Guest post on BuddeComm

November 29, 2011

Today my “guest post” about digital inclusion appeared on BuddeComm, the website of the company founded by Paul Budde, a major telecommunications research company based here in Australia.  This post discusses my digital inclusion ideas, which are also detailed in my posts of November 10th and November 14th.

On reading The New York Times and the New Yorker in New York

November 24, 2011

I am a committed reader of newspapers – and mostly the “old school” kind, actual ink on printed paper, even though I spend a large part of my professional life online.  Living in Sydney, Australia, I regularly read The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and even the Australian Financial Review.

But my favourite paper – and I am not alone in this judgment, even here – is The New York Times.  It may partly be a result of growing up in suburban New Jersey – where The New York Times was THE paper to read on Sunday mornings.  And occasionally you could buy the paper the night before (although I never quite realised then that the news was distinctly first edition and was inevitably updated later on).  It was, at least to me at the time – as they advertised – “all the news that’s fit to print”.  In retrospect, that clearly was not true (ALL the news?), but I recall spending many hours happily reading the paper, and continued to read printed paper editions of the “Arts and Leisure” and “Book Review” sections while living here in Australia, courtesy of various libraries which received them (a quaint and now dead tradition, from the perspective of late 2011, yes?).  The online world has made The New York Times more accessible (and I regularly receive at least three alert emails from the paper each week), but the last thirty years has also seen the Times expand to a true global brand, available for purchase all around the USA and widely consulted outside that country.

I am equally enamoured of The New Yorker, a weekly intellectual magazine with the courage to publish extremely long articles (8,000 or more words is not unusual), and with an ability to present some of the best writers,  And it is often been thus, as the recent biography by Brian Kellow  about the late film critic Pauline Kael details.  (Also see Camille Paglia’s analysis of Kael’s writing style and impact.)

So it was with delight that during my recent two month stay in New York City I was able to read the print edition of The New York Times every day and The New Yorker every week (the latter happily – for me – sent to the absent landlord of the flat we were renting in Chelsea).

And here is what I realised: these two media icons are actually fully and thoroughly New York in their being, both in and of that frustrating, exciting, stimulating and maddening city.  While I regard myself as intelligent, surely I would have noticed that ALL of the “events” listed in The New Yorker were actually taking place in NEW YORK.  Well, I guess I did, but I never quite thought it through or made the connection, until I saw a number of people reading the magazine on the subway – easily at least two or three in any one subway journey.  And of course, the covers of the magazine – which are frequently famous – inevitably tell important stories (or commentaries) about New York.  Here are three recent examples, respectively commenting on the Occupy Wall Street protests (October 24th 2011), the World Trade Center Twin Towers (the September 12th 2011 edition) and the tourists who flock to (and occupy) Times Square (October 3rd 2011).

Oh yes – Times Square – renamed that in 1904 (from the previous “Long Acre Square”), named after the newspaper The New York Times.

Indeed, The New York Times stands almost unique in the world, as it serves many functions as a media outlet.  It is THE major newspaper for the New York metropolitan area, which includes more than 22 million Americans (or more than one out of every fifteen Americans).  It is also a national brand, and sold – literally “on the streets” and in newsagents – throughout the USA.  And it is an international brand, with articles extensively reprinted (including here in Australia) and widely quoted as one of the few true “papers of record” (I certainly treated it that way in my soon-to-be finalized PhD thesis).  I have a hard time thinking of any paper in the English (or other) world that operates in the same way.  Certainly, The Guardian (from the UK) is widely read internationally (perhaps even more so internationally than in its home country), The Washington Post is a strong paper (but does not have the same national or international reach as The Times, and papers such as the English edition of Ha’aretz (from Israel, ironically sometimes called “the New York Times of Israel”) are widely read outside its own country.  But none can come close to the impact, reach, reputation, quality and durability of The Times.

So … reading The New York Times in New York City is not just a pleasure, it is a grounding experience – for this is where the paper was born, where it lives and it’s the city which gives it such energy, both a reflection of the intellectual life of that great city and a tremendous addition to it.

(My thanks to Emily Bell, Columbia University School of Journalism, for her helpful thoughts which have informed this posting.)

Miracle on 27th Street

November 17, 2011

I have just spent the months of September and October living in New York City on sabbatical.  This is the first of my postings of reflections and observations about those two months living in New York City.

I am not starting with the big picture but something very small and, well, furry.  Actually, not the cute gray mouse that took up residence under our dishwasher about mid-way through our stay, but a gray squirrel which lived in the trees on our street – West 27th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

I entitle this post “The Miracle on 27th Street” because the fact that this squirrel is there at all is indeed a miracle.  You may notice my reference to the film Miracle on 34th Street, a 1947 film starring Edmund Gwenn about a – real – Santa Claus (aren’t they all?) who worked at the New York City Macy’s, which is located on 34th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues.  In fact, Macy’s takes up the whole city block (and in fact is advertised as the largest department store in the world – but more on Macy’s another time).  There is also a 1994 re-make starring Richard Attenborough.

The phenomenon of urban squirrels in Manhattan has not gone un-noticed, with even affectionate books being written about them.  These are plant-eating animals (nuts, seeds, fruits, green vegetation, insects and various other things) which move around with a hopping gait and are superb climbers.  I grew up surrounded by them in New Jersey, so don’t think much is strange when I see them.

Except, how did the squirrel arrive on our street between 7th and 8th Avenues, both of which are essentially busy six lane roads with absolutely no vegetation?  One side of 27th Street is totally taken up with a massive “hard architecture” enormous block of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT, a State University of NY campus) and most of the other side of the block has FIT dormitories.  There are a few apartment buildings, particularly on the 8th Avenue side.  Our sublet flat (4th floor, great light, two bedrooms, not bad views, good character, even a fireplace!) was in one of those.  No backyards by the way, no yards at all, to be sure.

As far as I could tell, there was only one squirrel living on West 27th Street (this would be one lonely life for any species – perhaps he felt a bit like Will Smith in I Am Legend, a cool (2007) New York film about wildlife in Manhattan and the last of a species – in Smith’s case, humans), and the squirrel definitely seemed spooked, aggressive and , well, “jumpy” – reportedly jumping on or near people (I guess protecting his own space – but what space do you try to protect in New York City; if everyone tried to protect their space that way, the city would disintegrate).

BUT HOW DID HE GET THERE?  Was he a remnant population that has always lived there, back to when the “Indians” (Native Americans) lived on Manhattan island?  Surely not, as all of the vegetation seemed relatively young (he appeared to live in one or more of the thirty or so trees on that block, all of them maintained by FIT).  Or did he really cross 8th Avenue?  – Forget 7th Avenue – no squirrel populations there as you head east into the heart of Manhattan.  And remember, all of this just seven short blocks from Macy’s.

I asked a number of people in our building about the squirrel, and all were as mystified as I was – I should say that I also saw other squirrels living on the other side of 8th Avenue, where there were some small parks, so I can only conclude that this lonely (and, to be, quite explicit, pretty schizophrenic) animal wandered BY HIMSELF across 8th Avenue to take up residence by FIT.

I am sure that many streets in Manhattan have their own “miracles”, and that indeed was ours.

Coming up:  postings on the High Line, Empire State Building, Columbus Circle, Broadway, walking Manhattan, Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, The New York Times and The New Yorker, Whole Foods, David Letterman, dogs in New York City, crime in New York, Penn Station (31st to 34th Streets!), Chelsea, the Upper West Side and Halloween in America.

A triumph for remote Indigenous employment

November 15, 2011

One of the most astonishing places to visit in Australia is Uluru, the red rock mountain that arises from the Central Australian desert.  Located in what is close to the true geographic centre of the Australian continent some four hours drive from Alice Springs, Uluru has a strong spiritual attraction and a powerful physical presence that casts a magic over most visitors.

If you want to visit Uluru (previously called by its Anglo name, “Ayers Rock”), there is basically only one place to stay:  the Ayers Rock Resort, which has a range of different accommodation options – from camping up through five star luxury.

I have stayed at Ayers Rock Resort twice, and each time was vaguely aware of the Aboriginal communities which live virtually in the shadow of “the rock”.  I looked in vain for Indigenous employees at the Resort, however:  instead what I found was a great mixture of Australians, New Zealanders, Europeans … and just about everyone else.  Just no Indigenous empoyees, despite the crushing poverty and unemployment rates in nearby remote Indigenous communities – and despite the fact that the park in which Uluru sits is formally owned by the local Indigenous communities.  On my last trip there we only met one Indigenous person – the elder on a special Indigenous cultural tour we had booked.  For many (most?) people, it is possible to spend days in the area and not come across one Indigenous person.

That’s all about to change, according to news reports and a recent Government funding announcement.  With the Ayers Rock Resort now owned by the regional Indigenous Land Council (purchased in June of this year) and is now managed by its wholly owned Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia group, a major Indigenous employment and training program is about to commence, with substantial Government funding.  There are now plans to increase Indigenous employment with an initial 100 Indigenous trainees, and building the Resort up to 50% Indigenous staff.  That will be quite a challenge, but eminently worthy – and even if only partially successful, has the potential to become a world-leader in Indigenous employment, making an Uluru visit even more special.

Amazon top single bookseller in Australia

November 14, 2011

It’s now pretty certain that the top bookseller in Australia is (wait for it) … Yes, that’s correct, an American-based “mail-order” publishing company sells more books IN Australia than any other bookshop in the world. I could be wrong, but I suspect not.

This information has come to the fore because of recent press regarding the Australian Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG) – chaired by the Hon Barry Jones AO (truly one of Australia’s most enduring public intellectuals), which delivered its report to the Minister (Kim Carr), and which was released publicly on 9th November 2011. The BISG deliberations are fascinating in their scope, and anybody wishing to understand the impact of digital technologies on Australian (and world) publishing will find the range of research reports produced for the BISG to be invaluable. Be sure to read Barry Jones’ stimulating and poetic “Prologue: Cultural development and creativity in the digital revolution – a personal perspective” (pp. 7-10) and “Introduction” (p. 12) in the committee’s recently released report.

But back to Amazon. Here are the figures to bear this out: The evidence comes from the report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for the BISG, entitled Cover to Cover: A Market Analysis of the Australian Book Industry (p. 18), from figures originally collected by “TNS Global”):

– Australians spent $2.3 billion on books in 2010.

– 12% of those books were bought online, and half of that 12% (thus, 6%) were purchased from overseas sellers.

– Of the purchases from overseas, 32% were from Amazon and 19% from the Book Depository (soon to be owned by Amazon, with no apparent hurdles remaining).

Thus .06 x .32 = approximately 2% of books sold in Australia in 2010 were sold by Amazon and an additional .06 x .19 = approximately 1% additional were sold by the Book Depository. By my calculations, that makes Amazon the single biggest bookshop in Australia. Certainly beaten by Dymocks as a chain (and the now-defunct Borders), but surely beating any individual shop (online or off) in the country.

As the final report puts it simply (p. 37):

Overseas online booksellers such as Amazon are able to sell print books published overseas to Australian consumers at a price (including delivery) that is more competitive than the price charged by Australian online booksellers for the same book.

Who amongst us is not guilty of purchasing from Amazon because of this fact?

The future of digital in Australia

November 14, 2011

For some years now, the large consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has been publishing a five-year Entertainment and Media Outlook.  The latest edition covers the period 2011 through 2015 and was originally released in early August.  Key findings are available from the PwC website.  Last week at the Communications Policy and Research Forum, the PwC Executive Director of Media and Entertainment, Megan Brownlow, went through some of the figures:  her slides are available for viewing here, and predict some very interesting trends.

While not surprising (the data certainly supports what we all think we know), the five year Australian trends do have some powerful implications for the future.  For instance:

–          The number of “small devices” (iPads, Kindles and the like) are expected to triple between 2011 and 2015.  Brownlow says this will bring the “lean back” experience to the internet (traditionally, television viewing has been “lean back” and computer use “lean in”).

–          While some 10% of Australian households have tablets of some sort now, that figure will rise to 33% by 2015.  The total numbers will increase to 5.5 million.

–          “Total Australian entertainment and media spending grew by 6.5% in 2010, faster than the global average of 5.3% and significantly higher than 2009 growth of 1.3%.”

–          PwC estimates “digital spending” to be currently about 7% of total household expenditure, but will rise to 14% by 2015.  That’s a dramatic increase.

Consumer spending % projected for 2015 are particularly interesting, predicting that only a relatively small percentage of book expenditure will be “digital”, but a large percentage of interactive games (just under 50%) and an overwhelming percentage of recorded music (around 75%).  By contrast, the amount of predicted expenditure on internet access – more than $7billion – dwarfs all other forms, well ahead of “filmed entertainment” (at about $5 billion).

Clearly there will be some big winners and a number of losers as our economy continues its rapid transition to a digital one.  More exploration of this topic to come.

Australian broadband participation – rural lags badly

November 14, 2011

A few days ago, I posted a copy of my presentation (“Digital Inclusion in the Broadband World: Challenges for Australia”) at last week’s Communications Policy and Research Forum (CPRF), which took place in Sydney on November 7th and 8th.

One of the presentations at the Forum – entitled “Regional Australians Engaging in the Digital Economy” – was given by Joseph DiGregorio, the Manager of the Communications Analysis Section at the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

I mentioned in my conference paper, there appears to be some disagreement regarding what percentage of Australians are “broadband-connected”.  Clearly these figures do matter, because if the figures are low, the Government will feel the need to invest more funds in promoting and facilitating “digital participation”.  But if the figures are relatively high, the pressure (and the political imperative) eases.  So below is a summary taken from slide 17 of DiGregorio’s presentation, with figures supplied by Roy Morgan Research and effective June 2011 – just about the best figures you will find anywhere.  Click here to view a copy of his slides.

The most “broadband-connected” homes in Australia (note that this is “homes” only, and not all “premises”, which also includes businesses, etc):

–          The ACT comes in the winner at 75% – this makes a lot of sense, considering the relatively higher wealth and education of ACT residents, both factors being associated with high broadband-connectivity.  The ACT also leads with the most internet-access homes at 85%.

–          Next comes Brisbane at 74% broadband (admittedly, a one percentage point difference may not actually be statistically significant), with 84% internet-connected.

–          Next is Perth at 73% broadband connected (82% internet).

–          Then Melbourne broadband homes at 72%, Darwin/Alice Springs (metro NT) at 71% and Sydney at 69%.  I would hazard a guess that Sydney’s 69% IS statistically significant, compared to the ACT’s 75% connections.

What is even more telling – and troubling but certainly not surprising – are those at the bottom of the Australian broadband connection percentages:

–          Tasmania outside of Hobart at 55% and Hobart at 61% (and who is complaining about how much attention Tasmania actually gets on telecommunications matters?; they appear to need it, big time).

–          Rural South Australia sits at 62%.

–          Rural Victoria and rural New South Wales sit at 65%.

Yes, these metro/rural figures are significant, and consistently so.  In fact, in every state the household broadband connectivity of non-capital city regions are about ten percentage points lower below than the major metropolitan areas.  The one exception is Tasmania, primarily because the Hobart connection numbers are so low to begin with.  Note that no figures are available for non-metro Northern Territory because of small numbers; if data were available, presumably these would be extremely low because of the large number of remote communities where connectivity is not high.

Digital inclusion challenges for Australia

November 10, 2011

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney entitled  “Digital Inclusion in the Broadband World: Challenges for Australia”.

I include a summary of the paper below.  You can read the full paper (or download) here:  Don Perlgut Digital Inclusion paper CPRF 7Nov2011.  A (slightly shorter) copy of my paper is also available through the Communications Policy and Research Forum website.

The paper discusses the potentially looming “digital participation gap” in Australia, if concerted efforts are not commenced soon to make certain that poor, remote and vulnerable communities in Australia are not actively included in the fast internet roll-out.  I examine the NBN Co roll-out timing and assumptions, ask the question “why broadband?”, analyse the characteristics of “non-adopters” and those at risk of not connecting to broadband internet, review two pilot “digital inclusion” initiatives (one in Australia and one in the USA), and make a number of recommendations that will enhance digital inclusion efforts in Australia.

Now that Australia’s much-discussed National Broadband Network (NBN) is underway, many people assume that it is just a matter of time before we are all fully connected. In fact, the NBN broadband roll-out appears to assume that more than 20 percent of Australian “premises” (households and businesses) will NOT be broadband-connected by 2025: my paper details the background to this assumption. The concept of  “digital divide” has slipped from the public radar in recent years under the onslaught of smart phones, iPads, other “tablets” and the bewildering and growing collection of digital devices that will operate under the law of “if it can be connected, it probably will”.

Those Australians most at risk of digital exclusion are poor, Indigenous, elderly, disabled or living in rural or remote areas of Australia.  The publicity surrounding the development and construction of the NBN has created what I call “the Kevin Costner effect”, named after the 1989 film Field of Dreams (directed by Phil Alden Robinson), in which Costner starred.  The famous “tag line” of that film is “if you build it, they will come”.  However one problem caused by the NBN – which is in fact a visionary piece of public infrastructure the envy of many other countries, despite some internal Australian critics – is that just because you build it, it is certain that a large number will not come.  Internet access does and will cost money, and it will take some level of finance, technical expertise and digital literacy to gain and maintain that access.

My conclusions:
1. Within five years, digital exclusion will rival all other social and economic determinants, and may become the major social justice challenge of our time.

2. Digital inclusion cannot be separated from economic and social inclusion, and will become a major factor in assisting (or losing) social and economic justice.

3. In the digital world, place still matters – rural/remote as well as locational access to education, health and economic opportunity.

4. As identified at the beginning of this paper, Indigenous peoples, under-educated, poor, elderly, disabled, rural and remote residents are all uniquely vulnerable.

5. We need to shift the household broadband adoption focus from entertainment consumption to economic production.

6. A “whole of society” effort required for proper inclusion – simply putting it all on “government” is not the answer.

And my recommendations:

1. Comprehensive research into broadband adoption in Australia is needed, including the characteristics of non-adopters and the barriers to adoption.

2.  Consideration of low-cost, subsidised (free) broadband wireless networks in parts of Sydney, Melbourne and other large cities with concentrations of poorer-residents.

3.  We also need to consider a fully subsidised broadband service for everyone over age 65, as that group is particularly vulnerable, and there are already precedents and systems in place.

4.  Comprehensive digital inclusion plan is needed that will parallel and complement the NBN roll-out and incorporate current DBCDE efforts.

5.  Proper metrics for digital inclusion efforts are needed.  Not just numbers, but economic and social development, impact on health, education and welfare and “social capital”.

6.  It is important to identify one national government organisation with responsibility for promoting digital inclusion in Australia – at this point, I vote for ACMA, as it has an “outward-facing” capability and is already operating in the area.

Updates on 23 and 29 November 2011:  This paper is now featured on “Stories we are following” on the website of the New York-based “Intelligent Community Forum” and linked to from the website of BuddeComm.

Film review of The Debt

November 10, 2011

(A shorter version of this review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 November 2011.)

Directed by John Madden

Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan

Starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Marton Csokas

There is a very strong and elemental plot point in The Debt, the new English-language thriller set in Israel and Germany, which opens in Australia this week.  I won’t reveal the important turning point, but it is one of those “deep” decisions that, once undertaken, becomes a “game changer” for the lives of all of the characters involved, irrevocably twisting their futures in unexpected ways.

I would not have suspected that English-born director John Madden (who is not Jewish) – best known for his films Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown – would choose a Holocaust-themed thriller to direct.  However he does a good job in his remake of a 2007 Israeli film of same name (“Ha Hov” in Hebrew).  The film centres on a Mossad team of three in the 1960s, charged with capturing a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin and delivering him to Israeli agents in the West, who in turn are to take him back to Israel for trial (obvious parallels with the Eichmann kidnapping and extradition).  The criminal is Dieter Vogel (Danish actor Jesper Christensen), known as “The Surgeon of Birkenau” for his horrific medical experiments on Jewish camp inmates.

The film starts in 1997 in Israel, however, where we find the three former agents in their older adult lives:  Rachel Singer (played by British icon Helen Mirren, and American actress Jessica Chastain as a youth) still has a “fraught” relationship with her two former team members.  After a romantic triangle had developed in Berlin, she had ended up marrying (and divorcing) Stefan (Tom Wilkinson as the older man and Marton Csokas as the youth), who still works in a senior role in intelligence.  The third team member, David (Ciaran Hinds in 1997, Sam Worthington as the youth), had mostly disappeared in intervening years and travelled the world.  Rachel’s daughter has written a biography of her mother, as all three team members are known as national heroes in Israel for their role in the capture of Vogel.

The Debt has a strong forward pace, much taut action and not just a little violence (those of weak stomachs, be warned).  Language issues of films shot in English but set in Israel and Europe can be problematic, but Madden handles this adroitly, partly by having his characters speak German when they are speaking German (and thus English standing in for Hebrew).  Madden utilises a mostly British cast (with no lead Jewish actors), thereby avoiding the inevitable “clang” of American accents in characters meant to be Middle Eastern.  (Why British accents are more acceptable standing in for Israelis or Germans is hard to guess, but appears to be true).

The details of the 1960s capture of Vogel (practicing as an obstetrician in Berlin) are meticulous and realistic.  When the Vogel handover goes horribly wrong and the three young Mossad agents are left to their own devices to devise a back-up plan, their growing sense of panic, stress and claustrophobia are both palpable and real.

Setting the action more than thirty years apart also allows a neat portrayal of two “different” versions of Israel, a country which underwent dramatic changes in the interim period.  But here also lies the film’s main fault:  its casting decisions.  None of the younger actors remotely resemble their older counterparts (a frequent European “foible” which Americans seem very good at).  It is clear who Rachel is, but for Stefan and David, it is by no means certain who is who when – and jumping back and forth in time just leads to confusion as to which man is doing what and when.  This diminishes the emotional impact and power, for the success of a thriller can be dependent on avoiding distractions.

Despite these flaws, the film’s final scenes – again set in 1997 – are strong and realistic, although may provide many debating points as to how realistic they are.  Clearly, Rachel has the biggest “debt”, and she attempts to pay it.

The 2007 Israeli film was directed by Assaf Bernstein, but was not released theatrically in the USA or Australia, although played in film festivals and shown on American pay TV (it is currently available on DVD in Australia).  The film starred Gila Almagor in the Helen Mirren role (called “Rachel Brener”), and garnered four Israeli film academy award nominations.

I would not have picked Helen Mirren for such a Jewish role, however she reportedly “immersed” herself in Hebrew language, Jewish history and the Holocaust in her preparation, and she is convincing.  There is also a strong “down under” flavour:  Australian actor Sam Worthington (who has started to make it in Hollywood with Avatar and other films), and Csokas is a New Zealander with extensive Aussie acting experience.

The official trailer of the film can be seen here: