Ann Moyal Lecture: Genevieve Bell

The Ann Moyal Lecture is the latest in the suite of lectures presented by the National Library of Australia, due to bequests or sponsorships from third parties. In this case, the bequest came from Ann Moyal, herself, who died at the age of 93 in 2019. Moyal was well known in Canberra for her commitment to scholarship, for her outspoken honesty, and for championing independent research. Her bequest, says the NLA, was for a lecture to be “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”.

The NLA did a good job of meeting the brief in asking Professor Genevieve Bell to give the inaugural lecture, because this woman has quite a CV. She is, as the lecture promo explained, “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”. (She is also, coincidentally, the daughter of academic Diane Bell whose 1987 book, Generations, was one of those game-changing books for me.)

Messages pass through: Retelling stories of the Overland Telegraph Line

I must say that what we got in this lecture was not what I was expecting, but it was gold, all the same. Bell commenced by talking about Ann Moyal’s book on the Overland Telegraph Line, Clear Across Australia: A History of Telecommunications, which used its history to tell new stories about Australia.

Bell then proceeded to view the story of the Overland Telegraph Line through her own lens to show how researching such history can inform contemporary experiences and research. She presented her lecture in five parts (or stories), illustrating it with pertinent historical images, and peppering it with stories about the people who made and worked on the line. These included well-known people, like Charles Todd and certain stationmasters, and the not-so-well-known like a Chinese shopkeeper, and the many linesmen working at the various repeater stations.

It was an intense and lively 45 minutes, but I’ll try share some of the points she made about what studying the OT can offer us. It stems from the fact that the Overland Telegraph was built on excitement about its potential for connecting Australia to the world. Consequently, stories about it have traditionally focused on this achievement, on the idea of its conquering space and, thus, time. BUT as we all appreciate now, it was also built on years of colonial expansion. Its creation is part of the violent dispossession that is at the heart of all Australian stories. Understanding this changes our understanding of the line, Bell argued.

In other words, the line was more than a feat of engineering. It was a complex organisation, a system (or multiple systems). It was also the beginning of data being disconnected from the page, and thus of our digital world. Researching how this all played out in the 19th century can feed into our understanding of how today’s technology can affect relationships, and our attitudes to time and space.

“Knowing the history of 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”

Bell talked about the building of the line, through, as Charles Todd described it, “a Terra Incognita believed to be a desert”. Todd was not oblivious to the presence of First Nations Australians. He gave clear instructions that they were to be treated (in that paternalistic vein of the era), “kindly but firmly”, and that there was to be no violence unless necessary! The overriding discourse about the line, though, concerned the “annihilation of time and space”. There was no recognition that this also encompassed the “annihilation of ancient culture”.

The OT, said Bell, changed our ways of thinking, of relating to others and to space – and it did this not simply because of the functionality of the line itself.

This led to her main point – that the Line encompassed complex systems. It supported and was supported by multiple settlements along it, and these settlements involved new relationships, new and different tensions (including with the people to whom the land really belonged). Indeed, alongside the stories of these settlements were the First Nations’ stories of the “line”: their stories, people and things moved (and had long moved) along their own lines in the areas the OT crossed.

Bell’s stories about the Line included those of the pastoralists who moved in. The country was now full of humans and animals who did not obey the laws as understood by the original owners.

And so, her lecture continued, teasing out the various stories – people, values, attitudes and roles that grew up long the line. She described the wide variety people living in the communities (stationmasters, linesmen, families), and the people who supplied them. There were unexpected opportunities, said Bell, for immigrants, such as for the Chinese, and for the cameleers and their camels. Amongst all these people there were complicated relationships – with the Aboriginal people, with the government, between each other, and so on. Some people, like the stationmasters, were named, while others, like the linesmen who kept the line going, rarely were. This tells us something.

Bell regularly returned to the First Nations people, and their role and experiences as conveyed by the records. “They were still on their country”, she repeated, but … it was hugely changed, they experienced disease, they longer had control. “They were still on their country … at least for now”.

Any large cybernetic system, which is how she characterised the Line, involves people. The way the Line impacted people is best encountered, she argued, through a cybernetic lens – how many systems were needed to support it, how many interdependencies were there, what stories can be told about it. These systems involve the creation, circulation and curation of information and power. The choices made in the 1870s can inform now.

In short, it was an informative and entertaining lecture about how the past can teach us about the present, and about how we document the truth in sometimes untruthful ways.


There was a short Q&A:

On modern systems: how do we tell the stories of online worlds? Bell referred to the origins of cybernetics, which is about the intersection between systems, people, technology, and the places where things happen. Whether it was the OT or today’s metaverse or AI environments, the questions are the same: who is building it, what are the rules, who makes the rules, what are people doing with the overriding question always being, have we been there before? She said more, but her main point was that it’s very clear that when you start to connect up the world, there are consequences – social, political, legal, regulatory, human. And often, these consequences are unintended. Interrogating stories like that of the OT exposes these consequences.

On the safety of data in OTC: Australia is different to many other jurisdictions in that the line was charged all the time, which created specific management issues. There are many stories, said Bell, about how the fact of it being permanently charged affected its use. It could be, and was, used for multiple purposes, some not completely legal, such as sharing of stock information, for gambling, and so on. There were also complications, such as that caused by Western Australia not agreeing to communication standards and protocols used by the other jurisdictions, resulting in a bit of an Albury-Wodonga railway situation, albeit in Eucla. (For those too young to know, or from elsewhere, Australia did not have an agreed standard railway gauge, which resulted in passengers having to change trains in various places, like Albury-Wodonga.) All these things tell us something about ourselves.

Ann Moyal Lecture
National Library of Australia
8 May 2023
Available online

18 thoughts on “Ann Moyal Lecture: Genevieve Bell

  1. Always amazed by your ability to inform about a book or a talk cogently but without having to stuff it with enormous quotes to get your points across, ST ..

  2. This sounds fascinating. I work in an organisation that uses systems thinking to try to change the world and this seems like a classic example. I hadn’t heard of the term cybernetics but it makes sense. Do you know if this lecture was recorded anywhere?

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Sue.
    You know, one of the first stories I ever heard about Australia involved the telegraph line. This was before my parents had even contemplated migrating here when Australia was an exotic place somewhere ‘abroad’. I was a kid working my way through those Girls Series that were in the local library… one series was about twins living in different countries around the world, and the other was about an indefatigable nurse, Cherry Ames, if I remember correctly.
    Anyway, in this book the indefatigable woman gets stranded in the outback. I can’t remember why she was there or how she was stranded all alone. But I vividly remember how she survived and I stored it away in my memory in case I ever needed to reproduce her strategy. She shimmied up the OT pole, and cut the wire, correctly surmising that a repair team would hotfoot it out there to fix it!

    • Oh that’s great Lisa. I actually mentioned this cutting the wire practice in my first draft because she told some great stories about it-including one fellow who essentially hitchhiked by cutting the line station to station until his dastardly plan became apparent.

  4. To follow on from Kim saying she hadn’t previously heard of cybernetics, I’m sure it’s a word I’ve know forever, presumably from its use and misuse in science fiction, and particularly in connection with androids (human-like robots). But I was inspired to run searches, from which I see the term was coined in 1948; and I then proceeded down the rabbit hole of cybernauts – nerds who bookmark all the weird sites they come across on the net.

    I can see Prof Bell is, by definition, the expert on cybernetics, and I’m just a patchily educated punter, but I must say I got the same feeling from your account of the lecture as I used to get from Philip Adams’ Commission for the Future – worthy, with lots of sciencey jargon. (I was going to censor myself at this point – I like arguments, but I do try not to give offense (go on, laugh) – but I see she describes herself as a futurist, so I’ll let my comment stand).

    • I remember that Commission for the Future, they ran a conference here in Melbourne (in 1988?) and it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to. It made me think about all kinds of things differently and made me a much better teacher and curriculum developer.

    • Yes, she mentioned going back to the 1940s. Like you I feel I’ve known it forever too but had never focused on what it was about. She made it feel clear and useful to me as an approach to understanding technology based systems.

      Re you and arguments – haha. Seriously though I don’t thing you’ve given me any offence over the years. Worthy sounds a bit like damned with faint praise, and I must defend bell on the point that there was little science-y jargon. Did it sound like there was?

      • I’ll give in on Bell and sciencey.
        The telegraph station at Eucla is on the beach (under a sandhill now) so the telegraph line must have been laid under the Bight and presumably across Spencer Gulf to Adelaide. I wonder why that was the cheapest option.
        No one ever talks about the overland telegraph to Perth or Kalgoorlie – though in the 1970s there was a chain of microwave dishes starting from a hill near Box Hill in eastern Melbourne – so I wonder if the WA line went back under the Bight.

  5. I read something about this a while back, wherever the OT went so too do massacres of Aboriginal people. The men laying the lines would rape the local Aboriginal women, there would then be a reprisal by their menfolk that resulted in an all-out massacre by the linemen against the tribe. I think this may have been about the SA to Darwin OT in particular.

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