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Marie-Louise Ayers: Good evening everybody. Aren’t the lights gorgeous, fading to this soft pink; it’s very, very lovely. A very warm welcome therefore to the National Library of Australia, and to the inaugural Ann Moyal lecture. I’m Marie-Louise Ayers and it’s my privilege to be the Director-General of the National Library of Australia. As we begin, I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s First Nations Peoples – the First Australians – as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this land. And I give my respect to their Elders, past and present, and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Whether you’re here with us in-person or online, I of course want to say that we’re coming to you from the National Library building on the beautiful lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. Peoples with a beautiful language being awoken by dedicated community members.
[Aboriginal language 00:01:02]. Which basically means we’re all meeting here together to listen. I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to the members of the Hazel de Berg Circle who have joined us tonight. The Circle is a program to formally thank and recognise those who include a bequest to the National Library in their Will. Every bequest to the National Library makes an enormous impact in helping to continue the work of the Library in collecting, preserving and sharing our cultural heritage for the benefit of all Australians. And it’s a particular pleasure to see many of you here tonight for this very first Ann Moyal lecture; an activity which is made possible by her generous bequest.
So this new addition to our series of flagship lectures is named for Dr Ann Moyal. Many of us were lucky enough to know Ann personally. She was really a beloved member of this Library community. She was a Petherick reader, a Harold White Fellow, an established historian of science and technology, and she was a champion of independence in research and scholarly pursuits. And in fact she established the Independent Scholars Association of Australia in 1995 during the “Against the Grain” conference, held here at the Library. Ann was certainly never one to step back from making her views about the Library clear. In fact always advocating for the senior women of the Library – there’s a couple of them here in this audience – past senior women, that we needed to be more out there and tell our story a little bit more.
And she would bail you up anywhere to tell you that you needed to put the story out there. So we remember her with incredible fondness. But Ann is also really remarkably well-represented in our collection. She conducted more than 20 oral history interviews for the Library, and she was interviewed three times herself. And of course we hold all of her publications, and we hold her personal papers. So Ann regularly discussed the best way that she could support future research writing and the communication of research outcomes. And she decided in the end, after much discussion, to fund an annual lecture on the theme “Science in Society”. She specified that the lecture should be given by a distinguished speaker, and discuss a contemporary question. A lesson from diverse academic fields such as science, the environment, ecology, history, anthropology, art and technological change. So she gave us a really beautifully broad field.
So tonight it is truly my great pleasure to introduce Professor Genevieve Bell as our inaugural Moyal lecturer. Distinguished Professor Bell is the Director of the School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University, and a Vice President and Senior Fellow in the Advanced Research and Development Labs at Intel Corporation. And if that’s not enough, Genevieve is also a Non-Executive Director of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Board, the Florence Violet McKenzie Chair, and SRI International Engelbart Distinguished Fellow, and a Member of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies AI Council.
Genevieve is a really renowned cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist, best known for her work at the intersection of cultural practice and technology development, and for being a really important voice in the global debate around artificial intelligence and human society. After completing her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at Stanford University in 1998, Professor Bell spent 18 years in Silicon Valley helping to guide Intel’s product development by developing their social science and design research capabilities. Her research and writings have explored a wide range of topics, including the cultural implications of technology, the future of work, and the intersection of design and technology.
As inaugural Director of the ANU School of Cybernetics, Genevieve is leading a team who seek to establish cybernetics as an important tool for navigating major societal transformations through capability building, policy development, and safe, sustainable and responsible approaches to new systems. And it’s for that reason that a couple of years ago, when I decided that the National Library needed to do some really serious people-focused work on what the implications of AI machine learning might be in our work, and how we should think about them, I knew who to call. And in fact Genevieve and her team produced, with us, a fantastic report called “Custodians and Midwives” and if you’re interested, it’s on the School of Cybernetics website.
So Genevieve’s work has been widely recognised and honoured, including as a Member of the Prime Minister’s National Science and Technology Council, she’s a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and an Officer of the Order of Australia. So please join me in welcoming Professor Genevieve Bell, to present the very first, the 2023 Ann Moyal lecture.
Genevieve Bell: You’re totally right, the pink is glorious. You don’t get to see yourselves from here, but I get to look at all of you and you are bathed in radiant light, which seems deeply appropriate. I too want to begin, well, by doing something that I’ve failed to do until this afternoon, which is share the topic of my lecture with the National Library and with all of you. It’s a naughty thing, indeed, to decide to give a lecture and not give it a title until mere minutes before it was due to be declared here. This work is called “Messages Pass Through.” The subtitle is “Retelling Stories of the Overland Telegraph Line.” For those of you who know me and know my work, you are going to witness now an unusual and uncomfortable thing; I realise that Ann was many things. She was a scholar, she was an extraordinary activist, she was periodically querulous, and above many things she valued the word. And words mattered to Ann tremendously. And so tonight I want to read, rather than speak.
So Scott Sparke, I know you’re in the audience somewhere, you and I will think about how we approach the hill of every paragraph, carefully and gently. But before we do I want to acknowledge where we are today, on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. And I too want to pay my respects to Elders past and present. And to acknowledge that we’re on land that was always sacred and never ceded. And that in this year, in particular of all years, as we think about what it means to be in this place in this moment, we have obligations and responsibilities, not just to acknowledge the land on which we meet but to think about what it genuinely means to be here, and to be both good allies and good citizens.
I too want to then begin with a slight caution to this talk. Whilst I know Ann wanted someone who was going to talk about 21st century constraints, I want to talk about 19th century ones as a way into the 20th and 21st centuries. That means in some of the images that follow, there are photographs of Aboriginal people from the 19th century, and images of them. Before those photos come up, I will give you a warning, but I wanted to flag that at the outset. In 1984 Ann Moyal published “Clear Across Australia,” a work underwritten by Telstra and dedicated to a comprehensive account of the history of telecommunications here in Australia. It’s a remarkable book, both in its scope and its lasting impact.
My copy of “Clear Across Australia” was purchased on EBay years ago, and signed for me far more recently by its remarkable author. A colleague and a friend of my mother’s – Professor Diane Bell, who is in the audience here – Ann and I didn’t know each other well. But she delighted in hearing that I used her work about women and telephones in my role at Intel. And that her insights and scholarship had moved that large American technology company. Hers were rich and textured accounts of the unfolding of Australian telecommunications. A set of histories about technology that had, until then, been quite neglected. Here I want to take one small slice of Ann’s work as inspiration, her account of the Australia’s 19th century Overland Telegraph Line. And returning to my own roots as an ethno-historian, use it as a springboard to tell a new set of stories about that system. Alice, can I help you there? I feel like I can. I feel like we should take care of that.
Alice: Thank you so much.
Genevieve Bell: You are most welcome, because there’s nothing worse.
Alice: I don’t want to be coughing away.
Genevieve Bell: No, exactly, there’s nothing worse than having that happen. And that way I’ve demonstrated that I can walk and talk all at the same time, which were I only born in America would have left better hope for all of us. So, as I said, I want to use Ann’s work and her account of the 19th century Overland Telegraph Line to tell a new set of stories about that system. And it’s a story in five parts; so here is part one. “Clear Across Australia?” And I want to begin with a quote from The Argus, “Good Mr McGowan set to work, patiently stretching his chattering cobwebs from pillar to pillar along our streets, and now this system has become a reality amongst us. It will be warmly greeted by every colonist in Victoria.”
Telegraphy arrived in Victoria, in Australia, in 1853. It made landfall in the colony of Victoria with one of Samuel Morse’s disciples – an Irishman named Samuel McGowan – who brought a trunk of equipment with him to get things started. It took him little more than a year to build his first line, stretching from Melbourne to Williamstown; a distance of about 16 kilometres. The Argus, having declared it would be greeted warmly, set about educating their readers with the finer points about Morse code, galvanic power, and telegraphy equipment. More lines quickly followed across Victoria. And with the employment of Englishman Charles Todd to the newly created role of Superintendent of Electric Telegraphy in the colony of South Australia in 1855, the conditions for inter-colony telegraphic expansion were set, and quickly realised.
And even as they strung more wires in and between their respective colonies, Todd and McGowan – now colleagues and friends – schemed about how they would connect the Australian mainland to the rest of the world. Which was, in this case, England. And when McGowan had apprenticed to Morse, it was Todd’s encounters with C V Walker – one of the pioneers of underwater telegraphy – that surely charged his imagination about all of the possibilities. In the late 1850s, newspapers from Britain arrived with clipper ships to Adelaide, carrying news of various undersea successful telegraphic cable experiments that had happened months previously. Telegraphy was crossing the ocean, and Todd and McGowan desperately wanted in.
It will be more than a decade of plans, counterplans, government schemes, private schemes, failed explorations, slightly less failed explorations, the importation of camels and a ship named The Great Eastern before McGowan and Todd would see their visions of undersea telegraphic cables connecting Australia and London come to fruition. Australia’s Overland Telegraphic Line was built on years of European colonial expansion, advances in telecommunications technology – in Australia and globally – market forces and pressures, and power relations competitions and exploitations. It was also built on country that had always and already been occupied by Aboriginal people, whose lands those cables would now traverse and redefine.
There was a long overdue reckoning with the violent forms of colonial dispossession at the heart of all Australian stories, and this one is no exception. A research project using archival material led by experts of the National Communications Museum, supported by Marcia Langton and funded by Telstra, is seeking to, “Tell the stories of the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line through the eyes of Australia’s First Nations communities.” These stories are important ones, and will necessarily complicate our shared understandings of the Line. Today there are many different kinds of histories of the Overland Telegraph Line. The epic tales of its construction have a persistent appeal from the earliest days, starting with the narratives of Todd and his engineers in the pages of the newspaper and government reports.
Most of these accounts end with the completion of the Line in 1872. Very few focus on what came next. Or, for that matter, what came before. Or what might, as a result, been erased, minimised or forever changed. Of course the Overland Telegraph Line was more than just a staggering engineering feat; it was a complex, dynamic system comprised of the latest technology – in this case, telegraphy – spanning the breadth of Australia, with diverse ecological niches controlled by a complex of regulators and government organisations, and staffed and supplied by overlapping networks and infrastructures, connecting up to global networks of equal complexity.
Some historians have positioned the Line as a socio-technical system which shrank the communication distance across the continent and through undersea cables, broke or at least bent the tyranny of distance to Europe. This argument finds echoes in the 19th century narratives that credited telegraphy with the annihilation of space and time. It is a very particular kind of techno-deterministic discourse. One which I would argue still finds favour today. By contrast, Moyal argues at once for the singular importance of technology in establishing Australia as a nation state, and also for the particular combination of telegraphy and Morse code, which made possible the separation of transportation from communication. And which made possible then, the particular combination – telegraphy and Morse code – that would create the first data.
Signals containing short bursts of information could travel via the Telegraph Line, disconnected from the page. They could be communicated and shared in radical new ways. Here technology doesn’t so much annihilate time and space, as create new ways of traversing them. What all these varied histories have in common is an understanding of the power of technology to reframe cultural and social institutions; literally and symbolically. They also have in common an understanding that 19th century decisions will echo through to the present, and that knowing the context for those early decisions is always useful. I believe we should be attentive to the persistent ways that the 19th century decisions and technologies continue to frame our daily lives, and also the ways in which the stories of these technologies and the systems they form can illuminate our future choices.
After all, the introduction of railways, telegraphy and electricity radically remapped many ideas about time and distance, and even social relationships, while simultaneously laying the foundations for such technological innovations as circuits, feedback loops and computers. Over the years I have turned to history and prehistory as a way of gaining purchase on existing socio-technical systems. Elsewhere, I have written that, “Histories are more than just backstories, they are the backbones and blueprints and maps to territories that have already been traversed. Knowing the history of a technology, or the ideas it embodies, can provide better questions, reveal potential pitfalls and lessons already learned, and open a window onto the lives of those who learned them.”
In the newly formed School of Cybernetics – and I’m very happy to see many of you represented here, yay, go us – in the newly formed School of Cybernetics we teach out students – so pay attention class of 2023 – we teach our students to pay attention to history, to explore the people, places and moments that gave rise to current large scale technical systems. In so doing, we seek to remind ourselves that most technologies come from somewhere and someone, and that those people and places are as important to understanding the system as the components itself. This kind of cybernetic approach helps to bring the relationships and dynamics between technologies, humans and the places in which they enact complex systems, into stark relief. And also helps destabilise the narratives of neat, neutral engineering accomplishments.
So how might we unfold a different kind of analysis of the Overland Telegraph Line? How would you find the technologies, the humans and the places that made up the system? Accounts of the day-to-day running of the system are surprisingly few. You catch glimpses of the Line in oral histories and old photographs. It puts in regular appearances in government gazettes and annual reports in the 1880s and 1890s. Sometimes it bursts chaotically, tragically and violently into the pages of the newspapers. And sometimes it’s just anodyne details of weather reports and wool prices. More recently it’s made it into ethno-historical and archaeological accounts, Stolen Generation’s testimony, land claim submissions and Native Title determinations.
Re-approaching a system like this requires a willingness to find the people, places and practices as well as the technologies themselves. It also requires a willingness to look into the silences and gaps, into the edges of it all. It requires a willingness to find a somewhere and a some-when, and start there. In unfolding such a story of a large, complex system, we might find new questions to ask of our current worlds, and our systems. And the systems with which we contend daily, and those which we imagine to build. Indeed, it is my hope that such an account could offer both pre-histories of our presence and parables that might illuminate our futures. I hope this account of the Overland Telegraph will do just that.
Here I want to begin with the Line itself and its key technical influences. However, in order to really make sense of this complex system, you need to think about the reason such a Line came into existence, the places it’s touched down, and the people it shaped, and who were shaped by it. So I’m also going to offer some small glimpses into those people and the places that made the Line what it was. This approach then is both cybernetic in its methodology, and also in its assertion that the Line is a system comprised of technical, cultural and ecological components, animated by dynamic relationships that couldn’t be understood in isolation from other systems, or without a rich understanding of the particular contexts.
So here we go. Making the Telegraph. Let us begin with Charles Todd who sent the following telegram on the completion of the Line in 1872, “We have this day, within two years of the date it commenced, completed a line of communication two thousand miles through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a Terra Incognita believed to be a desert.” In 1870, two years previously, after epic negotiations and brinkmanship, the South Australian colonial government and the British Australian Telegraphy Company signed a contract agreeing that a telegraph line would be strung from Adelaide to Palmerstone – now Darwin – and in turn connecting through undersea cables pulled from Java.
There would be a penalty of $3,000 per month if the project was delayed. That’s about half-a-million-dollars in contemporary money. Unlike other large scale telegraphic projects around the world, the Australian line didn’t have an existing rail line or other western infrastructure to follow. So the surveyors were tasked with finding a suitable path for the Line, and locations for 11 repeater stations to boost the electrical signal the length of the Australian mainland. That this would mean the disruption, dispossession and sometimes outright destruction of country already occupied and cherished by numerous Aboriginal nations, was clearly not in the foremost of anyone’s planning.
In his long instructions to his crew, Todd did provide guidance for how Aboriginal people were to be treated, “Kindly and firmly,” is the top line summary. Additionally his crew were enjoined to, “Not visit native camps, communicate with native women or touch native property.” And they were told, “Only to fire on natives when attacked, when it becomes necessary for the safety of the party.” Of course the colonial officers knew this land was occupied. And whether it was conscious or not, underlying the discourses around the annihilation of time and space, is a more uncomfortable one around the annihilation of culture. With cruel irony there is evidence to suggest that the path various surveyors identified, followed older Aboriginal trade routes and walking paths.
And it is certainly the case that in their desire to find more permanent or reliable water sources, they lay claimed, in irrevocable ways, to sites that were of importance ritually or pragmatically to First Nations people. The sheer scale of this project must have been daunting to the planners in Adelaide: survey nearly 3,000 kilometres, obtain the necessary materials you need to build a telegraph line over those 3,000 kilometres from England and Germany – wires, insulators, poles, sounders and keys. It is not lost on me here that in order to do that you have to write a letter that goes on a ship to England in order to be fulfilled for the answer to come back. So you better not have any errors in it because it’s a four-and-a-half-month correction cycle here.
So once you’ve done all of that you then have to get the supplies to hastily erected depots any way you can. Then it’s necessary to clear a 10 metre wide track, dig holes, move rocks, plant poles, string wires, add insulator and lightning conductors, and then repeat over, and over, and over again. It took a dedicated manager in the person of Todd – now the Postmaster General of South Australia – a team of subcontractors, and more than 1,000 workers as well as bullock drays, horses, several hundred camels and a budget two times the initial estimates to get it done. And on that day – here – in August 1872, Todd sent this telegram announcing that the Line was complete and the circuit was closed.
A single piece of galvanised wire stretched from Adelaide to Darwin, and from Darwin – via undersea cables and various existing landlines – all the way to London. This was the beginning of our digital world, embodied here in this complicated system. In its first year of operation, more than 40,000 telegrams would make the eight-hour journey to and from Adelaide, and beyond. And almost immediately the Line changed the way information flowed to and from colonial Australia and within the Continent. Information, news and ideas that would once ride on shipping timetables to move globally, could now do so within hours and days, not weeks and months. Impacting everything from government and business decision making to stock market prices, fashions and even betting practices.
It turns out one of the very first things they tried to do in Victoria with the Overland Telegraph Line was work out how to hedge bets on the Melbourne Cup. Nothing about that should be surprising either. Over time the Overland Telegraph Line would also change more fundamental ideas about the nature and mutability of our experiences with time, space and geography. Along the way it would generate conflicts between indigenous people and settlers, between settlers and governments. It would create naturalised lines on a map along with railways and the roads that would follow it. And it would, along with similar telegraph lines strung between Europe and America, change the way humans thought about themselves and about the world around them.
Much of contemporary scholarship about the Telegraph Line focuses on its social impacts. There’s a lot less written on its composition and its technical affordances. Yet the pieces of the system also matter. In the initial construction phase, 36,000 poles would be required. Thirty-six-thousand. Many were harvested from Australian trees, and the balance were made up of metal poles imported from England. I would encourage you here to cast your mind to some of the gibber that extends north of Oodnadatta and imagine where they thought the trees were coming from here. And just how many poles they might have had to order in relatively short succession from the United Kingdom. And once all of those poles were cut and collected and shipped, they needed to be delivered by bullocky dray and camel train to supply depots all along the Line.
Over time, as it became clear that those poles weren’t as durable as was necessary, they would be replaced by a more sort of sustained object, I guess, called the Oppenheimer Pole. It was a galvanised iron patented telescoping telegraph pole, optimised to be carted long distances and extended onsite. So designed to ratchet down to less than two metres high so that you could put it on the back of a camel, and then extend it up to three-and-a-half metres high when you got it onsite. These were installed onsite in the 1880s and are still in, well, many unexpected places if you go looking for them. Notably they hold up the verandah posts outside the toilet at the William Creek Pub.
Between these poles were strung number 6 and number 8 galvanised fencing wire. “To make the Line chatter,” as The Argus once wrote, “required power.” The Line, like contemporaries all over the world, pre-dated electricity in the ways we understand it. And that meant powering the Line meant continuous, low voltage energy of almost about 120 volts. The Line ran on these, Meidinger cells, with the distinctive bright blue copper sulphate. And as the average Meidinger cell was only about 1.5 volts, you needed a lot of them; you needed at least 300 at every repeater station, where they hissed and glowed and off-gassed just ever so slightly. By which I mean they were loud and slightly smelly.
The telegraph station ran on different circuit with different kinds of batteries that had different properties. But all of these batteries, to function optimally, required pure water, chemicals, glass jars, ceramic stoppers and lots of human attention. All of which meant further layers of water catchment technologies, supply chains to refresh chemicals and jars, and pages and pages of instructions dedicated to the batteries’ care and maintenance. In fact, there was a separate battery room in every repeater station for just these purposes. Todd had precise instructions about his repeater stations, “Locate them near water and trees,” he said.
He also instructed that the building should be substantial, “Forty feet by 20 feet, divided into four sections, each 10 feet, fitted with a glazed window,” because of course you needed natural light to be able to see, so having windows was important. These stations – the walls of these buildings that had been wood or stone, depending on the availability of local timber. These stations housed humans and the equipment necessary to keep the Line functioning. With a permanent staff of four to six, the stations were also set up to be self-sufficient, growing their own food and keeping their own animals; goats, chickens, cattle. They became small settlements that provided electrical energy and the human labour necessary for the Line.
They also became small settlements on the traditional lands of many different nations who were forced to accommodate this sudden and unwanted intrusion, and there were conflicts; some of which have had lasting repercussions. Ultimately, Beltana, Strangways Springs, the Peake, Charlotte Waters, Alice Springs, Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Powell Creek, Daly Waters, the Katherine and Yam Creek would form a chain of repeater stations. Stone and timber buildings, linked by galvanised fencing wire strung along wooden and metal poles, powered by copper sulphate batteries, and held together by rich, bureaucratic process and a lot of human labour. Together it all constituted the Overland Telegraph Line.
This is one story of the Line. But how would we tell some others? Perhaps we would tell them this way: one day, a very long time ago, Kurkari – the Arabana ancestral green snake – met Yurkunangku – the Arabana red bellied black snake – and they camped for the night at a cluster of artesian mound springs. Perhaps they yarned and told stories. Perhaps they sat together in a comfortable silence and watched the stars in the expansive night sky. Or perhaps they just rested, weary from long journeys soon to be completed and lives almost over. The place they stopped is called Pangki Warruna in Arabana. In my language, white ribs. That place where the ancestors camped is all fine sand and tiny pink and yellow flowers, and the white crystalline remains of ancient springs that look a little bit like ribs opening up on the ground.
It sits on trade routes for red ochre, pitcher and grinding stones. Here stories moved, information moved, people moved, things moved. Knowledge about that place, its springs and its seasons accumulated and were shared generation to generation, family through family. Far more recently – in October 1858 – an Englishman named Peter Egerton-Warburton found his way to Pangki Warruna, some 800 kilometres northwest of the growing colonial city of Adelaide. Warburton’s presence at Pangki Warruna was complicated. He’d been sent to locate another man – Benjamin Herschel Babbage – who’d been tasked with surveying the north reaches of the colony of South Australia, with the hopes of identifying new pastoral areas.
The oldest son of computer pioneer Charles Babbage, Herschel as he was known through the colony of South Australia, was a respected civil engineer with an eye for detail. However his deeply methodological approach drew the ire of the colonial office, which despatched Warburton to find him, and complete the task of mapping the area in a more timely and albeit far less rigorous and ultimately reliable manner. Warburton’s crude map of the region lacks detail, and the accounts of his travels point to a man unaware of the richness of the land through which he is travelling.
He wrote in his journals, “I travelled only seventeen miles this day, with various short tacks, but the general course was north-west, towards a remarkable-looking jumble of little hills. These I found to be the third batch of springs, exceeding the first two in number and the extent of the country that it covered, but, on the whole, not so active, and differing from the former batches in rising partly out of a small patch of low scrub. Most of these springs had limestone basins. Some of the water was very good, but it appeared strongly impregnated with calcareous material. I have no doubt these springs would be greatly improved with use. I drank the water in pretty large quantities and found no ill effects from it. These are the “Strangways Springs’ (after H. B. T. Strangways, Esq,. M.P.), and the country around them is fit for pastoral purposes.”
Strangways was, at the time, a member of the South Australian parliament, and one wonders how he felt about this particular honour. Still, beyond the politics of naming as a form of affiliation and patronage, it’s Warburton’s characterisation of the area as “fit for pastoral purposes” that matters most here. Warburton’s words would be further used to legitimise the spread of European pastoral ambitions north and west, past present-day Port Augusta, to the area around and beyond Kati Thanda, or Lake Eyre. The first stock arrived at Strangways Springs in 1863; 3,000 ewes, 300 rams and 40 head of cattle, plus 20 horses.
By 1865 there were more than 9,000 seep on the property. And the property was in the hands of Thomas Hogarth and John Warren, who continued to grow the stock numbers and reconfigure the landscape and the ecology. What followed was the familiar refrain of droughts and flooding rains, stock expansion and contraction. What also follows is an extraordinary period of colonial contact. After all, the Arabana had occupied the area in and around Strangways Springs and had done so for centuries. While occasionally over the preceding decade there had been the lone white traveller or two, quite suddenly their Country was now full of humans and animals who didn’t follow the rules or the law, and who didn’t know how to behave respectfully, appropriately or carefully.
Unlike other places in Australia, the Arabana were able to stay on their Country, camping on the flatlands northwest of the springs near the bend in the river, and tending to stock at the various outstations on the property. Both men and women worked as shepherds and shearers and fencers, and the owners of Strangways came to rely on them for labour, paying them in rations from the depot near their homestead. You can see that here in this picture. This is a wool scour at Strangways Springs, and the distant figures in it are the Arabana who worked this region. One imagines this is an uneasy set of compromises and negotiations. However there are few accounts of violent confrontations. And despite the many interruptions and changes, the Arabana a Strangways maintained their trading routes, extended family relationships, ceremonial activities and their local communities.
In 1870, after a cycle of droughts and rains and droughts again, Herschel made his way back to Strangways. Where once the colonial government had complained about his ponderous approach, they now called on his assistance in surveying the Line, or at least a section of it – from Port Augusta to Alberga, near present-day Oodnadatta – and identifying two sites north of Beltana at which repeater stations could be located. I imagine he saw a much changed country from his first visit; sheep and cattle station, fences, waterworks, worn paths travelled by horses and stock, homesteads and ration depots, familiar faces and place names.
In October, Herschel found his way all the way to Strangways Springs. It too was a much changed place. Now there were nearly 50,000 sheep, 4,000 cattle and 2,000 horses on the station. The owners had sunk thousands of pounds into increasing the land’s carrying capacity. They’d built fences, sunk bores and wells and dammed creeks, after it was clear that the mound springs couldn’t support their needs. And they built extensive stone walls, elaborate wool scours like this one in permanent dwellings. And alongside the station manager and stock hands, nearly 80 Arabana made their homes at Strangways too. Babbage records none of this activity. Instead, he leaves us a drawing, in a sketchbook, small and narrow, bound in brown leather, which is held in the State Library of South Australia.
He must have been sitting looking south towards Mount Beresford, perhaps on the steps of the repeater station – well soon to be repeater station – or on the nearby mound. Across two pages he sketches the springs, and the slight hillocks falling down. Even in shades of grey and spare lines, it feels alive. You can see the wind across the sedge and the samphire in the early morning light. I think I can hear the zebra finches chattering. Warburton might have found a jumble, but Babbage saw something else. Thousands of miles away from his home and closer to the end of his life, he found a point on a map and connected it to a different story.
Todd made his way up from Adelaide and meeting Babbage, confirmed that Strangways Springs would become a node on the Overland Telegraph Line. And here it is in the first weeks that it was that node. You can see the telegraph line, and the poles running up the middle. You can see the newly tinned roof. And if you close and squint your eyes ever so slightly, and you look at that dark shadow on the edge of the wall there, and you expand out this beautiful glass negative, you see a little puppy dog lying in the sunshine. Which helps us know when this photo was taken, frankly, because little dogs lying in the sunshine is probably not a thing for the middle of the summer.
Strangways Springs, the 1880s. “At Strangways Springs we pulled up to a station and were taken by a buggy some two miles from a sandy plain to a range of low bare hills with again that peculiar feature of this country, the mount springs. Here we found a Telegraph Station and discovered that the people quartered in that lonely spot knew more about what was going on in the outside world than we did ourselves. They could even tell us the latest quotations of the share market for the day and the state of the German Emperor’s health, for they could read the instruments by sound, if nothing else, as the messages passed through.”
Strangways Springs would be a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph Line from 1872 to 1896. At first the repeater station and the pastoral property co-existed, when the Telegraph Office was a room in the manager’s residency. Later the repeater station would occupy the entire pastoral homestead, a seven-room building nestled between the mound springs with a long verandah looking back to Adelaide and the road south. When Todd arrived to the Line in 1884, he found this, “Six rooms,” he writes, “stone. Large detached stone store. Detached old stone building containing kitchens, cook room and men’s living room not in use at present. Bathroom. Large overground tank, stone, 10,000 gallons. Smithy, paddock, post and wire fence.” That enormous tank stored rainwater for the Meidinger cells.
A year later there would also be temporary camps, an eating house and a hotel east of the mound springs, to accommodate the influx of workers associated with the Great Northern Railway – not yet known as the Ghan – which was slowly inching its way north towards Strangways Springs. Strangways was more than just a constellation of buildings though and an assemblage of technologies. It was the home to many. And their lives, when we can find them, tell us something about how the telegraph system operated in the 19th century. It wasn’t just about telegraph workers either. It was about lots of other people who lived there and who worked at the repeater station, some of whom camped nearby and some of whom visited frequently.
And there were people who supplied these communities and kept them connected. All of their stories form an integral part of the larger system. And so here are just some of those stories, in telegraphic form, illustrated with images from the period. So a cautionary note, there are a couple of images here of Aboriginal people coming. But first I want to start with a man named Andrew Hewish. I reckon Andrew is right here, leaning up against that fence, leaning up against the verandah post. Ten points if you can find the chooks; two, three. It made us very happy the day we found those. So I like to imagine that’s Andrew Hewish leaning against the verandah post; the Stationmaster and his telegraph station.
Being a Stationmaster was a big job. For Andrew Hewish, one of seven children raised near Adelaide, it was a job he’d been well-prepared for. He excelled at school and joined the Telegraph and Postal Service in 1873, aged 20, and rose through the ranks from telegraph assistant to Stationmaster at Strangways Springs. His job was to ensure that no matter what, messages passed from Adelaide to Darwin and on to London and back again. He and his assistants worked 12-hour shifts in rotation, one-on/one-off, one-on/one-off. They were responsible for keeping the Line powered electronically and for re-keying messages down the Line. Not only did each one of these stations boost the electrical charge, they listened to the message and re-keyed it down the Line again, thus ensuring the integrity of the words. But it’s also why they knew the German Emperor’s health.
These men were skilled operators conversant in Morse code and electrical circuitry. One way to think about it is they’re the first tech workers, and the original humans in the loop. But Andrew and his colleagues did more than just re-key messages, they presided over infrastructure and people. They represented and embodied the system too. As Stationmaster, Andrew’s days were always structured, and always shaped by the Line and the clock. He stood in uniform. He amplified the signal. He wasn’t just a human in the loop, he was a human making the loop. And he relied on Todd’s instruction manuals; they framed his days in almost every way.
At 8 o’clock every morning he sent weather reports to Adelaide for Todd, who would use the day to compose remarkable weather maps that are the basis of our BOM maps today. At 12:58 p.m. he cleared the Line, so that at 1 p.m. a time signal could go out across the entire telegraphic network in South Australia, ensuring that not only was everyone connected, but they were all connected at the right time. Andrew excelled at the job. He remained Stationmaster at Strangways Springs until 1893. He would marry Priscilla Fields and have children at Strangways, and lose at least one of them to an early death. He would advocate for a police presence here to regulate the sly grog that came with the railway workers. And he would advocate for regular supplies for the Aboriginal ration depot.
His brother, Albert, would also join the Telegraph Service as a linesman and come to Strangways too, where he would marry and have children, and where his first wife would die tragically and be buried. When Andrew left Strangways it was to take up the role as Postmaster at the newly opened telegraph and postal station in Oodnadatta. Andrew died in Oodnadatta, leaving his wife and children to make their own way. His brother, Albert, continued to work on the Line for another two decades, spending time in Oodnadatta and Alice Springs. He would take up photography, reflecting perhaps an inviting interest in the newest technologies. But unlike his brother, he would never achieve the rank of Stationmaster, preferring to work the Line instead.
Which brings us to linesmen. In addition to Andrew Hewish and his telegraph assistants, there were at least four linesmen at Strangways Springs. They were paid less than telegraph operators and, for the most part, came from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Albert Hewish might be the notable exception here. They were sometimes stockmen and roustabouts before joining the service. The linesmen were responsible for managing and maintaining the Line and the battery banks. They had to clear the undergrowth at least five metres on either side of the Line. They conducted spot repairs. They re-poled and re-strung the Line, and they looked after hundreds of batteries. They carried ladders and wire and spare insulators, and sometimes even new telegraph poles, on their horses and carts and camels.
They were men like Welsh-born Henry Merrick, who immigrated with his family to Australia when he was 11 and who, at 47, found himself at Strangways maintaining the Line. Or E Bell who is listed as a worker at Strangways in a South Australian State Almanac, and is likely Edward Bell who joined the service in the 1870s. Or Irish-born Tom Hanley who is pictured in this photograph in Alice Springs, just around the turn of the century, with all of his equipment. Tom joined the service in his late 20s in 1871, and worked as a lineman and overseer for the central section of the Line until his retirement in the 1820s. These men developed deep knowledge of the country they worked, and complicated relationships with the Aboriginal people who’d always been there; some hostile, some exploitative, and some bearing all the marks of deep affection.
We don’t know many of the linesmen’s names from the 19th century, or perhaps more precisely their names are harder to discern from 19th century records. But they do start to appear in the Commonwealth Public Service lists in 1904, and are sometimes pictured in the photographs of the time. Like this one, where you can see – if you are like some of us who obsess about this – those would be insulators. This would be a pole. Here there is wire. Here is a camp. There’s a depot that is servicing 300 kilometres in either directions. There’s also a group of Aboriginal people off to the far right of this frame. No one in this photograph, other than Hanley, is named, and very few linesmen are named – they don’t appear in the annual reports – and yet the telegraph system couldn’t have functioned without them.
And so now two photos and two images that relate to Aboriginal people in the 19th century, just as a caution here. In 1875 English-born William Fisher who worked on the Line as a linesman, sketched the repeater stations from Strangways Springs to Barrow Creek in quick pencil strokes. This drawing of Strangways Springs shows a small camp of Aboriginal people in the foreground near the repeater station. This image of a camp like this is recurring in the illustrations of the time. There’s a similar one for the Peake. And it’s likely wildly inaccurate, and highlights just one of the challenges of finding Aboriginal stories in the historical record; they appear, but may not be real, as it is in this particular image. Because we know from the archaeological evidence, this is not where they were camped – she says looking pointedly at the man’s whose archaeological evidence I’m relying on. Hello Alastair.
The question of where the Arabana were as the pastoral property on their land expanded to include the Line and the railway, is an important one. It turns out they were right there, visible in startling and unexpected ways. If you were to open your monthly issue of the Adelaide-based Pictorial Australian in February 1891, and flip to page 28, you would have found a photographic spread over the banner, sketches in the interior, Messrs Warren Hogarth, Strangways Spring Station. And your eye would linger because the three biggest image, the three clearest faces on display, are all Aboriginal. Two are seated, one wears a suit and is holding a hat, the other is in striped shirt-sleeves and a vest. A third man is standing holding a long wooden koondi and a spear, and dressed like the others in garb I’ve seen on stockmen and linesmen alike.
And casting your eye back to the bottom of the page, you would find the names for those faces; Bill Rowdy, Kalli Kalli, Tilbrook. And if you flipped another two pages, to page 30, you would find a feature on Strangways Springs Station. And in amongst the talk of patented water scouring technologies and the number of sheep – now at 46,000 – you would come to a section that describes these men and their skills. It’s a very different portrait from that little pencil-sketched camp. And it raises as many questions as it answers, about everything from agency to power, control and the colonial gaze. Bill Rowdy, Kalli Kalli and his sister Annie, and Tilbrook also appear in the letters and diaries of the Strangways Springs Pastoral Manager. Their presence is clearly felt.
Life for the Arabana at Strangways was obviously complicated and required constant negotiations. They were still on their Country, but it was profoundly changed, by fences and livestock grazing, and the creation of wells and dams. They were still on their Country, but they lived through waves of settlement disease and colonial regimes of power, and the imposition of an Aboriginal Protectorate. They were still on their Country, but now they tended sheep and watched the lambing season and built fences. They were still on their Country, but they were also increasingly forced into a reliance on rations, distributed from a depot at the repeater station and controlled by Andrew Hewish, and sometimes given to them in lieu of wages for their work. And even when they were paid, their pay was half the rate of their white peers.
They were still on their Country and participating in longstanding systems of exchange, even if sometimes they used their wages to pay cameleers to bring ochre along the old trade routes from the south rather than going themselves. They were still on their Country holding live ceremonial events, even if they were less frequent than ever. They were still on their County; at least for now. In 1866, Thomas Elder, a South Australian landowner and businessman, is credited with importing the first camels to Australia. Along with 100 camels, he brought 31 handlers from what is now modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, to help manage the animals. He supplied camels to Todd for the construction of the Line, and developed his significant enterprise, contracting camel services throughout the colony of South Australia, supplying repeater stations with their annual deliveries of food, supplies, chemicals and equipment.
Faiz and Tag Mahomet started this way. From Afghanistan, the brothers initially signed up to work for Elder servicing one of his supply routes. Later, based in Hergott Springs – now Marree – they built their own successful business, carting goods and equipment along the Line. Pictured here in the late 1880s, the Mahomet brothers are setting out from Warrina Station north of William Creek, heading towards Tennant Creek – some 1,300 kilometres north – with a team of 53 camels; not all quite in this frame, but all of them here. They’re delivering annual supplies to the repeater stations, including Strangways. I wonder about this image – this thing here – like what is in that? I’d have to imagine animals. The slats are too big for chooks; that’s all I know here.
So they are delivering supplies. Indeed, the brothers and their camels were regular visitors at Strangways, bringing food and supplies as well as news and networks, and staying at their regular camps northwest of the repeater station. The cameleers made their homes along the Line. They created communities. They sometimes had families. They built mosques. They worked with white settlers and Aboriginal people and each other. You can see their traces everywhere along the Line; in stone wells and palm trees, in place names and even solitary grave markers, and in this remarkable object that lives in the South Australian Museum – which is an illustration of William Creek – done, one imagines, by a cameleer, if only because the camels are beautiful and the horse is wholly inadequate.
And it suggests to me someone who knows how to draw camels, and not so much horses. But it is a wondrous and beautiful thing. Currently dated sometime around the 1880s/early 1890s. Supporting the repeater station and its growing ecosystem and population, including the railway and its workers, also created unexpected opportunities for the Chinese migrant community in Australia. Near Strangways there was a man [Hu Ting? 00:49:44] who hailed from Huan, who supplied the railway workers and the repeater station with fresh food. He ran a bakery, and likely imported foodstuffs from Adelaide on the train to re-sell at Strangways. He leaves few traces in his time on the Line. But upon his return to Adelaide, he appears in the newspapers as he campaigns against race-based immigration restrictions, and opens a tea shop in the Adelaide Arcade.
And as he supported the annual Chinese New Year celebrations which punctuated the calendar and drew a large cross-section of the South Australian community, just one repeater north of Strangways, at Oodnadatta, a pair of Chinese immigrants set up a flourishing market garden at Hookeys Waterhole in a bend on the Neales River. They were part of a complicated network of relationships and name place associations and affiliations that extended from Adelaide to Darwin, and perhaps back to China. These were fluid partnerships and trading relationships, and complicated finances and debts, and government contracts.
Like many of its residents, Ned [Cheong? 00:50:38] from Amoy – present day Xiamen – and Cherry Ah Chee from Canton – or Guangzhou – were a long way from home in Oodnadatta. Ah Chee married Minnie Bell there in 1899. Minnie was born at the Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station in 1878. Her mother was Aranda, and her father worked on the Overland Telegraph Line. His surname was Bell. The Ah Chee and [Cheong?] partnership flourished until Ah Chee’s suicide in 1912. He was buried in a lone grave on the banks of the Hookey Waterhole, near a stand of bamboo. Ned married Minnie the following year, raising her children, and together they would have several more.
This photograph here is a picture of Hookeys Waterhole taken in the 1910s, and it suggests an expansive and fecund property. Indeed the wonders of Ned’s garden frequently made the news. Stories about the latest hydro technology. Stories about the abundance of beans, turnips, carrots, parsnips, cucumbers, watermelon, beetroot and squash. Stories about the strawberries he was growing, and about the tomatoes he sent on the train to Adelaide every winter. His travails with the droughts and rabbit plagues even made the pages of the Adelaide Advertiser. Today the descendants of Ned [Cheong?], Cherry Ah Chee and Minnie Bell still live in Oodnadatta, and also Alice Springs, and in many other places too.
And their stories are part of stories of the Line, and what it takes to make and keep a complex system working. Strangways was always part of a network of connections and disconnections. Having a sense of the country, its context and the many inhabitants are important ways of understanding how it functioned as a node in a larger system. Strangways was a repeater station certainly, but it was a sheep station, and a railway station, and an eating house, and a hotel, and a billiards licence, and a racing club, and a stop on the camel pad. It was always the land of the Arabana. It was simultaneously part of the geography of a global telecommunications system, and the geography of ancestral Dreamtime figures.
Today Strangways Springs is a distant place, a blank on the Google Maps, a poorly marked turn-off on the grey nomad parade, and a decaying set of buildings and infrastructures maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. Today Pangki Warruna is still at the heart of Arabana Country, and it is still connected by the travels of ancestral heroes and their living descendants. Today the mound springs described so instrumentally by Warburton still rise out of the gibber plain. In a part of South Australia where water is scarce and erratic, this square kilometre complex has permanent seepages and springs, emu tracks cross the red dirt, and there’s running water and slow dripping soaks.
The greens of the reed and the rushes are visible from space. And it’s full of life; birds, insects and tiny creatures leaving marks and burrows in the mud. The stars unfold here in fierce waves until the sky is full, horizon to horizon. And after the rains there are countless tiny startling flowers in vivid colours. So how do we make sense of all of that? A parable is a succinct didactic story in prose or verse that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants and inanimate objects or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. To understand the Overland Telegraph Line you need to understand the history of telegraphy, Morse code, circuitry, battery cells, gutta percha, undersea cables, telegraph companies and state-based corporations.
You need to understand the systems that trained men – and much later, women – who operated these systems and maintained them and regulated them. You need to be alert to the ways in which different kinds of signals flowed more readily over these lines, and who benefitted. You might even need to know how the signal could be disrupted or fragmented. To understand the Line, you need to understand the system of its sites and locations, the places it arrives and rests. To understand the Line, you need to understand a system of dream tracks upon which it lies and crosses. You need to understand the Aboriginal Nations who walked the lands long before the Line, and whose circulations and trade route it impinged on, disrupting and dislocating them permanently.
By grounding this story of the Overland Telegraph Line in particulars, I hope to remind myself and others that any large system – any cybernetic system – will unfold somewhere, with someone, and that those somewheres and someones matter a great deal. Strangways Springs is not part of an imagination of the system, it’s a real place with its own rhythms. Andrew Hewish, Tom Hanley, Kalli Kalli and his sister Annie, the Mahomet brothers, Minnie and Ned; they’re more than just names, they’re the people who made the Line possible, and whom the Line impacted daily. The Line was a system that encompassed cutting edge technologies, cultural practices and environmental challenges. It was, in short, a cybernetics system.
Or perhaps put another way, it is a system best encountered through a cybernetic lens. In allowing ourselves to zoom out and focus not just on the engineering necessary to complete the Line, but on the systems necessary to run the Line, and those with which it inevitably intersected, we see different stories. If you see one system, how many more systems do you get to see too? It’s always my question. How many systems is the Line dependent on, and how many is it making possible, and how do we think about all those intersections and all those interdependencies? Well today, just south of Marree there’s a place on the highway where the country opens up and flattens out, and where with a drone’s eye you can still see what’s left of the Line after they pulled it all down in 1979.
You can see where the Line was. And you can see the remains of the Great Northern Railway that track alongside it. And you can see the fence line. And the yellow markers that signal the presence of NBN conduit buried below it. You can see where the water washes it away all too. Water that was, when the Line was first laid out, hugely important. Water that the surveyors identified. Water that was known to indigenous peoples for far longer still. Water that is now a hindrance to the systems that follow its course. Choices made in the 1870s wash out that road regularly. The history of the Line is not a pre-history of today’s technical world per se, and it’s not a prediction either.
Much like Moyal herself, I do believe that such histories can help inform our understandings of present versions of these systems, as well as provide critical frameworks within which to explore present and future systems. After all, questions about unintended consequences, timeframes, rules, regulations, workers, spheres of impact, power, control, inequity and dangerous emissions and silences are not just questions for the history of the Line, they’re questions for the future of any large system. Reflecting on the stories of the Line, we can rightly ask ourselves, “Where do our systems live and what are the spaces they animate? Who will we need to build and run them and keep them supplied? Who will we consult as we unfold our systems? And why should we be constantly re-examining and broadening our frames of reference? What rules and regulations will we need? And how will the structures of these choices reverberate forward? What are the choices we will make, and how will they stay with us?”
Our current digital world owes much to telegraphy here in Australia and all over the world. Throughout the 19th century, governments and corporations designed, built, refined and evolved whole of country and whole of world information and communication systems. These systems – railway, mail, telegraphy, electricity, telephony – made possible the creation, circulation and curation of new forms of information and data. These same systems also enabled different kinds of business models, structures of corporations and capitalism, as well as ideas of governments, empires and power. I think about these connections a lot, these older histories of my country and the stories that thread through it. And the histories of these technologies are more than just histories and backstories of a nation, they are the backbones and blueprints and maps of a territory that has already been traversed; by Kurkari, Yurkunangku and Babbage and Todd, and perhaps also by us.
So with that I want to stop. I want to thank a couple of people before you applaud here. I need to thank many national and GLAM institutions across Australia whose material I’m drawing on here, from the National Library to the South Australian State Library, the South Australian State Records Office, the State Library of New South Wales, the Library and Archives of the Northern Territory, the Australian National University Archives and the National Archives themselves. I need to make a special shout out here to the National Archives who, when I requested an artefact, called me and said, “We think it’s 13 metres long.” And I said, “Do you mean 13 metres of boxes?” They said, “No, we think it’s 13 metres long.” And I discovered what I had requested was a linen drawing of the railway from Marree to William Creek, where every mile was recorded in loving detail on a linen panel that I subsequently unfolded. I’d like to say thank you to them.
I also need to acknowledge that this paper draws on a much larger project that’s been ongoing in my School for some time, that it’s been partially funded by a gift from META’s fund for the responsible development of the metaverse. And last but by no means least, two particular thanks. One to Ken Wheeler who worked with me to create something as beautiful as this. And to a cadre of research assistants and research officers – some of whom I see in the room, and many of I know who are online – who have been on a journey with me to learn a little bit about their own country and its histories, and I hope it has been as good for them as it has been for me. So I’m going to stop and say thank you.
Marie-Louise Ayers: I think we’ve had an amazing treat tonight of thinking about some whens, someones, somewheres, and about the rich texture that Ann herself – you really talked about Ann’s kind of understanding of all the textures, the things that we’re investigating in these kinds of arenas are not – they’re not a line, can’t ever be a line. They’re going to be kind of multiple shapes laid on top of each other, reshaped, washed away – because you put the road in the wrong place, that’s a good one to remember. And of course I’m also very, very much aware that the work that all of these institutions that you’ve talked about, about how reliant we are on the systems, the ways of thinking, but also the way that we document of course those, in truthful ways and untruthful ways, what was going on.
And by the way, we’ve got something in this library that recently had to be – can only be carried up and down our fire stairs because no way could it get into an lift that we had in the building, so I think we’ve all got these long, long objects that you find out about. So I think that we’ve had a fantastic treat. We do have some time for questions if you would like to ask questions from the floor. If you do, could you please wait for a microphone to come to you because we are recording. Great, we’ve got the lights back up. It’s not as pretty as the pink though, is it.
Genevieve Bell: No, the pink was lovely.
Marie-Louise Ayers: So if you’ve got any questions for Genevieve that you want to ask from the audience, please put your hand up and we’ll bring a microphone to you.
Genevieve Bell: And bear in mind I know at least half of your names.
Marie-Louise Ayers: OK, all right.
Genevieve Bell: Which should be an incentive not a disincentive.
Marie-Louise Ayers: Yes. Well we do have conversation, of course, afterwards as well, for people who are terrified by your erudition, Genevieve, so I –
Genevieve Bell: I read.
Marie-Louise Ayers: OK.
Genevieve Bell: All right then.
Marie-Louise Ayers: Any questions from the audience?
Genevieve Bell: I’ve worn them into submission.
Marie-Louise Ayers: Yes, here we are; got one up here. Is this one of yours?
Genevieve Bell: Even if it were, I wasn’t going to announce that. [Pause.]
Juliet: Thank you. My name is Juliet. Thank you so much for your wonderful talk. I don’t know that much about cybernetics so it might be a relatively basic question for other people in the room. But in terms of modern systems where we’ve got things like apps and kind of quantum computing and the metaverse, how does that work for online communities, and how do we kind of tell the stories of online communities that kind of inform those systems that we have today?
Genevieve Bell: Gosh, that’s such a good question, Juliet. Starting about 20 years ago in my time at Intel, some of my colleagues and I were looking at the development of early online worlds, and starting to think about how would you study them ethnographically. So there’s a lovely book called “Coming of Age in Second Life,” which is an ethnographic account of one of those early sort of virtual worlds that pre-dates the metaverse. So let me take a step back. One of the ways I tend to think about this is to think about cybernetics as both a way of making sense of the world, where what you’re doing is paying attention not just to individual pieces but to the way they hold together. So you’re thinking about the system as a unit of analysis.
I’m increasingly struck by the importance of systems as a unit of analysis. We know how to think about individuals, and nation states, and economies, but systems feel like a important tool for making sense of the world. And when it comes to thinking about systems, I find myself coming back repeatedly to a set of conversations that were kicked off in the 1940s under the banner of cybernetics, that were really arguing for the idea that a system was always composed of people, technology and the place in which it was being enacted. It’s even embedded in the kind of the word itself. So cybernetics is a made up word. It borrows from the Greek kybernētēs, or steerage, and the image that was being evoked by the man who created that word was the idea of someone in a boat steering. And if you think about the boat as the technology, the steering as the human action, and the water as the place where it’s all happening, you can see that that’s a constant loop and a constant dynamic relationship.
And so when we talk about cybernetics – or when I do – I’m really interested in thinking about that notion of the relationship between the pieces, between the people, the technology, and the places in which it’s happening. Good news there is that means that’s an analysis you can apply to a digital space as easily as a physical one, because digital spaces are spaces too. And how we think about their dynamics, their pieces, their rules, their processes, are all kind of hugely important here. And the sort of analytic frame you might unfold here for thinking about something like the metaverse, would be to be asking those questions about who’s building it? And what are the pieces of the built world that inform it? So we talk about the metaverse, but much like artificial intelligence, the metaverse is a rallying crying cry, a research agenda and a marketing term, not actually a technology. You can’t point to an AI, any more than you can point to a metaverse.
They are configurations and ensembles of technology. In the case of the metaverse, we’re talking about augmented and virtual reality, we’re talking about computational power sitting somewhere, we’re talking about telecommunications, we’re probably talking about a headset still. So a bunch of pieces of the puzzle. So you can go look at all of those things. We can absolutely ask questions about what are the rules that are being enacted about what becomes digital in the metaverse? What is considered to be appropriate, what isn’t? Who gets to make those determinations and where do they sit? All parts of kind of processes and rules. And then we can look at the emerging human practices. What do we carry with us to the metaverse? What are the new and emerging practices that happen there? And how do we think about the relationships between all of those pieces? Change one piece of the system and the rest also react.
So, for me, part of the reason for going back to some of these earlier systems was to start to ask the question, “Have we been there before?” So as we think about new technologies and new technical systems in the 21st century, have we encountered some of these questions before? Too long, don’t read? Answer, yes. Better part of that is, and as a result of having encountered them before, there are certain things as citizens we should be willing to be a little bit more cynical or questioning about. In the 1870s – even in the 1870s – I’m not sure that Todd should have got to be as cavalier as he was about who was using the Line and where it went.
I think it’s a little safer to assume that the side effects and unintended consequences of telegraphy were not well-known in the 1870s, but we were starting to see that it would change ideas about IP, copyright, information. There were debates about whether the people in the telegraph stations could be trusted with all the information that was flowing through them. You’ll be happy to know there was a government attempt to build a safe-based cypher that was going to be given at every repeater station so that you could code things into the cypher. The problem of course being if you are listening to the messages to recode them on, a cypher is a difficult thing to listen to, so it didn’t last very long.
But in looking at all of the pieces of the Telegraph Line, and the consequences of it, it makes very clear that when you start to connect up the world, there are consequences; not just technical ones, but social, political, legal, regulatory, human ones. And so I look at that and I go, “OK, that’s 150 years ago. At some point we ought to be able to be a little more unnerved when someone says of a contemporary system, “We didn’t think there’d be any unintended consequences,” because you’d be left going, “Oi, sunshine, like 150 years; where have you been?” And so part of the reason for wanting to unfold a story like this is that it is pre-digital, but it’s all the same pieces.
There are governments, and companies, and individual actors, and places, and technologies, and all the pieces of visible and invisible work that you can surface. And so partly the Overland Telegraph Line, I think, is a story we should know better in Australia anyway, because it is kind of a remarkable piece of our broader nation building activity, but it is also a place from which you can discern a number of important questions to ask of contemporary and future systems.
Juliet: Thank you.
Genevieve Bell: You’re welcome. It was a good question. And she’s not one of mine.
Marie-Louise Ayers: Can we go the mic here?
Genevieve Bell: Mic running, side corridor, hat. Sorry, it’s a terrible way to render you. I was paying by the word.
Rick: I’ve been called worse. Hi, my name’s Rick. Actually you just touched on my question, which was the safety of the data going through the telegraph pole. Because I was thinking, today we have all these problems, and if the linesmen were required to repeat everything that went through, were they trusted with state secrets? Were there problems? All the various corporations; all those things.
Genevieve Bell: Yes, so look intensely good question; one I was immediately myself kind of fascinated with. Australia has some interesting differences in its telegraphy system than elsewhere in the world. So one technical difference. Which doesn’t make a difference per se about how secure information was, but tells you something about the mentality. So in Europe and the US, the line is inert and you power it only when you open the key to start tapping. In Australia the Line is always charged, and you interrupt it to send messages. Now of course part of the reason for that is if you are 250 kilometres to 300 kilometres between repeater stations, you need to know if the Line is working before you go to send a message rather than as you go, “Eh, can anyone hear me?”
What that of course meant was the Line was always charged. That has some interesting consequences. It’s a little bit zappy if you pick at it. And if you got lost and you found your way to the Telegraph Line, the fastest way to get rescued was to cut it. And this was such a prevalent activity that legislation is written to make that a criminal act and stop people from doing it. And there’s a delightful story of a person in the Northern Territory who cuts the Line just south of Alice Springs, and gets collected and brought to Alice Springs. And a couple of months later, someone is found cutting the Line between Alice Springs and Barrow Creek, and is taken to Barrow Creek. And then someone is found cutting a line between Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek, and it turns out to be the same person and he is effectively hitchhiking. And while you have to applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of that, he was thrown in gaol.
But what the charging of the Line meant was that the role of those Stationmasters is twofold. The security – they’re having to secure two things; they’re actually having to secure the Line itself, as well as the information that transits through it. Todd has a really scrupulous set of hiring practices around his Stationmasters and assistants, and they go through an apprenticeship program. So most of the men who run the repeater stations in the 1880s and 1890s had been on one of Todd’s original parties, so he knew them. So there’s a little bit of my personal – personal trust is being enacted. There is a 75-page regulation manual that is given to every telegraphist.
It has multiple pages for battery activity. It has multiple pages of where you need to be at 12:58 p.m. to clear the Line. But it starts with two pages of why you have to behave in a trustworthy and appropriate manner, and why it is that you need to be careful with your information. All of that said, there were indeed multiple forms of criminal activity. Mostly around shorting stock. Because the telegraph stations are sitting in lines of communication about pricing of things; everything from wool to mining concerns to the price of gold. And so any ability to kind of insert yourself, or just slow a telegram’s passage a little bit through the network, and put your own telegram ahead of it. That was easy to track though, because in addition to having a sounder at each station that was producing the noise, there’s also a tickertape that’s left as a record.
So there are instances of people doing that, and there’s instances of them clearly losing their jobs almost immediately because of it. And there are clearly other things that are happening around the edges, which I kind of love. People were allowed to use the Line for personal purposes on Sunday mornings. So there’s a little bit of family stuff that goes on through the Line. There’s also longstanding chess games that are being played down the Line, as you can imagine. And then I don’t know what it says about the Overland Telegraph Line in particular, but we’re talking about Morse code keys, so when you keyed yourself in you had a two-letter abbreviation for your station – so Strangways is SG, Darwin is PD – so you kind of – you knew where the message was going and who it was going backwards and forwards to.
And so whenever you keyed in a message, you keyed in your code and then the message followed it. So there’s a clear sort of – think of email headings; there’s a clear kind of signal of the trace. However, two most common two-word code that flow through the Australian telecommunications network; GM, good morning, and GS –
Speaker 1: Get …
Genevieve Bell: Correct. No, get stuffed, as it turns out. Which is kind of delightful. So like even then – even though that cost money, people were sending messages through the Line. In other parts of the world, the telegraph systems are commercial. So Australia is very long in maintaining these as governmental monopolies, not companies. So in the US the telegraph system is all Western Union. And so Western Union accumulates and accretes their entire network across the kind of – well, across the whole country, and creates many problems as a result of that. In Australia, much like the railway story, the telegraphs were colonial-based.
And whilst there was an agreement between New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia to use the same code – Morse – the Western Australians refused to participate. And so in Eucla on the Western Australia/South Australian border, there was a telegraph station that resembles the railway station in Albury Wodonga, in its kind of both size and its need to manage particular kinds of dynamics. Because much like the Albury Wodonga train platform which we know is designed to deal with two different railway gauges, and so you needed a platform in the middle to move people backwards and forwards, in Eucla there is a very long bench.
And the telegraphs came in on the Western Australian side – who, by the way, not only did not – refused to use the same Morse code as the rest of Australia, refused to use the same numbering system – and so a bunch of telegraphers from Western Australia and a bunch of telegraphers from South Australia, and a glass partition in between them, and they had to move the things backwards and forwards translating and re-translating them. So it was a little bit slow. But also says something about how we think about standards. And possibly about persistent Australian narratives that were also true in Eucla.
Marie-Louise Ayers: I think we’ll have to leave it there –
Genevieve Bell: Please make me stop.
Marie-Louise Ayers: – but that’s a great point to end on, as somebody born in Western Australia.
Genevieve Bell: Sorry. It was an excellent telegraph line; it was really good.
Marie-Louise Ayers: But I guess the other thing that I was just thinking of just before we finish, is of course we’re having this picture of technologies that, even if it’s a similar technology, the place where it is makes a massive, massive difference to how the system works out; something that I think is very, very apposite to the world of libraries in Australia. We’re different to anywhere in the world, and that’s for a very good reason. But also just that sense of listening to that Morse code and translating it. You’re listening so carefully to the message that’s coming down the Line, so of course there’s a whole lot of other things that you are not listening to that are arising from the land that’s directly under your feet, I think.
And I think this evening we’ve had a wonderful lecture from Genevieve that asks us to think about all of the relationships between all of those things, in ways that only the most flexible of minds, I think, could do. Please join me in thanking Genevieve, and then join us upstairs.
Marie-Louise Ayers: Fantastic.
[End of recorded material at 01:18:00]
The Ann Moyal Lecture is given by a distinguished speaker on a contemporary question that draws on such fields of knowledge as science, environment, ecology, history, anthropology, art, and technological change.
In 2023, the lecture will be delivered by Professor Genevieve Bell.
Professor Genevieve Bell is the Director of the School of Cybernetics, Florence Violet McKenzie Chair, and a Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University (ANU) as well as a Vice President and Senior Fellow at Intel Corporation. She is a cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist best known for her work at the intersection of cultural practice and technology development.
After completing her PhD in cultural anthropology at Stanford University in 1998, Professor Bell spent 18 years in Silicon Valley helping guide Intel’s product development by developing the company’s social science and design research capabilities.
Professor Bell established 3Ai in September 2017 at the ANU in collaboration with CSIRO’s Data61 with the mission of building a new branch of engineering to effectively and ethically manage the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on humanity through better design and management of technology. She is also the inaugural appointee to the Florence Violet McKenzie Chair at the ANU, Non-Executive Director of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Board, a member of the Prime Minister’s National Science and Technology Council, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), an Officer of the Order of Australia, and, in 2020, she was named the first Engelbart Distinguished Fellow by SRI International. She also presented the highly acclaimed ABC Boyer Lectures for 2017, in which she investigated what it means to be human, and Australian, in a digital world.
Dr Ann Moyal AM FAHA (1926–2019) was a Petherick reader, a Harold White Fellow and an established historian of science and technology. As a champion of independence in research and scholarly pursuits, she established the Independent Scholars Association of Australia in 1995 during the ‘Against the Grain’ conference, held at the Library.