Rethinking the Digital Age

by: Faye Ginsburg / New York University

It is 2005 and the term “The Digital Age” is as naturalized for many as a temporal marking of the dominance of a certain kind of technological regime (“the digital”) as is “the Paleolithic’s” association with certain kinds of stone tools. What does “the digital age” feel and look like in indigenous communities in remote regions of the world where access to telephone land lines can still be difficult? The dominant phrase invented to encompass such concerns — the digital divide — assumes that such cultural enclaves are simply waiting, endlessly, to catch up, yet inevitably falling further behind in the techno-imaginary universe that seems to further stratify the world, despite the utopian promises of the digerati of the possibilities of a 21st century McLuhanesque global village.

Recent developments give some insight into what it might actually mean for indigenous subjects Going Native on the Net, to borrow the title of Kyra Landzelius’ forthcoming edited book. In this column, I focus on a new project developed by activist lawyer and documentary maker David Vadiveloo in collaboration with Aboriginal youth in Central Australia. UsMob is Australia’s first Aboriginal children’s television series and interactive website, made with town camp children living on the outskirts of the town of Alice Springs in Central Australia. On the site, users interact with the challenges and daily lives of Harry, Della, Charlie and Jacquita and their Aboriginal bush community friends in the town camp of Hidden Valley, following multi-path storylines, activating video and text diaries, forums, movies and games that offer a virtual experience of the camp and surrounding deserts, and uploading their own video stories. The site, which is in English and Arrernte with English subtitles, will launch at the Adelaide Film Festival on February 25, 2005 and simultaneously on ABC TV and ABC online.

The project had its origins in requests from traditional elders in the Arrernte community in Central Australia to David Vadiveloo, who first worked with that community as their lawyer in their 1996 historic Native Title claim victory. Switching gears since then to media activism, Vadiveloo has made six documentaries with people in the area, including the award winning works Trespass (2002), Beyond Sorry (2003) and Bush Bikes (2001). UsMob is the first indigenous project to receive production funding under a new initiative from the Australian Film Commission and ABC New Media and Digital Services Broadband Production Initiative (BPI); it received additional support from the Adelaide Film Festival, Telstra and the South Australian Film Corporation.

The UsMob project was motivated by Vadiveloo’s concern to use media to develop cross-cultural lines of communication for kids in the camps.

After ten years of listening to many Arrernte families in Town Camps and remote areas, Vadiveloo explains in an interview, I am trying to create a dynamic communication bridge that has been opened by the Arrernte kids of Alice Springs with an invitation extended to kids worldwide to play, to share, and to engage with story themes that are common to all young people but are delivered through UsMob in a truly unique cultural and physical landscape.

In keeping with community wishes, Vadiveloo needed to create a project that was not fictional. Elders were clear: they did not want community members referred to as “actors” — they were community participants in stories that reflected real life and real voices that they wanted heard. To accomplish that, Vadiveloo held workshops to develop scripts with over 70 non-actor Town Camp residents, who were paid for their participation. The topics they raised range from Aboriginal traditional law, ceremony, and hunting, to youth substance abuse and other Aboriginal health issues. Building bush bikes is the focus of one of the two UsMob games, while the second one requires learning bush skills as players figure out how to survive in the outback.

Producer Heather Croall and Interactive Producer Chris Joyner were integral partners for Vadiveloo. Apart from raising finance, they wrote the project together with Vadiveloo and then final scripts were written by indigenous screenwriter Danielle McLean. Camera work was by Allan Collins, the indigenous award winning cinematographer and Alice Springs resident. The final project has been approved by traditional owners and the Indigenous organization, Tangentyere Council.

In creating this project, Vadiveloo hoped to create a television series about and by Aboriginal youth, raising issues relevant to them, as well as an online program that could engage these young people to spend time online acquiring some of the skills necessary to be computer literate. He was particularly concerned to develop an alternative to the glut of single shooter games online, and the constant diet of violence, competition, and destruction that characterize the games they were exposed to in town.

When kids play and build together, Vadiveloo explains, they are learning about community and consequence and that is what I wanted to see in the project.

And rather than assuming that the goal is that Aboriginal children in Central Australia catch up to the other side of the digital divide, based on someone else’s terms, he wanted to help build a project that dignified their cultural concerns. This is charmingly but emphatically clear in the first encounter with the UsMob home page which invites you in but, as it would be if you visited them in Alice, notifies you that you need a permit to visit:

Everyone who wants to play with us on the full UsMob website will need a permit. It’s the same as if you came to Alice Springs and wanted to visit me and my family, you’d have a get a permit to come onto the Town Camp. Once you have a permit you will be able to visit us at any time to chat, play games, learn about Aboriginal life, and share stories.

We love going out bush and we’re really looking forward to showing you what it’s like in Central Australia. We’ll email you whenever we add a new story to the website. We really hope you can add your stories to the website cos we’d love to learn about your life too.

UsMob and Hidden Valley suggested another perspective on the digital age that invites kids from “elsewhere” to come over and play on their side.

Adelaide Film Festival
Aborigine News

Please feel free to comment.


  • Ginsburg addresses the UsMob project to demonstrate what “going native on line” can mean for indigenous subjects. This is indeed an interesting question and the column shows how such projects sophistically avoid ethnocentric traps by foregrounding the Aboriginal experience and voice. An interesting question still remains as to the relationship between the adults responsible for the project – both the media professional and activists and the community elders – and the Aboriginal youth Vadiveloo hoped to represent and give voice to. Since it seems adults were responsible for creative and ideological decisions I wonder to what extent the activist hope, to create television about and by children, was accomplished.

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