Tuesday, December 11, 2018

An artifact from Australia's future

The apology to the Nauru Generation, November 02068.

It may not always be obvious in the writing here –– apart from my favoured spelling –– but I was born and grew up in Australia, and despite spending most of my adult life outside the country, have never lost the accent.

In my view there are two great and lamentable stains on the Australian polity, a pair of relationships between the official centres of power in the settler society, and their Others.

The first is the foundational and ongoing dispossession and genocide of the country's indigenous peoples. The second is the callous and inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrant arrivals by boat.

These tragedies have in common a disregard of the basic interests and humanity of both groups. They are symmetrical horrors, but any resemblance is not purely coincidental. The two are joined at the root.

Any country founded on colonial imposition harbours at some level unaddressed and sublimated guilt on the part of settlers, especially the "first" white ones, starting with the very fact of their/our presence and carrying through a monstrous historical litany. Policies today punishing people who want in, but don't look like us, can be seen as an ugly and pernicious case of referred pain in the body politic, or as the vernacular has it, kicking the cat.

Australia is not the only country in the world with this kind of baggage. But perhaps it is becoming more obvious there, or more publicly so, how these pathologies are related.

At the start of last month a performer named Sammy J released a short video through the website of the national broadcaster, ABC. Although he is best known as a comedian, this three-minute clip was not in any sense comical. It showed him taking the role of a future Australian Prime Minister, and apologising in Parliament in the year 02068 to the victims of the (longstanding, since 02001) zero-tolerance policies towards asylum seekers arriving by boat, and the offshore detention facilities established to hold them on the island of Nauru, in the South Pacific.

Just about any Australian citizen or semi-interested observer is bound to recognise right away the analog in recent history to this imagined future event. The 'Nauru Generation' mentioned here is heard as a parallel to the indigenous Stolen Generations of all-too-recent Australian history, and the premise of a belated official apology unmistakeably points back to the long-awaited apology to indigenous peoples delivered in Parliament in 02008 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

We've previously seen here at The Sceptical Futuryst many cases of future documentary fragments, and for that matter feature-length treatments of political prospects. We've come across near-future newspapers making near-utopian developments tantalisingly tangible; and also the specific strategy of using future artifacts to dramatise potential regret in an effort to prompt world leaders to take effective climate action at the COP 15 summit in Copenhagen in 02009 (apparently it didn't work, though the Paris Accord has since taken steps in the right direction). We've even seen change at the scale of a whole country spurred by an transmedia experiential scenario, bringing an aspirational possibility to life, in Tunisia's Arab Spring campaign #16juin2014 (which seemed to succeed, up to a point). And we've looked at artwork imagining an Australian Aboriginal monarch on the national currency.

I don't recall previously seeing this particular approach; a stand-alone video fragment of the political process (if you're in the U.S., think C-SPAN) to comment on present controversies.

People often ask about whether hope or fear, preferred or perilous, is the more strategic and effective type of future to dramatise or discuss.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. Speaking generally, for one thing it isn't always clear whether a certain eventuality is positive or negative. Those describing or portraying it may feel one way, and find that others see it in an altogether different light.

Actually, for any posited changes there might be a range of responses. (This was deliberately the case for the changes explored via our recent experiential scenarios NaturePod and NurturePod, for example.) Embedded ambivalence can be a useful approach when using the lenses of possible futures to look at people's various present-day perceptions and values around changes unfolding now. Whether expected or not, divergent reactions to a scenario, experiential or otherwise, may be instructive.

Leaving aside the question of what happens to trigger it in any given case, one might still ask which of the two responses as elicited is the more effective; is hope (and similar) or fear (and similar) the more useful emotional territory? This is a slightly sharper question, but again, I find it more fruitful to see different moods as a palette of conversational or deliberative affordances, than to try categorising certain registers as better or worse overall on some universal yardstick.

I've written this partly to sort out some of my own thinking, without having looked at any commentary on the video, so I don't know how it has been received. However the version posted here has logged over 850,000 views to date (and it's not the only one online), which for Australian political commentary suggests a decent level of resonance and virality.

What I had already seen and read of Australia's offshore detention centres left me aghast, and for readers unfamiliar with the backstory here, the New York Times reported just yesterday that a lawsuit has been filed against the Australian federal government, claiming that the migrant detention camps amount to a crime against humanity.

But I think the perspective offered in this future video artifact might conceivably be useful regardless of where one sits on this issue, or on the political spectrum.

An official apology from the year 02068 invites viewers today to consider how future people, two generations from now, might regard the policies of the present. Asking this type of question could be a helpful reflex in relation to many current cultures and policies, wherever and whenever you may be in the world; not only in Australia, not only on this issue, and not only at this moment.

I want to add that fifty years seems a much longer period than we need in order to reasonably picture political regrets coming home to roost in this case, although I expect the choice of a distant temporal vantage point was likely meant to underline how slowly the current (conservative) government is catching on to the moral and historical import of these policies.

Still, especially with that generous time horizon, it's disappointing that the incidental glimpse of Australia's Parliament in half a century is noticeably less diverse than today's (a white bloke again at the helm, but no visible minorities in view), and nothing else in the scene seems to hint at changes in the national political landscape. Even if this were meant as a broader comment on institutional inertia and how infuriatingly slow to change the governance layer can be, this seems a missed opportunity. (My guess is that it's just a standard instance of Cascio's first rule for how not to write scenarios: change only one variable.)

But to return to the question of specific emotional charge: part of what is interesting to me about this future video is that, as someone who wants to see the harms of these policies acknowledged, stopped, and remedied without delay, this particular scenario comes as a complex mix of awful and hopeful.

It portrays the right thing being done, but after waiting far too long.

(Many thanks to Eddie Harran for the tip.)

> Dreaming together (external website)
> On the money
A Climate of Regret
> Foresight is a Right
> Future documentary
Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia 

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