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Achieving Change

We're now about to start the second day at ANZCA 2010, in a still very chilly Canberra. First up is the second conference keynote, by Robyn Archer. She begins with the question of what drives change - such as individual aims and ambitions; collective needs gathered in democratic processes or popular revolutions. Conservative powers will resist such change - and the mechanisms of mass communication will provide a stage for such struggles to be conducted. The matter of change still depends on how we act on the information we receive, and the technology at our disposal. This is as true for arts and culture as it is for politics.

What drives us in this - a sense of injustice, an unhappiness with our own state of affairs, a desire to improve the lot of others? How do we decide to act or not to act; do we think our task ends at the (in Australia, compulsory) ballot box, and rely on politicians to do the rest? Do we believe in the operation of a free press? Robyn herself found an early career in folk music in the 1960s, as a protest medium addressing corruption and injustice, but even in this relied on the information available from the mainstream media rather than on first-hand verification; since then, the tabloidisation of the news (especially in commercial television) has made the quality of the news even more questionable. There is a disconnect between what we see in the news and what we experience first-hand - so what should we react to, or protest about? Would reacting only to personal experience mean a more honest life?

We rely on what we read, see, hear in mass media - so is it the media who are responsible for political events? How do we make sense of the recent case of the government introducing a measure to tax the rich, and seeing the people protest this 'unfair' impost on multi-billion-dollar mining companies, for example? Against the backdrop of the recent Rudd/Gillard changeover, why do so many not understand that in a Westminster system the people vote for the parties, not directly for prime ministers? What is the quality of our working understanding of politics?

Such widespread ignorance demands a wider teaching of civics in school, and a greater political education of the population overall. This should involve bringing school kids physically to Canberra, for example, even in spite of their ready access to electronic media: the information on those networks is still mediated - and the physical and sensual experience of Canberra provides much better first-hand insight.

But of course we can't all be everywhere; we must rely on mediated information, and this requires us to develop better literacies. The ascendancy of peer review is one sign of this - young people make their consumption choices, for example, increasingly because of word of mouth rather than recommendations from sources of authority. Are new media any different from the old, other than in terms of quantity? Widespread use of new media appears to threaten some authoritarian governments, but this has always been the case for media with a wide reach and fast transmission, radio and TV included. Rather, new media have their own potential to rekindle a faith in new forms of democracy even as a faith in conventional forms of democracy fades - as visible for example in the use of new media for voting on idols and masterchefs; here, participants truly do believe that their individual vote counts - and as a result, perhaps they question the value of their votes in conventional democratic processes even more.

This loss of faith in traditional democratic processes is far from unexpected; this especially so in light of recent moves by democratic governments to limit free speech and free information through content filtering and overreaching antiterrorism legislation. At the same time, we have seen a significant increase in public debate and discussion - through forum-style TV talk shows, podcasts, and online discussions; is this also a push towards disintermediation, though - can we see the light at the end of the obfuscating tunnel of mediation? At the same time, do we lose critical analysis as a result of the shift towards hyperactive communication networks like Twitter? Will these changes give voice to dissidents, or push them further aside?

Robyn highlights debates about Australia's involvement in Afghanistan, and its response to asylum seekers, as examples for this; she also describes the media activities around Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's recent Solar Equation installation in Melbourne's Federation Square, and notes the range of coverage in everything from mainstream media to social media, from professional reviews to tweeted comments from passers-by. Indeed, artists can act as catalysts for communication, for conversation, for healing where damage was done; they have less chance to act in the moment, for preventing the damage in the first place. Change always takes longer than we want it to take, but every little contribution helps.

One welcome change would be to rescue the name Canberra from being a term of abuse, a shortcut for (what is wrong with) federal politics; amongst others, this also disses the 350,000 living here. Canberra should be a synonym for democracy, and the failures of any party or individual should not be used as an excuse to blame Canberra itself, but rather as a sign that they have failed to uphold the values developed here. But how can this change be brought about, especially given that it is the mainstream media who are the main culprits here? Perhaps a petition, a social media campaign could be used - at any rate, it is a change worth pursuing because Canberra should be synonymous with many more achievements than with politics alone. Some sets of values which do not change when governments change should be recognised as associated with this place - and conversely, if this change can be achieved, it may encourage everyday citizens that change on many seemingly intractable issues can be achieved.

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