marcus westbury

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The National Broadband Network is a cultural project?

August 9th, 2010 by marcus

WHAT IS the largest cultural infrastructure project Australia has ever undertaken? If you guessed the Sydney Opera House or Federation Square, I’m afraid to inform you that you’re not even close.

The largest piece of cultural infrastructure in Australian history is under construction even as we speak. A clue? It’s not a gallery, a theatre or an arts centre. It will stretch into virtually every home and workplace. It’s going to cost the Australian people at least $30 billion upfront to build — maybe a lot more if its critics are to be believed.

The answer, if you haven’t already guessed, is the national broadband network. It is a bona fide cultural revolution in the making. It dwarfs every other cultural edifice we’ve even thought about. I’m soon to be a guinea pig — I’m living in the middle of Melbourne’s first NBN test sites, in Brunswick.

The NBN will change a lot about how we create and consume culture in Australia. Within a decade, practically every home, every cultural institution, every venue, large and small, will be connected. They will all have the capacity to distribute film, sound, video, music, literature, images and media of incredible quality at lightning speeds to anywhere in the country and most of the world. It’s an opportunity that media moguls a decade or so ago would not have imagined. Every Australian producer will be exporting to but competing with the world.

The impact on Australian culture will be profound. Yet for the arts community, the NBN has provoked nothing of the discussion, controversy and speculation that usually accompanies the building of a new arts centre. It should — the regulatory, technical and economic rules that will govern the network are being decided even as we speak. Few seem to be really thinking through the ramifications.

Yet it’s the policy settings and incentives and not just the fibre-optic tubes that will determine whether the NBN meets its cultural potential.

How will the network treat local content? The creaky archaic mandate on television content has no place on the NBN, but its design and operation could encourage us to develop locally made and hosted media. Exempting local product from potentially prohibitive download quotas — as some, but not all, ISPs do now for the ABC’s iView service — could make a huge difference to those hosting and uploading here.

What will we be able to access from our cultural institutions and cultural collections? The digitised collections of our galleries, companies, broadcasters, orchestras and archives in Australia could be shared into every home, school and library in Australia.

Think of the gems in the ABC archives, in the National Film and Sound Archive, the collected recordings of our orchestras and opera companies. Hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of films, images, texts, sounds and other material that have been lovingly and meticulously collected for the very purpose of enriching the cultural lives of all Australians. Many are already digital or could be cheaply digitised and easily shared if we cleaned up the legal mess preventing us from doing so.

The list goes on. How will we treat education? What about all those of us who want to embrace the chance to create? Are we going to be promoting or prosecuting those who grasp the creative potential of the new technology?

Now, you practically need a legal department to work out where you can shoot and what you can make and remix. If we want to unleash the Australian experience, making it much simpler to do so for creative or educational purposes would better any funding program. The NBN is a chance for relatively simple and inexpensive redesigning of the rules. It’s a chance to put all those works that are not commercially available, that are orphaned, that are owned by the state or by public agencies, or out of copyright in every home in Australia. It’s a chance to encourage creative, cottage copyright industries by allowing for newer, fairer, simpler ways to pay copyright holders.

The NBN is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. To take it, we need to sweep aside an inherited complexity of ageing legal structures, outdated logics and vested interests.

We need to return to some first principles: cultural life is a good thing; that creators are encouraged to create; that access to creativity, education and our deep national heritage is an opportunity too good to pass up.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 dogpossum Aug 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on your argument that digitising material is quick and easy (once you get past the legal stuff). It’s actually a fairly time consuming and expensive process.

    And then, it’s actually only _one_ step in a process of digital preservation. In the most simple (and hardly complete) terms, digital archiving requires:
    – collection of materials
    – creating digital copies (once you’ve had a long, annoying think about the appropriate formats for digital copies for the long term)
    – creating multiple copies
    – setting up a series of different ‘backups’ (in a range of sites) which are safe from electrical failure, weather (eg not too hot, not too cold, not wet), pests (eg grubs eating things – which is a surprisingly common problem in remote parts of Australia), etc etc etc
    – developing a badass cataloguing system which allows you to manage the sheer _mass_ of data and items you’re going to produce
    – developing an archive or database which is accessible for the broader community (not just preservation specialists)
    – developing a range of guidelines for the culturally appropriate management of data and items (eg this is super important when dealing with material belonging to or depicting indigenous Australians)

    …. and _then_ you have to actually look at enabling the public’s access to this stuff. The NBN is all fine and dandy if you live in a city, but if your’e living in remote Australia, well… Access has to be managed for particular user groups – literacy? Able bodied? Culturally appropriate? etc etc etc etc

    A number of large institutions have hardcore digital preservation strategies, including the NLA ( and the British Library (

    Part of me also wants to have a bit of a go at your definitions of ‘culture’, particularly in regards to access. For some folks, for example, _restricting_ or managing access to items is very, very important (the Qld State Library has a very good set of guidelines for managing collections for particular community groups: ).

    The digitising of material is super exciting, and it does allow us to do some truly fabulous things. But it is by no means a quick and simple process.

  • 2 marcus Aug 9, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Dogpossum, my argument is not that digitising material is “quick and easy”. I never said that. I know many people who work in the field and it is a laborious and time consuming process and can be difficult to do well for all the reasons you’ve outlined and then some. However, that is not what i am arguing.

    What i am arguing is that there is an enormous amount of material that has already been digitised and is only available internally within institutions that could be shared externally if the rights issues were sorted. The beauty of digitisation is that once it has been done it makes the material easily transportable and replicable and we need to maximise the advantages of that.

    For example, in Victoria the Victoria’s Cultural Network program has set up great connections between institutions and much material is available over it. Equally, screen institutions such as the Australian Centre for Moving Image hold vast digitised archives as to places like the National Film and Sound Archives. However if i want to view them in most cases i need to get hold of a physical DVD or go into the building. Clearly, the rights issues that require this need to be resolved and there is an obvious potential there.

    While i agree to some extent with your argument about the major city v. regional divide, the NBN proposal as it current stands would allow ALL Australians to access, say, feature length films via fibre, wireless or satellite if the material was available.

  • 3 john walker Aug 10, 2010 at 10:15 am

    The ready access to lots of digitized ‘collections’, will make for a lot of copyright action , legal fees , and mess.
    going off the dogs breakfast that is the long running Google Book settlement , which has been going for years and shows little sign of being resolved–“(once you get past the legal stuff)” could be a long wait.

  • 4 marcus Aug 10, 2010 at 10:21 am

    John that’s my point. All of that is the *current* situation.

    Legislative change to resolve those issues is necessary to allow cultural institutions to share those collections. It is precisely the fear of what you describe that prevents access to those collections now.

  • 5 john walker Aug 10, 2010 at 10:35 am

    There are some real problems in all this , a big one is the way copyright has been extended and extended in both duration and in application. Most of the offered ‘solutions’ are very unpalatable , involving serious violations of common law concepts of individual property rights , compulsory collective management -very anti democratic and authoritarian measures.
    Unfortunately the obvious solution – winding back the over extension of copyright that happened during the past 40 years , conflicts with a lot of corporate uses of copyright/patent law as a virtual monopoly for life+ 70

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  • 9 Martin Hodgson Oct 18, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    Great piece.

    As someone from a rural area I agree with your argument and even more so for us country folk. Many of us are unable to access the cultural delights that are enjoyed in the city on a daily/nightly basis. Opening up digital content for the masses, including in remote areas is an important part of sharing the national culture across the board.

    The NBN will also mean we can have improved health care, an example being many regional hospitals have CT scanners, but can’t send the image digitally at this point to have it read. The benefits for education and business are already widely known.

    Opposition to the NBN is blind to the opportunities it will unlock!