Origins and Alternatives

1 July 2008

Regional Life and the Importance of Rugby League

The Spinifex Cafe, by marsta, with Creative Commons licenceThe regions of Australia house around half its population. These are places variously removed from big city life, often without the sort of opportunities and the sheer mass of people that make metropolitan living the advantage that it is. Mention in a job interview that you were educated at Anonymous University in Innocuous Town and you’ll never compete with an Oxford graduate or even someone who attended a well-known public school in Sydney. Perception is everything, and the regions are largely out of sight.

But consider for a while the flip-side of this argument. What could it be that makes the regions somehow important to national life, aside – of course – from their mineral wealth and agricultural benefit? What is it about small towns or smallish cities that can enrich a country’s intellectual endeavour? The answer, or at least the way in which we seek the answer, could well surprise you.

This is a story about rugby league.

From the mining towns of northern England just before the last century began, rugby league has spread only to the British home countries, Australia, the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea and, in fits and starts, to France. As much as I love the game it’s difficult to imagine it alongside football as a global sport. Rugby league is a quintessentially regional pursuit, and it was born when working class players could no longer afford to beat and barge in the amateur game of union.

Although it has made efforts to expand, and has its own World Cup of sorts, it tends always to contract back to its traditional areas of support. In Australia, since its inception in 1908, those areas have been New South Wales and Queensland.

Hong Kong is my home now but I grew up in Townsville on the eastern coast of Queensland. It’s a big town or a small city, depending on where you’d place a population of 150,000 on a scale of minute to metropolis. When someone leaves town they inevitably head to the state capital Brisbane, and some beyond. They’re spoken of in tones that don’t quite, but almost, suggest defection.

“Where’s Dave living now?”
“He’s gone Down South.”

Pause, and then the conversation begins again.

So the scene is set – we have our regional attitudes and our game. How could that enlighten the country? Well, it happened like this.

Origins of Boxing, by Pankration Group, with Creative Commond licence In 1980, drawing on an innovation in Australian rules football – quite another game altogether – rugby league experimented with a state of origin format in its yearly series of representational matches between the powerhouse New South Wales league, based in metropolitan Sydney, and the poor-brother Queensland league in regional Brisbane. The idea was to bring home the Queensland players who’d moved Down South, to have them represent the state in which they first played – and in most cases grew up – for just one game. Where you lived would no longer matter, where you belonged was what counted.

The format, applied only to the final of three games in the first two years, became the enduring symbol of rugby league in Australia, the pinnacle of the sport. From 1982, the State of Origin series, now devoid of the standard representational format, produced names and feats that will live on in the sport as inspirations for its players, and comfort for its fans. The deep maroon of Queensland, the sky blue of New South Wales, these are the gangland colours of eastern Australia, worn but three times a year.

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Getting Organised for Good

25 June 2008

After the Limits of Web 2.0

Unorganized City, by Christy C, with Creative Commons licenceSome people can never really get organised, but others do it with natural ease. At the group level much the same occurs, with everything possible from loose yet effective organisation to downright chaotic failure. But in blogs, social networking platforms like Friendster and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Web 2.0 is a great leveller, offering forums for spontaneous activity, flexible boundaries that allow groups to form, function and disperse with minimal effort.

In Here Comes Everybody, Cay Shirky calls this “organising without organisations” and the sense of freestyle coordination plays out most often in protest movements. The other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, is a classic case of that, or at least seems to be. But ask yourself what more could be achieved if this sort of temporary organising became permanent, if Web 2.0 could be a decisive factor in social change.

That notion has been a constant concern lately as the group behind a Death in Hong Kong has started to manoeuvre it away from a focus on one disappearance and death to the broader social, economic and legal problems faced by migrant workers in Hong Kong. So when reading Dave Wallace’s brief Lifekludger post on Clay Shirky and the limits of Web 2.0 yesterday I encountered a few simple but serious issues very much worthy of further consideration.

Dave specialises in workarounds, and he needs to because he’s quadriplegic. Lifekludger is an attempt to draft a community of like-minded people, those willing to look beyond the way things are to how they might yet be, with a nudge or two. Workarounds are ways of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. I mentioned Dave in a previous post, and his observations tend to make me stop and think, then think again.

Traffic Light, by johnmarchan, with Creative Commons licenceThis time around Dave simply mentions that the social networks created on Web 2.0 tend to be used for STOP actions when GO actions, or forms of positive change, are needed to give his concept of a “collaborative ecosystem” more traction. He does so while introducing a recent Clay Shirky interview that breaks open the whole idea of network limits to poke at how they function.

Shirky mentions that continuity and a density of trust are crucial in moving towards more permanent Web 2.0 networks, but that conversation and a shared mission easily break down. We have a protest culture, he says, but “we don’t yet have a constructive culture”. He also mentions, at the prompting of the interviewer, that third generation mobile phones are starting to proliferate in developing countries, which will rapidly narrow the ‘digital divide’ in telephony.

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After the Event

30 May 2008

What Whispers Beyond the News?

Old New News, by ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceEvents are the meat of journalism, the mainstay of the traditional media. When something out of the ordinary happens, when a peculiarity eventuates, it grabs our attention. We seek more information in newspapers and magazines, on television or on the radio. Some of us read hybrid old-media websites – the Sydney Morning Herald online has been my mainstay for almost 12 years now. Even so-called ‘citizen journalism’ has given us hotspots like OhmyNews and CJReport, where non-professionals can write, and write very well, about the events around them. But do we always need novelty, should we be paying events the amount of attention that we inevitably do? What happens after the event, when the story no longer screams headlines but speaks in quiet suggestions instead?

Over the last week I’ve been preparing the second blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, for the transition from a specific focus on the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores to a more comprehensive, multi-author coverage of migrant worker rights and the consequences of a highly discriminatory immigration policy in what is often described as Asia’s ‘world city’. I’m sure we’ll lose readers in the process, because not everyone in the community who wants to know about Vicky’s terrible fate will care much about the accumulation of infringements on what is often a very precarious liberty. But we might gain more, because I hope to report on the little victories, the small amounts of happiness, even the great moments of joy that are rarely considered newsworthy.

Its Sandwich Time!!! By ERIO, with Creative Commons licenceBlogs, you might think, are a triumph of trivia, but I trust I’ve made a good case against that presumption in my last few posts here, in all of them if I’ve been communicating well enough. Most of what I write about on this blog happens when time has passed, when its time to think. That’s well after the event, tucked away in the whispers of what happens next, what might have happened then, what should happen now.

It might be un-eventful, but it doesn’t lack importance, whether to the here-and-now of everyday life or to the wider, more ethereal plane of ideas.

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Risk and Redemption

28 May 2008

On the Crucial Importance of Mistakes

Disney Institute -- Steamboat Willie Says Take Risks, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons LicenceAll too often we think of mistakes as inherently wrong, as disappointments, as fundamental disjunctures. They’re everything we strive against, and witness to our bitter failings. But I want to suggest that mistakes can be liberating, that they’re small, undernourished risks of the sort that, tended carefully, just might deliver enormous opportunities. Of course, they could also slap us back down to the grit of our everyday lives, but then we’d be none the wiser anyway. So we have the opportunity to learn given to us when things don’t work out, like a half-minute free-for-all in the supermarket of change. Now that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

After completing my last post I both made and unmade a mistake, which is no mean feat. I learned something, I lost something and I eventually gained a whole lot more. My mistake, after receiving a friendly comment from Dave Wallace, lay in presuming that the fantastic ‘Lifekludger first idea’ image I originally used in the post was really meant for his Lifekludger blog, even though his friend Roy Blumenthal had offered it on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I removed the image just in case, writing to both men to explain. But, as it happened, Roy left the most gracious comments here noting that I was free to use the image and any others that he offered.

So the image is back in this post, partly because I want to discuss ideas that Dave Wallace is grappling with on his blog, and partly because it matches nicely the other two Roy Blumenthal images that I’m using.

If a picture says a thousand words, then Roy’s paintings speak long and then speak again, at the interval between technology and art, on the margins of creation and reproduction. Roy creates most of his images on a tablet PC, and works – in one of his many guises – as a visual facilitator, someone who attends conferences and captures speech as it’s spoken, distilled into images that refine and release thought, motion, colour, shade, difficult to grasp abstracts and absolute certainties.

The initial image on this post is one of the fascinating results, a mix of metaphor, movement and challenge to change all rolled into one. Roy’s art speaks of the very moment at which risk becomes reality, that split-second when an opportunity – to learn, and to unlearn – rushes up, about to rush by. It’s not precise, it’s not exact in a formal way; it’s more of a workaround, a compromise, a sort of accommodation with the promising inadequacies of life.

Lifekludger first idea, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceDave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog is a lot like that too, although to call it a blog overshadows its power as a kind of electronic thought tablet. Dave uses the term meme, and it seems to be a work in perpetual process. A Kludge, not incidentally, is a workaround, a way of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. Dave Wallace is interested in what you might call life-hacks, and he brings to bear on them the perspective of a quadriplegic former mechanic who is seeking new tools to shift between contexts, who is exploring the possibilities of social networks in the Cyber Age.

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