able to bear the costs and complexities of moving digital content into the future. They will deliberately or inadvertently, through a simple failure to act, render the information irretrievable. Most collecting institutions have yet to develop a body of knowledge and experience, or infrastructure, to deal with these issues. The trend is to out-source the digitisation of existing collections to companies with only a short-term interest in the process. It is often easier for these institutions to ignore the existence of digital work or to treat it as somehow less worthy of collection and preservation. The creator now has to develop the skills of the archivist if work is to remain accessible.

We now appear to be plunging into the networked mediation of knowledge, where the very nature of digital information has expanded beyond the notion of stable encoded objects. In The Flight of Ducks email is combined to form unexpected links and relationships. Questions, attacks, interviews, photographs, stories, even animations arrive daily, causing the site and its content to grow incrementally and to mutate constantly. Most screens have undergone hundreds of on-line updates in a process of continuous refinement.

The notion that we should save a copy of every screen published is as absurd as it is to think that each screen or data display might be anything more than an evolving variant of a continuous stream.

Taken further, one might usefully swap the word idea for display in order to get closer to a description of the dynamic processes involved. The content of some screens might only exist during the time of access. This moment of access consists only of a set of rules and references to fragments from other sources from which this array is to be derived. Like thought itself, the medium is inherently unstable not because it is unable to carry and assemble these fragments reliably, but because the fragments themselves may be continuously changing. Add to this the possibility of live feeds of video, sound, G.P.S. data, temperature, (not necessarily from the same places) and we see that we are, in fact, generating a new representation of perception and thought. The narrative conventions of this medium (where humans enter it) lie somewhere between a phone tap and a postcard.

In describing its own making, The Flight of Ducks uses these conventions to show how its development has evolved. The fleeting glimpses of conversation arising from its construction are as much a part of the work as the thoughts recorded in the original journal around which the site is built.

Sometimes the data received by email or attachment carries with it information which its sender might not want to be publicly accessible. The conversation can be edited because the work is built by hand. However, as the site has grown, this has become extremely time consuming. I find myself, out of respect and propriety, correcting spelling, stripping out personal references and deleting embarrassments.

While there are on-site warnings and procedures for helping me to identify restricted information, the distinction between messages which arrive with suggestions and comment and those which are private is not always easy to make. This is made more difficult when much of the information supplied actually influences the development of the work.

The creator must consider what happens to all this data if it is not allowed to join the material it describes. History has shown us that it is often those things we discard that, in hindsight, are important. From an editorial point of view they form a narrative in themselves. They have come to characterise a medium, often mistakenly thought of, as a medium distanced from human nuance. These are issues that need to be explored and confronted.

During its evolution The Flight of Ducks has been the site of one of the Internet's few large-scale implementations of Dublin Core type metadata. This development has been based on those elements that either appeared to be stable or had particular functions within the scope of its structure and purpose. Because the concept of on-line metadata has been in development, there have been many false starts and blind alleys. Archives of these snapshots have proliferated onto numerous servers.

Proliferation requires negotiation. In November 1997, as the result of working with the PANDORA team at the National Library of Australia (NLA), most of The Flight of Ducks was formally archived for long-term access. The original plan had been to capture the site every month but this has been found to be stretching the resources of the project. Like all government projects, PANDORA cannot rely on continued support. One can only speculate on what would happen to this fledgling archive if funding was withdrawn and the unit dismantled.

To date, The NLA has been a staunch ally when it comes to political censorship and the politics of control. However, it has been unable to capture the password protected area (built to house restricted material) now containing confidential letters and email. We are currently working on an agreement concerning password management and responsibility. This is an important area of infrastructure development if the collection is to be able to remain whole. While the location of the digital surrogates of tjurunga (secret objects) has been problematic, it is hoped that eventually this will not be such a divisive issue. It allows time for the development of an effective 3D scanning technique so that all the artefacts can be included and not just surrogate photographs of them.

6. Conclusion

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 `lines' of narrative; the one way streets of personal exploration - a form of writing almost poetic in style if not in content. As the networked universe of the web expands there may be an even greater need for writers to create and support their own worlds or contextual spaces. A poetic based on forms of recorded journeys still seems to me 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, or no understanding of the paradigms of this new 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.