Digital dreamings

Digital Dreaming

In the early 1990s I had the privilege of working with a group of aboriginal artists in Moree, northern NSW.

I came across this group, the Yurundiali Aboriginal Corporation , because I had applied for a job as Director of the Moree Art Gallery, and I ended up working with the Yurundiali instead. The Gallery, which had been created largely with Bicentennial funding – won precisely because of the aboriginal community – was largely focused on the work of white artists, and was predominantly run by the white community. The aboriginals, either by choice or by design, ended up working in the abandoned bowling club down by the river.

Whilst the Gallery did serve as a useful vehicle within which to exhibit, it was pretty much divorced from the actual creation and artistic process, much of which happened elsewhere.

Much of what I witnessed during this time was a microcosm of the situation that I believe still exists for many aboriginal people within white Australia where the “white man’s guilt”, real or perceived, is used to leverage resources which may, or may not, be used productively. Whilst the Yurundiali struggled with even the basics of funding application forms (and who doesn’t!), together with some of the nuances of modern western etiquette, they were masters at their art. They created visual representations based on an almost inexhaustible array of stories and imagination that flowed from every pore, and it didn’t matter their age or gender, it didn’t matter their education level, the content of their work continued, even though their productivity wasn’t necessarily suited to a commercial enterprise.

I thought of the Yurundiali and my experiences with them as I listened to Julian Doogan’s second lecture on the “For God’s Sake II:  Living Myth” series at the AGNSW yesterday which focused on Aboriginal Dreaming.

Doogan opened with the traditional acknowledgement of country and then proceeded to delve into precisely what this “acknowledgement” actually means to those of us who are relatively new to this land, those of us from non-aboriginal backgrounds. He asked whether many of us really understand what these statements mean, beyond the “white man’s guilt” and aspects of political correctness.

The importance of place and stories with the oral culture of the hundreds of Aboriginal nations that populated Australia, before the coming of the white man, was primary. Not only was it the centre of their knowledge for basic survival in terms of food and water, but it laid down the rules and norms for society and identity. The link between physical things, and concepts and ideas, has enabled thousands of generation to survive in this vast and at times extremely hostile environment, for over 70,000 years.

These peoples had to manage vast quantities of information without external man-made technologies to assist them, however they utilised the “tools” within the natural environment.  Part of their strategy was to pare down information to its most essential elements, and from there to focus on what was required to survive over time.  They also used “method of loci”, memorising spatial relationships to recollect memorial content, thus taking the whole and flowing down to the more specific.

These elements were encoded into stories that were passed down through the generations, segments of which were entrusted to specific groups and tribes.  Thus the physical and the virtual worked together to create a highly effective knowledge management system, the success of which speaks for itself.

The digital dreamtime

With the invention and development of information communications technologies, from cave paintings to the World Wide Web, has come the erosion of oral information systems and changes to the ways that humans interact with data.  Anthropologists have been studying this for centuries and the codification of abstract ideas and theories within symbols, from mathematics to hieroglyphs, means that vast quantities of information can be stored and later analysed.

As humans became more reliant on the empirical approach to science and knowledge so the rise of specialisation has increased with often siloed approaches to many disciplines, especially the sciences. In recent decades there has been a growing recognition that whilst the depth and specialisation of understanding is important, the need to retain a more holistic and connected is just as vital.

Social technologies are providing some of the tools with which people are making these connections, and serving our basic human need to share, and to do so through stories. As more and more people are embracing these new media the need to more proactively manage the information contained, the connections available and the sheer demands on our attention, is increasing. This is for precisely the same reason as existed for oral cultures, because as humans we can only process and deal with a finite amount of information which we need to filter and sort within our own context and relevance.

As we are learning to navigate through the “digital wilderness” so we too need “places” and “spaces” within the digital landscape with which to anchor and orient ourselves, and it is these places that are emerging as those that are most trusted and relied upon.  This is, in fact, the core of Google’s algorithm and Facebook’s model, and, like the “song lines”, we need guiding trails and reliable maps to show us the safe watering holes along the way.  We also need to develop, remember and understand the social mores and norms that are required to behave within digital communities, and we need to encode these within the myths and archetypes of human behaviour that are timeless and exist within our dreams as much as our cyber-realities.

I am not so sure that the world we have now, where physical information is yet again being converted through stories encapsulated by digital technologies, is all that different from that of these early aboriginal societies. It could be that some of the most crucial lessons that we need to learn now might be those that these oral traditions already hold, which have for too long been under-valued and arrogantly dismissed from the Western “civilised” perspective.

We are in danger of “reinventing the wheel” – yet again – as so much wisdom is being rapidly lost with elders dying off and younger generations who are no longer trusted to carry on the legacy.  There is a glimmer of hope though with projects like the Mungo Youth Project and others which seek to connect young people with their heritage.

Hopefully they will choose to share some of this knowledge with the wider community.