Towards the Development of Electronic Literacy and Network-Thinking in Remote Aboriginal Communities


Session Title:

  • Networking the Globe

Presentation Title:

  • Towards the Development of Electronic Literacy and Network-Thinking in Remote Aboriginal Communities



  • I work as an anthropologist on the problem of man-machine relations with an emphasis on electronic communication and information technologies. My subject is techno-culture and we can certainly state that this culture is as ‘foreign’, ‘different’, ‘other’ to the old western mechanics-dominated culture as to many non-European, so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. Here we have an interesting point to be investigated. The confrontation with the emerging electronic culture is as new for the (old) western culture as it is for the non-European cultures. A main influence in the building of western culture has been the establishment of a phonetic-alphabet, which introduced an Intellectual instrument’ (as Jack Goody called it in his Consequences of Literacy) that has contributed to the development of our linear-sequential thinking.The so-called ‘non-literate’ cultures that work with an oral system of communication utilise different intellectual instruments.

    The comparative study of literate and of non-literate culture into the age of electronic information and communication technology will allow us (for the first time in history) to gather a body of data to do with the elaboration of codified communication-systems as it is happening. In 1991, I spent four months in the deserts of Central Australia to study the use of television by remote Aboriginal communities. I discovered that we have a phenomenon here that surpasses the simple ‘televisual education’ of a non-literate culture and the old literate / non-literate discussion. The reflections of the late American anthropologist Eric Michaels (who worked between 1982 and 1986 on a community-TV project with the Warlpiri of Yuendumu) have not inaugurated a new age of electronic information. Communication technologies have to be developed in the light of the new (theoretical and practical) requirements.

    I propose to read the Aboriginal culture-text as a bona fide ‘primitive cybernetic system’. In the passage of their culture into the electronic information and communication age, Aboriginal peo-ple have an intellectual instrument that is destined to work with the principles of electronic networks. We will have to elaborate a field for western / Aboriginal collaborative efforts in electronic creativity. It is not sufficient to bring some VHS-cameras to remote communities with the hope that some concerned individuals will produce indigenous TV-programs. It will be necessary to set up a media-lab that illustrates (in a non-didactic way) the systemic functions of electronic machinery in the context of the cultural agendas of various communities.

    The information system of the Gulf-War can be considered as a electronic metaphor of Aboriginal totemic tracks. We have to look at the architecture of the totemic ant hill as a cybernetic information system. As western and Aboriginal cultures both are at the same beginners stage in the creative use of electronic devices, we find here a common cultural trait. My talk will include a proposal for an intercultural education-model in cybernetic literacy to be carried out in the deserts of Central Australia. Electronic creativity in remote communities might boost Aboriginal media-art, along the lines of the confrontation of this culture with canvas and acrylic paints.