Friday, May 30, 2008

Tenth-rate estate

I thought that I would point out this pile of crap from The Courier-Mail, as it attempts a hatchet job on cultural studies. An invitation to Associate Professor Jason Jacobs from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Queensland to be a keynote speaker at a conference on The Sopranos at Fordham University in New York gets written up like this:

TAXPAYERS forked out up to $2000 to help send a University of Queensland lecturer to a US conference on the mafia TV series The Sopranos.

The kind of low-rent university bashing is a staple of Brisbane's monopoly print newspaper, despite the fact that is also derives considerable revenue from the universities through various education supplements, as well as often relying on academics to comment on television show when they are running a story including, yes, The Sopranos. I certainly know that I have done 30 minute interviews with Courier-Mail journalists at short notice, and many people in media and cultural studies have done the same.

Readers of this blog would know that I am a fan of The Sopranos so my comment may be coloured by this. I am also a fan of Jason Jacobs' work, and feel that he deserves much better than this nonsense. So if anyone needs some 'Cliff's Notes' (as they say in the US) on how to respond to this stuff, try this:

  • Television is the most widely used consumer entertainment technology in the world, with UNESCO estimating that 65% of the world's population or abut 4 billion people, have a TV in their homes. It is therefore important to understand how it work, not only as a technology, but as a disseminator of culture;
  • The Sopranos has been watched by ten of millions of people around the world. In the US, its audience was about 14 million, even though it was on HBO, which is a premium cable channel;
  • The Sopranos has a particularly complex and sophisticated narrative structure. On tis, don't take my word for it, but check out Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, where he cites the how as an example of popular culture that is making its audiences smarter by requiring them to deal with multi-strand narrative;
  • The gangster genre was been a recurring device used as an allegory to tell wider stories about 2oth century America, from Scarface, Public Enemy and White Heat in the 30s and 40s, to the Godfather film of the 70s, to Scarface, Goodfellas and Casino in th 80s and 90s, to The Sopranos in the 2000s;
  • Without knowing the details of UQ's budget, I would suspect that, like most Australian universities, it now derives about half of its total budget from non-government sources (student fees, grant income, consultancies, IP etc.), with the other half coming from HECS payments no being made by past students. So the idea that 'the taxpayer' as generic category is paying for this travel that the journalist in question - Darren Cartwright in case you are interested - doesn't know much about how universities are now funded;
  • Given that you would struggle to get a return flight to the US for $2000, I would say that both UQ and Australia are getting a bargain to have Jason Jacobs' work recognised internationally at such a conference.
A quick Google check on coverage in U.S. media would suggest that they are far less sniffy about any of this than we find in the embattled provincialism of today's Courier-Mail.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Forthcoming events

I have now returned to U. Indiana - Bloomington after the International Communications Association conference in Montreal.

Forthcoming events that I will be attending include:
For those planning ahead for 2009, a series of important event will be happening in Australia in July. I will be organising the 2009 ANZCA Conference in Brisbane, which provisionally has the dates of 8-11 July and will be at the Creative Industries Precinct, QUT Kelvin Grove. The working title is "Communication, Creativity and Global Citizenship".

This will coincide with:

The combination of events should lead to an attractive group of speakers coming from outside of Australia and New Zealand in July of next year.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Half the world has a mobile

This is from The story has appeared in several places, but the full report does not as yet appear to be on the Web site of the International Telecommunications Union.

THE number of mobile phone users world soared to over 3.3 billion by the end of 2007, equivalent to a penetration rate of 49 per cent, according to a report by the International Telecommunications Union.

Africa showed the strongest gains over the past two years and more than two thirds of all mobile subscribers were from developing countries by the end of 2007, the ITU said.

This is "a positive trend that suggests that developing countries are catching up," the report said.

Mobile subscription growth stood at 39 per cent annually in Africa between 2005-2007, and 28 per cent in Asia over the same period.

India and China added 154 million and 143 million new subscribers respectively.

The global annual average growth rate stood at 22 per cent, the ITU said.

Mobile phones are eclipsing traditional fixed lines and in Africa they account for nearly 90 per cent of all telephone subscribers, the report said.

"The continued growth in the mobile sector is matched by no-growth in the fixed-line sector. Fixed telephone penetration has been stagnating at just under 20 per cent globally for the last years and growth has been below one per cent between 2005 and 2007," it said.

While developing countries have made great strides in mobile growth, a significant "digital divide" remains for internet use and particularly the availability of broadband connections, it noted.

High-income countries account for 66 per cent of all fixed broadband subscribers although they only represent 16 per cent of the world's population, while developing countries have just 1 per cent of fixed broadband users but 38 per cent of the global population.

"Low-income countries, where broadband access remains very low, risk falling behind in an area that is particularly important in delivering innovative applications and services," the ITU warned.

Some countries have made progress and the ITU highlighted Chile, Senegal and Turkey as states where almost all internet subscribers have now gone high speed.

"For more people to benefit from the potential of broadband and the applications that it can deliver, governments need to do their share to ensure that high-speed technologies become more accessible as well as more affordable," the ITU urged.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Notes from ICA conference 25 May

Notes below from today's ICA conference sessions. The anticipated fireworks from the Popular Communication session failed to materialise, as Toby Miller had to apologise and could not present his paper titled "Why the Creative Industries Must Die".

The IAMCR report for UNESCO will be available on the IAMCR Web site shortly.

Reassessing NAFTA and the Cultural Industries
Sunday 25 May 2008

Emile McAnany, “Television and Cultural Integrity: Historical Perspectives on Technology”

1. TV/video remains central;
2. Media industries are in transition – need for a historical perspective;
3. Technological change is more rapid than cultural change – implications for policy.

• What has/has not changed since 1994?
o Shift from broadcasting to the Web (Hulu – started by NBC and FOX – free TV series and movies) – content becoming freely available on the Web – universally available content in digital format downloaded either to the Web or (soon) to the TV
o Hollywood still the primary producer of content – major media companies adapting quickly to the Web.

• Conclusions
1. National policy remain central as values statements;
2. Difference between cultural policy and cultural resistance – the latter can only come from people, not governments;
3. Cultural production policies are very important – example of Korea.

Roger de la Guarde, “Television Flows rather than Trades”

• Shape of Quebec/Canadian TV has not been significantly changed by NAFTA. Major changes have come from:
o Technology and industry convergence
o Lack of assertiveness of regulators of national perspective
o Regulators permitting media concentration and convergence.

• Specialist channels now account for about 25-30% of audience share – was 5% when samples were being done of content of 10 channels in Quebec.

Jose Carlos Lozano, “Flows of Audiovisual Content in the NAFTA Era”

• 2006 – 100% of US content from US; Canada 58% local/42% US; Mexico 29% US/66% Mexico; 4% other
• Prime time : dominated by US in Canada – non-news in Canada dominated by US; Mexico – strong in telenovelas, news and other genres – films and sitcoms dominated by US.
• Cultural proximity and cultural discount are central to why figures differ for Canada and Mexico – Mexico did not seek cultural exemption in NAFTA.

Communication and Information: Critical Perspectives on IAMCR’s Research Agenda for UNESCO

Report on rethinking sustainable development in the context of knowledge societies:

Organising themes
o Cultural diversity
o Governance
o Media/info-structure/education
• Human rights, communication and information
• Access and literacies
• Participatory communication
• Representation
• Strategic communication and information policies and action plans
• Indicators of knowledge societies

• Repertoire of research methodologies and methods

Cees Hamelink

• UNESCO/IAMCR link formed around context of 1970s NWICO campaigns for ‘right to communicate’ – MacBride Commission (1980) – fell apart in 1980s for political reasons (withdrawal if US, UK and Singapore 1985)
• 1990s – cultural diversity report – not promoted – late 1990s – missed boat on WSIS – given to ITU
• 2000s – Convention on Cultural Diversity – not supported by US – needed to become an instrument aligned to WTO language

Annabelle Sreberny

• Danger of repetition of 1970s debates which were focused on film and television, but now around ICT and knowledge societies – still a technologistic drive
• IAMCR can challenge some of the ‘normalising’ rhetorics that come from UNESCO – internationalizing still takes US and Europe as the baseline – developed versus developing/emergent/transitional/crisis-ridden etc.
• Media & communications research needs to dialogue with other disciplines more e.g. economics, political science, law.
• How do we nurture creative and cultural industries to promote cultural diversity and new businesses (petty bourgeoisie) in developing countries
• Rhetoric is too abstract and universalising and not grounded in time and place – wanting more grounded projects and empirical, bottom-up studies (e.g. media anthropology)
• Afghanistan – has plethora of development communications after war – now has 14 TV channels, each run by competing warlord interests – is this what was wanted? - contrast to Iran where slow process of democratization is happening, but is ignored for political reasons

Marc Raboy

• IAMCR report acknowledges difficulties of researching the global, but there may be a need to step back from current pragmatics to question of how to integrate recognition of greater diversity into a research perspective – lack of consensus about diversity, democracy etc.
• Moving beyond reports on what is currently being done to need to consider relationship between methodological nationalism/methodological cosmopolitanism (Ulrich Beck)
• Issues being defined at the global level need to be addressed at the local and national levels e.g. democracy and human rights
• Emergence of new institutional players in the debate – not only national governments and multilateral institutions but specific organizations of global civil society e.g. AMART has a 25 year history as a global community media organisation

Indrajit Banerjee

• Three core reasons/rationales behind this exercise:
1. Fundamental transformation of global media and communications landscape – mass communication systems in crisis
2. Deepening development crisis – focus needs to be on UNESCO framework of sustainable development
3. Inadequacies in communications research in relation to sustainable development.

Divina Frau-Miegs

• IAMCR presenting to UNESCO as an NGO and not just as a research organization – added value of transnational perspective – intermediations, transnationalisation (Sonia Livingstone)
• Civil society agencies taking global agendas back home since WSIS – how to localize global issues
• Reporting, assessment, tools, methodologies
• An alternative to normative concept of ‘development’?
• Different cultural diversity agendas – they should be complementary
o Western – employment
o African – identity
o Latin American & Asian – sustainability

Need to enable rather than dictate different local adaptation of these agendas.
Need to be prepared to ‘dirty our hands’ to contribute to social justice.

New Concepts, New Methods: The Challenges of Popular Communication Research in the 21st Century

John Hartley

• Rethinking representation to productivity – DIY/DIWO citizenship/identity (NB: never found out what DIWO identity was)
• Entrepreneurial consumers – audiences not just active but productive
• Revisiting active audience but not as product of industrial organization
• Culture, media and the popular at leading edge of innovation – cultural science

Henry Jenkins

“How I Learned to Love Moby Dick, or when Fan Studies meets High Culture”

• Too much policing of boundary of popular culture – validating popular culture forgot to study high culture, and left it to literary criticism
• Modes of cultural participation set it off from fan studies that are devoted to high culture – Shakespeare, Jane Austen, book clubs etc.
• How to bring participatory culture into the study of literary classics (work for MacArthur Foundation on new media literacies and young people)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

ICA Presentation, and more on Neoliberalism

I presented my ICA paper this morning in Montreal. Too many paper, not enough time, as tends to happen at ICA, with six papers in just over one hour. The paper was called "Rethinking Global Media: Creative Diversity and Media Dispersal". The final paper will be sent to the International Journal of Communication shortly, but a draft is available from the ICA web site. An earlier version presented in Seoul last year can be found at the QUT ePrints web site.

It was in a session that also had papers on the Lineage online games from Korea and on the Nigerian video boom, both of which fitted the theme of my paper well.

In the question time, the all embracing trope of "neoliberalism" appeared again. The final question was "Aren't we missing the elephant in the room here, which is the global dispersal of neoliberal ideology by the dominant Western powers?". Before I could say "No", the session came to a close with that question.

I had the good fortune to meet Simon Ellis, the Head of Section for Science, Culture and Communication Statistics at the session, and we had coffee afterwards. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics is headquartered in Montreal. Among the issues we discussed, we agreed that I should have said no to the last question, as the dispersal of global media production and distribution is supported by the UNESCO data. He also pointed to some flaws with the recent UNCTAD Creative Economy report, which I have referenced in a previous post.

UNESCO are hosting a session tomorrow that I am looking forward to. There is also a session on the impact of NAFTA on the cultural and creative industries.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


At the ICA conference today I attended an interesting interactive panel discussion on the future of television studies as the form of television changes - from out of the box to computers, phones, iPod etc.

One thing that struck me at this session, and indeed at other sessions, is how the term "neoliberalism" has become an all-purpose catch-all phrase for any development over the last 30 years about which the speaker disapproves.

While this wasn't what the panel did, it came up in one comment, where the speakers got up and said "The ideology of neoliberalism has permeated just about everything these days." In this case it was her daughter's cultivated ironic attitude to the TV programs she watches.

As I sat and listened, I did some mental time traveling. I took myself out of Le Sheraton in Montreal and put myself in a draughty classroom in a Polytechnic about 30 years ago - or perhaps my Honours year at Sydney Uni - where we could be sitting on formica chairs and having the same conversation, except it would have been "capitalism" rather than "neoliberalism".

In trying to think through what is wrong with this picture, I was reminded of the critiques that people like Ian Hunter made in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s of what he termed "reflection theory". All the rage in film and literary studies at the time, it would find in texts some reflection of an underlying schema of oppression e.g. Charles Dickens' novels reflect the brutalities of 19th century British industrial capitalism, Apocalypse Now reflects the crisis of American imperialism, ads for cleaning product reflect the oppression of women in the home etc.

Without going back over that old terrain, it strikes me that the term "neoliberalism" is a poor substitute if what you really want to say is capitalism, for three reasons:

  1. The term only really makes sense in the economic/public policy domain, where it might refer to economic policies such as monetarism, theories of policy such as public choice theory, and the 'Washington Consensus' that informed organizations such as the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s and 1990s. I don't think we are in those policy times at all at present. Certainly in the US, something like the $308 billion Farm Bill just passed by Congress is the antithesis of all of that, as are the various ideas floating around to act on rising fuel prices by giving people 'gas tax holidays' of one form or another.
  2. When people say "neo-liberalism", what is the other liberalism they refer to? Is it the philosophical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the policy liberalism of Roosevelt and the "New Deal", policies of labour and social democratic governments in the 1960 and 1970s, or what? It seems to me that you can't create a "boo word" that's philosophically grounded without knowing something about philosophy, particularly political philosophy.
  3. Liberals are differently positioned in different places. Australia's conservatives are in the Liberal Party, while in the U.S. and Canada Liberals are on the centre-left. At any rate, social liberalism is on the rise in the U.S. coming into the 2008 Presidential elections, and this is a good thing. The comparative lack of hoo-ha about the legalisation of same-sex marriages in California - as compared to Massacheusetts four years ago - indicates how uninterested the Republicans are in going to the barricades on this issue this time. Someone like John McCain will speak against it, but will go on the Ellen show to do so, the wek after Ellen announced that she will use the occasion to marry Portia de Rossi. And being relaxed about same-sex marriages is pretty consistent with a world-view that has its origins in liberalism and 'freedom of the individual'.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Citizen News

A new channel on YouTube for citizen journalists called Citizen News has been announced. You can find out about it here.

The YouTube Citizen News page can be found here

Also check out DigitalJournal TV here

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ecological media studies?

I am at the International Communications Association conference in Montreal. It is currently the pre-conference, and I am attending the sessions on 'Mediating Global Citizenship'.

The opening keynote was by Professor Toby Miller from U. California (Riverside). Toby is an ex-pat Aussie and very well known in Australian media and cultural studies circles.

Toby's provocative presentation argued that media studies is on the wrong track in demanding more speech and more rights to communicate as a condition of cultural citizenship. Instead, he emphasised the global ecological consequences of extending the technologies that enable more communication (laptops, iPods, mobile phones, wireless networks etc.). The point is made that Apple, the coolest of the new media giants, also most likely has the most ecologically destructive production practices across its globally networked production system.

I have provided my notes below but, as is often the case with Toby's work, it is a well-aimed broadside at dominant tendencies in media studies, including the work of myself and my colleagues pursuing the 'creative industries' agenda. Obviously in my mind is the thought that some of htis is easier if you come from a material base that allows you to forego worldly goods (and Toby acknowledged that he certainly doesn't do this, having 4 laptops and 4 iPods), but harder in the developing world where these symbols of modernity are becoming available for the first time.

The paper on which the talk was based can be found in the International Journal of Communication, and was co-authored by Richard Maxwell.

International Communications Association
58th Annual Conference, Communication for Social Change, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 21-28 May

Pre-Conference Workshop: Mediating Global Citizenship – May 21-22 2008

Toby Miller (UC Riverside), May 21

• Rethink media studies in context of environment and citizenship
• Media studies caught in a technological sublime
• Governed by principle that more speech is good – it may not be – it may be bad

Three kinds of citizenship
1. Political: the state/representation - rights
2. Economic: standard of living – material interests
3. Cultural: right to know and to speak – communication/representation

These partly overlap – ‘citizenship, employment, literacy’

• Cultural citizenship is not the apogee of these – economic citizenship is vital – media studies seek more (growth ethic) – focus on numbers – grafted onto the growth complex of economic theory – more discourse
• New theoretical direction for media studies needed from green citizenship – critique of territorial citizenship and capitalist modernity
• Media eco-ethics – Miller & Maxwell – International Journal of Communication

• Media technology has been key indicator of modernity and its doom-laden portent - seen as opening up new democratic possibilities as well as unknown personal/consumer needs (utopia/dystopia) – media studies sublime as decontextualized technological fantasy

• Postmodern guarantee of right to communicate is at the core of environmental degradation and needs to be investigated e.g. exposure of iPod production workers to environmental hazards in four countries (lead, mercury etc.) – harder to track their composite production histories; also built-in obsolescence

• 2% of carbon emissions worldwide come from global information & communications industries – equivalent to aviation

• News Corp – aims to be carbon-neutral by 2010 – relationship to climate change denial in News Corp outlets (FOX)

• New ‘post-smokestack era of industry’ – CHASS submission to Productivity Commission (Australia)

• Environment talked about in media studies in terms of representation, not death and disability – forgets relationship between media technologies and science

Four Ecological Contexts of Contemporary Media Technology
1. Energy consumption
2. Plastics in manufacture
3. Producing of inputs (e.g. electro-magnetic spectrum)
4. Dumping of waste (‘effluent for the affluent’ – e-waste)

• ‘Deodorization of public space’ is globally stratified – e.g. Lagos as a dumping ground for old computers; coastal deltas of China – the ‘ragpicker’ as a figure for global citizenship from below.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Advance Australia Fair

Leaving the offices of the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University for lunch today, I heard the most curious thing. At midday, the carillion bells were playing something that I could vaguely recognise. As I stood and listened, I realised that it was "Advance Australia Fair", the Australian national anthem.

Why "Advance Australia Fair" at U. Indiana today? My one theory on this is that the President of Indiana University, Michael McRobbie, is an Australian. Several people have pointed this out to me, ranging from the academics I have met here to the woman who cut my hair. As noted in his official biography on the University Web page:

A native of Australia, McRobbie came to IU from the Institute of Advanced Study at the Australian National University (ANU), where he was a professor of information technology and chief executive officer of the Cooperative Research Centre for Advanced Computational Systems. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Queensland and a doctoral degree from ANU.

Monday, May 19, 2008

John McCain and the future of the Republicans

Most attention in the U.S. Presidential elections has been given to the Democratic Party, and the wide schism revealed in its support base between supporters of Hillary Clinton (majority of women, Latinos, older voters, lower income, lower average levels of education) and Barack Obama (majority of African-Americans, younger voters, higher income, tertiary educated). It has been cast as “a standoff between the Dukes of Hazzard and the Huxtables” , but its fault lines are pretty clear. This cannot be said for the Republican Party going into the 2008 elections.

John McCain does not bring a strong hand to the election, although the ongoing saga of the Democrat nominee has helped somewhat. There is usually a change in the governing party after eight years of one President holding office. While this was not true in 1988, George Bush gained the presidency with Ronald Reagan having a personal approval rating of about 60%. George W. Bush has a personal approval rating below 30%, and sinking. Even if his approval figures were better, this would be no guarantee against change. Bill Clinton left office with personal approval ratings over 60%, but his Vice-President Al Gore could not defeat the Republicans in 2000.

The position of the Republicans as a party is far worse than that of John McCain as its presumptive Presidential nominee. Having lost control of both the Senate and the House in the 2006 mid-term primaries, they have recently experienced three major losses in special Congressional elections. The most recent loss was in a presumed safe seat in Mississippi, where there was a 20% swing to the Democrats. Several Republican analysts have warned that the Republican ‘brand’ is ‘dog food’, and if it were a product it would be taken off the shelf.

Reasons for this are many and varied, and go well beyond commitment to the War in Iraq. Basically, the Republicans in Congress have been sinking with the Bush presidency, and the sense of malaise and policy failure that surrounds it. The question is where John McCain goes in relation to it.

McCain has some distance from Bush, and has accentuated it in recent times with a speech in New Orleans condemning how Hurricane Katrina was handled in 2005, and a recent speech (sort of) acknowledging the threat of global warming. The question, however, is not simply one of personal style and belief, but goes to the heart of where America’s conservative party wants to be over the next decade.

The question revolves around two axes. One is economic. Conservatives view the fiscal profligacy of the Bush years with horror, as it has combined large and regressive tax cuts (which they would otherwise support) with a big increase in government spending, not just on the war in Iraq, but also on a wide range of social programs. They see that as reversing the ‘Reagan doctrine’ and recreating a culture that all social problems are addressed through more government spending, throwing fiscal conservatism out the window, ad denying them any real point of differentiation from the Democrats. Moreover, the groaning fiscal and trade deficits adversely impact on foreign policy. The recent tax cuts to avert economic recession were described a “Borrowing more money from the Chinese to pay for oil bought from the Saudis.”

The other axis is cultural, or what are also termed ‘faith and values’ issues. McCain has recognized the problems that arise from the Republicans being tied to the evangelical Christian right, particularly with younger voters – he has made thirteen appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly would dismiss as a show for “stoned slackers”.

A move to the cultural centre would be to follow what might be termed the ‘Arnie strategy’. As Governor of California, the largest state in the U.S. in both population and economic terms, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the nation’s most politically successful Republicans. Schwarzenegger e governs what is otherwise now a Democrat state – even though it is the home state of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – by recognizing that the social liberalism of the state and aligning this with economic conservatism and pro-business policies.

The centrist ‘Arnie strategy’ appeals to McCain, and makes a lot of sense in an election where the Republicans now have a real opportunity in capturing the vote of Hillary Clinton supporters if Barack Obama is the Democrat nominee and they can position Obama as ‘too liberal’. The catch is that the support base of the Republicans – from Christian lobby groups to influential donors to the bevy of conservative columnists, radio talk show hosts and TV pundits – have run so long and hard on a conservative ‘culture wars’ position that they will feel let down by a Republican nominee who does not align to these values and positions on their favoured ‘hot button’ issues.

The silence of all sides (McCain, Obama, Clinton) on the California Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on same-sex marriages indicates how tricky these issues are becoming. They are much more complex for the Republicans than the Democrats, since making a big issue of such decisions in order to mobilise the conservative base has been the sine qua non of Republican politics for decades.

McCain’s dilemma, and how he addresses it, will influence the shape of conservative politics worldwide for some time to come, just as the ‘Reagan revolution’ has been a defining influence globally for the last 30 years.

PS: To get a sense of how hard it may be to retrain Republican supporters from well-established habits, see conservative talk-show host Kevin James’s responses to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on whether talking to political enemies is the same as appeasement, which apparently ‘energized’ Hitler in 1939.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Blowhard alert

If you want to see historical understanding and argument at it most sophisticated, check this interview between Chris Matthews from MSNBC and right-wing talk-show host Kevin James on the meaning of appeasement:

John McCain is facing an interesting question about how much he wants to associate with these people in his run for the U.S. Presidency this year. G.W. Bush and his foreign policy are not all that popular at present, with presidential approval ratings below 30%. Does McCain want the same dogs at his tree?

And for more right-wing blowhards, witness the young Bill O'Reilly and his work with the teleprompter guy.

And a dance remix here:

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Sopranos

I haven't posted for a few days as I have been trying to work through a problem related to my impending paper at the International Communications Association conference in Montreal next week as I ready it to be sent to a refereed journal. I'll make a post on this at a later date.

In the meantime, one of my great guilty pleasures while being in the U.S. has been to catch up again on The Sopranos. Programming of the show on network TV in Australia was just awful, having to stay up after midnight for episodes run out of sequence, so having it in the U.S. (on A&E, not HBO) has been a great chance to think through one of the best TV shows of the 2000s, if not ever.

A&E run old episodes daily at 4pm (they are in Series 3 at the moment), repeats from series 6 at 10am on Sundays, and 'new' episodes from Series 6 at 10pm on Sunday (yes, I know they are not new, but I didn't see them the first time around). A disjointed way to watch the show, sure, but its not a novel, so you can dip in and out wherever you like. Also, as Steven Johnson has observed, the multi-thread narrative means that there is always something new to pick up on even in episodes you have seen before.

As The Sopranos has no doubt been endlessly analysed and blogged (see here for my favourite book on the show), I'll limit my comments to three things, other than James Gandolfini's ability to turn on a dime emotionally as Tony Soprano, as he moves in and out of otherwise disconnected situations.

  1. How work always intrudes on the domestic environment, and the domestic environment always finds it way into work. Whether it is the mob hits organised in the back garden after a birthday, wedding or funeral, or Tony advising his sister about her hot water system while awaiting a blow job in a private room at the Bada Bing, the semi-public sphere of mob business and the domestic sphere of wife, children, in-laws, relatives etc. are constantly overlapping, and a big part of Tony's life is spent trying to keep some structural separation between the two. His ongoing need for therapy to deal with his panic attacks is one outlet for the consequences of this.
  2. The use of violence as a weapon of first resort. The use of violence to solve problems is so much a part of the Soprano culture that everyone struggles to find a means other than violence to address a problem, even when it is known that the consequences of the violence will be greater than the problem they were seeking to address. The characters who are least well adjusted to the culture tend to bring the worst consequences to their actions - Tony' sister Janine, son A.J., the unfortunate Artie the chef, the truly appalling Ralphie, and - form time to time - Christopher Montefiore.
  3. The staggering gender double-standards. While women play a core role in The Sopranos as a show, the codes that they are expected to live by, and the extent to which these codes are completely over-ridden by the men in the show, are Patriarchy 101 in action.
Best line of Series 6 (so far): Tony to Paulie: "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" (about his management of the festival where his one-year-old nephew was almost injured on a faulty ride).

[Echoing George W. Bush's (in)famous observation about the Head of the Federal Emergency Management Authority during the Hurricane Katrina crisis in New Orleans.]

Runner-up: Christopher to Sir Ben Kingsley, trying to convince him to star in a movie that he is writing a script for: "To produce it, we're approaching Dick Wolf. He did Law and Order: The SUV."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Noel Pearson and Barack Obama

Below is a copy of a post that I made on the Australian opinion and blog site Lavartus Prodeo in response to a discussion about an article that appeared in the Australian print publication The Monthly (see original article here)

I haven’t seen the Noel Pearson article, as The Monthly has a subscription-only policy for its online edition, but it would sound like he would be arguing that Barack Obama should be running as a Republican rather than as a Democrat. There is a well-established Black Republican and black conservative tradition in the U.S. that tends to define itself in opposition to the ‘identity politics’ agenda associated with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and (yes, him again!) Rev. Jeremiah Wright, emphasising instead individual responsibility, being tough on urban crime, and patriotism.

Writing from the U.S., this would seem to be the second attempt by Australian news media to understand the Barack Obama phenomenon here that has got it completely wrong. Chris Masters’ ABC Four Corners story missed the whole issue because (1) he went to the wrong city (New York rather than Chicago); and (2) he insisted on seeing the whole thing through the prism of the 60s civil rights struggle. As a result the show had endless and irrelevant waffle about white girls in Harlem bars and black people profiting from the gentrification of Harlem. I’m surprised that he didn’t find out that rappers own big houses and that white Americans watch Oprah!

For The Monthly, the question is why - aside from skin colour - would you assume that Noel Pearson would be an authority on Barack Obama. A much better starting point would have been to find someone who was knowledgeable about Jesse Jackson’s campaign in the Democratic Party primaries of 1984 and 1988 (and Jackson got 29% of the popular vote and the Democrat delegates in 1988), and consider how Obama’s campaign has differed from that of Jackson, and indeed how he is different to the better known black Democrats in the U.S., such as Jackson. This article in The New York Times is one place to start.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Grand Theft Auto 4

The cultural sensation of 2008 has been Grand Theft Auto 4. Costing an estimated $100 million to produce, it grossed over $500 million in sales in the first week of its release. It has received rapturous reviews and is quickly establishing itself as a landmark in the history of gaming.

I have provided an interview below from New York magazine from 2 May 2008 with Dan Houser, Vice President of Rockstar Games and co-writer of GTA IV. The link to this interview can be found at

Things that struck me as interesting about this interview were:
  1. The influence of cinematic aesthetics and production values, and particularly the emphasis on realism, on how GTA4 was designed;
  2. The idea that blockbuster cinema is the natural competitor of high production value games. GTA4 is the kind of summer cultural sensation that films like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Independence Day were in the 1990s;
  3. How global production networks operate in high budget cultural production. For example, the art direction for GTA4 was undertaken in Scotland.

So the gaming industry has changed a lot since the last GTA ...

Yeah, fuck all this stuff about casual gaming. I think people still want games that are groundbreaking. The Wii is doing something totally different, which is fantastic. We're hopefully going to prove that there’s also a very big audience for people who want entertainment in another form, who think of games as being a narrative device that can challenge movies. We always said: We’re not going release a large number of games. They’re going to have the production values of movies. They're gonna be about themes that interest us whatever the medium, instead of the weird, special video game–only themes that too many people make — orcs and elves, or monsters, or space. We felt you could make a good game and have it be about something we could actually relate to. Or aspire to.

When it comes to designing New York, where do you even start? With the map?

It's not just getting the roads laid out sensibly, which we do, or picking all the landmarks — it's also the more subtle details of dirt, or lighting. We had people out photographing on rooftops on time-lapse cameras so we could get the lighting as close as we can. We had guys looking at Census data; this part of Queens should be more Chinese. The [pedestrians] can go up and speak to each other now, so we got them speaking Russian, Spanish, Chinese. It seemed we'd set a high bar in the past and wanted to take it to a new place, where you feel less like a video game and more like this weird digital fantasy world.

How do you do that?

We're doing things in this that other people would think is insane. Here's a simple example: pedestrians, the guys that walk around, it's a massive-scale production to do that. We ended up with 660 speaking parts. 80,000 lines of dialogue, it's ridiculous.

Can you give us an example of something in the game we wouldn't notice right away?

I think one of the things we try to capture in the game is that New York is the world leader in walking around meeting insane people. [Rockstar Games president] Sam [Houser] and I were walking home and we just met this absolutely crazy homeless guy, who was telling us how he recently killed someone, and drifted into insanity. After 30 seconds of this guy's life, we both thought — he's brilliant! [In the game] you meet freaky characters, and then you can do little random interactive things with them.

Who are a few of your favorites?

We go for that full range of classic New York archetypes. You've got the angry sleeping-pill-popping sort of Sex and the City type woman, you know, whose looks are just beginning to fade — a career woman who works in fashion. The guy who's like, "Yo, buy my record." There's the kid who's like the overconfident cokehead, and then you see him later and he becomes a crackhead, and he's a real mess. And then you see him a while later and he's fresh out of rehab.

So all the pedestrians fit the neighborhoods?

The people in Soho are expensively dressed and into shopping and vacuous in their own way. People in Noho are slightly different, people in Harlem are different. We give them a little character, maybe a two-sentence description — usually a cynical take on a classic New York persona: an English guy living over here, who thinks he's a real hot shot, but he's a complete phony, which is why he's come to New York. If he gets pushed when he's on his cell phone, he runs away from you.

We're trying to pick up personalities that are worth of spoofing. We're not trying to go after every single black person, or every 25-year-old Hispanic kid. We’re saying, this is the neurotic guy who wants to be hard. This is the hard guy who wants to be a poet. And this is the angry guy who's trying to go to anger management class. We're just trying to get male personas and fix them to any race.

On the fashion side, we're literally doing fashion shoots and taking the photographs and turning them into the models. We have street stylists to help us dress them. It's got to look right.

How realistic did you want to go with this?

We try to get the essence of the place, not a photo-realistic, digital tourist guide. We wanted a kind of spiritual tourist guide that feels like New York, but a blown-out, larger-than-life version. We want it to feel you're the star of your own movie or TV show. We wanted an element of the classic New York of the seventies and eighties too.

It’s got a bit of that bad, good old days feel.

We’re not at all aspiring to virtual reality — what we are aspiring to is what feels like you're living in your own world, halfway between 3-D cartoon and action movies. Aaron [Gorbut] in Scotland, the art director, the thing that he's a genius at, and his main guys are brilliant at pulling off, is making the worlds look lived-in in a way no one else can. They don't just think, "How do I make a beautiful model for this house and the sidewalk?" They worry about, "How do I seam them together and put a nice dirt between them?" You never notice that as a consumer, but you do notice that it looks really believable. Other games look so rigid.

How did you pick which areas of New York to feature?

We went from maybe doing the whole of New York State. And then it was just Manhattan, then it expanded out again and was going to be a bunch of suburbs, maybe like Westchester or out to Long Island with woods so you could go bury people. We made lists of what must we keep, what can we drop, what's got to be there, what can we smash in together. Like how we don't do Staten Island and do New Jersey: we would all vote on it. We didn't want to offend anyone in Staten Island, but you get the same suburban neighborhoods in Jersey, plus some factories and stuff.

What kind of research did you do?

We started videoing a lot of neighborhoods, and then the videos were sent off to North [Rockstar's studio in Scotland, where most programming is done] and put on plasma TVs around their office, so while they worked they could look up and there was New York.

Did the guys from Scotland come over here?

In March or April of 2005 we had 60 or 70 of the guys here for a week and a half, driving around in SUVs in the rough parts of town. We'd have cops who used to work the beat driving us around Washington Heights, and saying it used to be great because it was really different then and you could shoot people all the time.

How have the radio stations in the game improved?

We went basically from about eight or nine stations in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to eighteen different radio stations this time. We wanted [the news station] to feel like 1010 WINS, so we got one of the main voices [John Montone] to be our news reader. Problem is, in New York now, you can't find seventeen radio stations you want to listen to. We tried to get stuff that would feel like what you would want to hear if you came to New York. Not necessarily what you do find here, but what you ought to hear if it was like the way you'd imagined it.

It seems like the video game–violence issue might finally be dying down. Do you foresee any problems with GTA IV?

If you don’t like any violent content in your entertainment, then I apologize because I do. And I’ve unfortunately been exposed to it my entire life. I agree that the world would be a greater place if all of the guns and all of the bombs disappeared, but that certainly is not in the agenda. If we equally got rid of a lot of books that talk about violence, okay. But if we don’t like these games because they've got content that we’re happy to see in movies and TV shows, then what you’re saying is you don’t like the medium because we don’t have a George Clooney type sticking his face in front of the camera. There is nothing in the game you would not see in a TV show, or a movie a hundred times over, so I don’t understand what the conversation is about. We set out to make games that felt like they could culturally exist alongside the movies we were watching and the books we were reading, and hopefully we’re getting close to those goals.

I thought you might back away from the sex, but you can still pick up girls, right?

We wanted it to feel like a gangster film. And you can't do that if you can’t use bad language, or have a hooker on the corner, or a strip club, or all the other things that are part of that world. —

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Google Maps

I am off to Madison, Wisconsin tomorrow and I am driving there. Once you would have needed a directory to do this. Now you check out Google Maps to work out how to get there without driving through Chicago (I'd love to go there, but I am warned about being stuck in traffic). The question is whether you can get wireless access out on the highway.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Is America going backwards economically?

Aside from the Democrat primaries, the major talking point in the U.S. this week is whether the United States is losing ground in the global economy. This is different to the question of whether or not the U.S. economy is in recession (or 'slowdown' as GWB prefers to put it), but is rather about whether the U.S. is losing the competitive race against the emergent economies of East Asia and the Middle East, and indeed to Europe.

Two triggers to this have been Thomas Friedman's 'Who will tell the people' article in the New York Times, and the launch of Zareed Fakaria's book, The Post-American World and the various articles and TV appearances he has made around that. Both are arguing that as much of the world has adopted a free trade, pro-globalization agenda - as the U.S. campaigned for them to do throughout the 1980s and 1990s - the ability to compete successfully in the global market is understood mostly in terms of its threat to the U.S. economy.

Fakaria likes to use examples of 'big things' to make his point (Where's the world's biggest mall? - Beijing). Friedman compares the slow death experience of time spent at a major U.S. airport to the resort/business club experience of spending time at Hong Kong International Airport or Changi airport in Singapore. But both are saying that, having mostly won the arguments about globalization and freeing up international trade, the U.S. polity has largely failed to consider the implications for the U.S. itself of a more competitive global trading regime.

I am struck by how this debate differs in the U.S. to how it plays out in Australia. The Democratic Party in the U.S. is far more protectionist than the Australian Labor Party. This particularly cam through in Hillary Clinton's campaign, where her two biggest rallying points - opposing NAFTA and getting tough on China - struck an odd tone, given that the signing of NAFTA and opening up the space for China to join the WTO were probably the two major trade policy achievement of Bill Clinton's administration.

There is also no equivalent to, say, Paul Keating in the U.S. context, who would say that protectionism s a short-term measure that costs consumers and ultimately won't save jobs, and that more trade with countries such as China not only means the relocation of steel and textile jobs, but cheaper consumer goods and the scope to develop new jobs further up the industry value chain. This is despite the fact that parts of the country that aren't obvious beneficiaries, such as North Carolina and Virginia, are becoming more prosperous and middle-class as they develop more knowledge-based industries.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

White Heat

Readers of this blog would know that I have made the trip from Australia to the United States. That means a 13 hour flight (16 hours of flying if you count the connecting domestic flight), and that means you need a big book.

Last time I did this flight I read Bill Clinton's autobiography. As you might have gathered, that wasn't going to be my book of choice this time. This time I picked Dominic Sandbrook's White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties.

At 800 pages it was the right length, and it was indeed the right book. Sandbrook was born in 1974, so he is writing about a historical period that he didn't live through, but that is the point. It is the second book in a history of post-WWII Britain that are part of what he calls 'narrative history', or a tightly argued, event by event, approach that draws on the full range of secondary sources available.

It has a heady mix of politics, popular culture, and various vignettes from the lives of ordinary Britons during what was a pretty compelling period. It has some great chapter titles ('Introducing the Turds', 'The Day It All Stopped', 'Carry On England', 'I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet!' and 'Why Lucky Jim Turned Right') using titles from newspaper articles books, movies, TV shows, speeches and, indeed, shops from the period ('I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet!' was a fashion shop in London).

Two things caught my eye in particular about the book. The first is the level of detail it goes into about the minutae of Harold Wilson's Labour government and its decision making processes. As the first government to govern over a period of decline in Britain, where the economic situation started badly and got worse, it is intriguing to understand the personalities, the conflict, and the sense of malaise that frequently struck this government, which started with high hopes and ended in disarray.

The other thing is that he debunks a lot of myths about the period that are told by those who lived through it. The idea that Britain in the 60s was all Swinging London, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and political radicalism is pretty effectively skewered through Sandbrook's approach, which reads the newspapers, the magazines, the statistics and the personal testimonies of the era very closely, and which tells history from the bottom up and from through out the country (i.e. from Hull and not just London).

Well worth a read, particularly if you are looking for a long historical work and have some time to settle back with it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

'The last trip to send the family pet to the vet?' Indiana and North Carolina Democratic Party primaries

The Democratic Party primaries may appear to continue the status quo in the campaign, with Hilary Clinton winning Indiana as expected, and Barack Obama winning North Carolina as expected. But the magnitude of Obama's win in North Carolina (58-42%) and the narrowness of Hilary Clinton's win in Indiana (52-48%) indicate that the long Democrat contest is all but over for Hilary Clinton.

As one Republican strategist unkindly put it on CNN as the early figures came in, "This is the last trip to send the family pet to the vet."

However you slice and dice the figures, it is now apparent that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and that the super delegates will now be close to declaring for Obama, killing off the Clinton's hope of a palace coup at the Denver Convention.

On the popular vote through the primaries overall, and including the disputed Florida primary (although not Michigan, where Obama's name did not appear on the ballot paper), Obama has a 49% to 47% margin over Hilary Clinton.

What it means for the Democrats' chances in November depends on how you read three factors. The first is the extent to which the Clinton campaign's bruising campaign against Obama has damaged him as a Presidential candidate, and whether they will put aside differences and work towards trying to see Obama win in 2008, or sit back and snipe with an eye to the 2012 campaign should John McCain beat Obama.

The second point is that the nature of the contest itself has energised the Democrat base significantly, and this may matter in states that would be otherwise solidly Republican, such as Indiana and North Carolina, as they have now had far more exposure to Barack Obama and his policies than they would have had if the primary contest had been settled earlier.

The last point, and the toughest one, is how to now hold together the very different voting blocs that have emerged. Obama's core bloc of the tertiary educated and African-Americans can carry the Democrat nomination but not the U.S. Presidency. They need to bring in Hilary Clinton's core bloc of older, rural, blue collar and high school educated voters. In particular, the big challenge will be to win over the women of Hilary's generation and older who saw this as the great opportunity of their lifetime to see the first U.S. woman president.

Hilary Clinton's campaign was not saved by the cornpoke politics of the last two weeks, with its mix of veiled threats about Obama, its know-nothing populist policies (nuke Iran, put OPEC before the WTO, the 'gas tax holiday' that couldn't be), and the attempt to transform herself into something less than she actually is (a kind of Bush-lite). If the Clintons can finally drop their swords and think about working with Barack Obama, they would be a great asset. Bill Clinton remain the only really successful Democrat U.S. presidential nominee since 1964, and Hilary Clinton would be a very strong contributor to public policy if Obama won.

One big problem was pinned down in Salon by Thomas Schaller, which is that Hilary Clinton should not have done as badly with African-American voter as she has. She would never have got a majority once it was clear that Barack Obama was a real chance, but figures such as 6% and 8% of the African-American vote in Indiana and North Carolina are appalling for a candidate whose husband had a very strong base of support among African-Americans when he was President.

Things you didn't know about voting in Indiana

Continuing my theme on the Indiana Democratic Party primaries, I thought I would share some information about how voting happens here:

  1. People vote for delegates individually. You receive a ballot paper with the names of all prospective Democrat nominees to the party convention, and choose 56 of them. The paper is about seven pages long. There is not the option, as the is with the Senate in Australia, of putting a one at the top of the paper allowing your candidate to allocate your preferences.
  2. It is an open registration system here, meaning that you can be a registered Republican Party voter and vote in the Democratic Party primaries. This differs from other states, where you have to be a registered Democrat. So a Republican can vote for the delegates representing the Democrat candidate they think is least likely to win the presidency.
  3. You need to bring photo ID to the voter registration desk. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the requirement set by the (Republican-dominated) Indiana state legislature that three forms of ID be brought in order to vote, including photo ID, rejecting an appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union.
  4. You can't buy alcohol before the polling booths close at 6pm. At the supermarket I as at today (yes, you buy beer and wine at the supermarket), I asked about this, and the woman at the cash register said:
'That's so you can't get inebriated and make the right choice'.

It appears that identity theft may be an issue in the polls. A woman claiming to be Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard was in fact found to be Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton of New York City, NY.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The U.S. Democratic Primaries - Farewell to Liberal Hillary

Bloomington, Indiana is where I am at the moment, at the University of Indiana. It is best known as the home of Albert Kinsey, John Cougar Mellencamp, and the 'Hoosiers', a basketball team about whom a film was made in 1986 starring Gene Hackman as a coach and Dennis Hopper as a drunk.

Indiana is one of the two states voting tomorrow (Tuesday May 6) in the protracted and increasingly acrimonious Democratic Party primaries. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have worked these two states hard, even though they both typically vote Republican, as the long march to the Democrat nomination continues.

The striking feature at present is just how far to the right Hilary Clinton has turned in the course of this campaign. Having struggled against Obama for most core Democrat constituencies, she has over the last month increasingly pitched her campaign at what are known here as the 'Reagan Democrats' - white voters, foten older or less educated, anxious about change, deeply patriotic, and suspicious of liberal reformers.

Given that the Clinton years in the White house were viewed by most outside of the U.S. as at least notionally progressive, and that Hillary Clinton was for so long the bete noire of American conservatives, this has come as a bit of a surprise, at least to me. She appeared on the FOX News Channel's O'Reilly Factor last week, her defence of religion and guns, and her threats to get tough on China and to 'obliterate' Iran if Israel is attacked seem to be straight out of the Republican campaign book. And the favour seems to have been returned. She is getting endorsements from FOX News, The Weekly Standard and Rush Limbaugh.

This turn to the right came with the claim that Obama is a liberal 'elitist'. Given the respective upbringings of Hilary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Clinton White House years, and events such as Bill Clinton's 60th birthday party, where people paid $60,000+ to hang out with Bill and friends for three days and hear the Rolling Stones, this seems odd to put it mildly.

Predictions are that Barack Obama will win North Carolina and Hillary Clinton will win Indiana. If this turns out to be the case, the saga continues, and the caravans move to Kentucky, West Virginia and Oregon. The big winners out of this are, of course, the 24 hour cable news channels and, to a lesser extent, the Republican Party.

Two things strike me as weird about this. The first is that Hillary Clinton can't win the Democratic Party nomination. Or at least she can't unless the party superdelegates* overturn the popular vote and anoint Hillary to the candidacy based on concerns about Obama's 'electability'*. If that happens, the Democratic Party will split in two at the Denver convention.

The second thing is whether the Democrats are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. George W. Bush's personal approval rating is 28%, lower than that of Jimmy Carter during the American hostage capture in Iran. With so many other things running for them in this campaign, can the Democrats - who have lost seven of the last ten U.S. presidential elections - actually find a way to lose this one.

What is for sure is that when Hillary Clinton downed a whisky with a beer chaser in Pennsylvania, it seems to have washed away many of the progressive, small-l liberal credentials that both her friends and foes used to attribute to her.

* On The Daily Show, Jo Stewart asked Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee Chair, if superdelegates 'had been bitten by radioactive spiders and has powers 10,000 times those of normal voters'. On superdelegates and electability see:

Monday, May 5, 2008

Creative Economy 2008 - New UNCTAD Report

A new report by the United Nations Commission on Trade, Aid and Development has come out called Creative Economy 2008. It provides the useful compendium yet of both thinking around this topic and statistical evidence from countries throughout the world. It also points to the next stage in the debate around creative industries, which is its implications for developing countries.

Creative Industries presentation in Bloomington, Indiana

I am currently on leave from Q.U.T., and based at Indiana University, in the Department of Telecommunication.

On Friday May 2 I did a presentation to staff and doctoral student in the Department on creative industries a decade after the concept first emerged in Britain through the Blair Government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

I made extensive use of the statistical data developed by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, by Peter Higgs and Stuart Cunningham.

A copy of the powerpoints of this presentation can be found here.

The presentation was timely, as the Department is considering a renaming in light of its shifting priorities, towards the games and digital content industries. Creative industries is one of the alternative names being considered.

My thanks to Mark Deuze for organising this event for me. Good news for Mark as he had a personal promotion confirmed that day

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Welcome to my blog. I have been planing to develop this for some time now, and have set out to do it. I will use this blog to publish excerpts of current research, offer observations on what is happening around the place, and hopefully stimulate discussions and conversations.