opinion Just when you thought the debate over the National Broadband Network couldn’t get any more ridiculous, it did. This morning the Australian newspaper published a remarkable pair of articles detailing what it described as a “backlash” by residents of NSW’s Southern Highlands to the nascent fibre rollout. One states:
“There’s something special about Wingecarribee Shire, something about the rolling green hills of the NSW southern highlands and the town’s leafy streets. There’s something special about the shire folk, too: when anything threatens their way of life, they band together to fight it.”
The articles’ central thesis is that the NBN is somehow invading the Shire – hanging unsightly cables everywhere and disrupting the scenic view; taking money away from hospitals, running roughshod over council planning, and – more than anything – destroying residents’ tranquil “way of life”. It features quotes from people like Alan, a humble local farmer who says that locals moved into the area because they have a particular lifestyle, and take poorly to it when outsiders want to come in and “stuff that lifestyle up”.
The language is emotive; it conjures up images of anonymous engineers clad in blue coveralls, heedlessly digging up the peaceful land and forcefully injecting filthy modernity into it; rusty pipes replacing flowing brooks; black clouds of smoke blocking out the azure sky; bureaucrats in black suits making notes about the numbers of petunias to be incinerated.
As I read through the articles, by Australian journalist Amos Aikman – he’s on Twitter, by the way – I couldn’t help but feel myself being seduced by the vision they painted.
Are fibre-optic cables always a force for good, I asked myself? Could it be that Labor’s vision of a national broadband nirvana is really nothing more than a golden veneer, offered to the unthinking masses as a sop to their emotions, while in reality covering up the most filthy, mechanical excesses of what many in the 20th century reviled as the great demon of ‘progress’?
To tell you the truth, Aikman almost had me beguiled with his rural idealogues. Almost, I wanted to leave my life in the rat race of urban Sydney, and journey to the Shire, where I could commune with nature and find myself amongst its earthy people.
But then -– like a jolt of coffee mainlining into my system — reality came crashing down.
The glaring truth is that the idea that the NBN will somehow destroy the “way of life” in outer metropolitan or rural Australia, or even threaten it in the slightest, is the biggest pile of hogwash that I have read about Labor’s flagship broadband project in the past three years since it was birthed.
The truth – as any sane person will know – is that rolling out government-funded fibre-optic cable and wireless towers to rural Australia will be the biggest boon to the “lifestyle” enjoyed by their residents that has ever been gifted to them, and an incredible validation of the diverse “way of life” that Australia offers to all who have been fortunate enough to step onto her shores.
Far from destroying the Shire’s lifestyle, the NBN will tremendously enhance it.
In the short term, local residents and businesses – as with all Australians over the next eight years – will have to deal with a small amount of disruption as the NBN engineers lay fibre around their streets and place network termination units on their buildings. However, this exercise in most neighbourhoods will take only a matter of weeks.
In return for their ‘patience’, many Shire residents will no longer have to travel hours to get to work every day in central Sydney or other business districts. I expect the numbers of white collar workers conducting much of their work from their idyllic residences in the Shire to boom over the next several decades as use of high-definition videoconferencing and online collaboration tools skyrocket by knowledge workers who can suddenly have their cake and eat it too.
The ability for surgeons to collaborate with staff by fibre-optic cable directly from their hobby farms; for chief executives to brief the board from their weekend cottages; for housewives to complete masters degrees in business administration … all of these things will be far more possible in a few years, once the Shire is wired for fibre, than they are today.
Other things will also change.
With ubiquitous high-speed broadband bringing the world to residents’ doorstops, the Shire will no doubt suffer less in future from the constant desertion of its young people to greener pastures in more metropolitan areas. When you can communicate with anyone from your loungeroom in high definition, there is so much less incentive to up sticks and head for the city.
Instead – when many of the best education, employment and community participation opportunities that Australia has to offer will be found online – rural areas will see a rejuvenation of their resident base, as locals realise they truly can enjoy both the benefits of next-generation technology and the easy regional lifestyle.
Like many young people of my generation, I know this instinctively; most of my close friends are people who grew up in rural Australia; only to desert it because of the lack of opportunities that it offered to grow and develop; opportunities that the internet is starting to bring to every corner in Australia in spades through high-speed broadband. You only need to speak to any university educator in 2011 for five minutes to realise the strength of the remote education revolution currently engulfing the internet.
There will be no “backlash” when the NBN is rolled out in any location in Australia. There will not be people clamouring for entry level plans which offer “basic voice services”. Instead, there will be millions of people dancing in their houses as the odious bottleneck on their ability to consume knowledge and entertainment and communicate effortlessly from the comfort of their bedroom is gloriously destroyed — once and for all.
Now, I want to finish by pointing out something about this pair of articles which I find extremely disturbing; the fact that they represent an idea which has plagued humanity down through the ages and which continues to bedevil many of our attempts to move our sorry species forward.
At very few places in the articles about the Shire are specific aspects of the NBN project discussed. Unlike most commentary about the NBN, the articles do not primarily constitute a complaint against Labor’s policy on financial, technical or even political grounds (and there are plenty of valid arguments here), although they do mention the overhead cable issue and the idea that the NBN money (despite the fact that it’s a capital investment) could be spent on hospital beds.
Instead, what Aikman’s articles on the Shire represent is a protest against the idea of progress itself.
There have been, in every society throughout the ages, people who simply are happy with their lot, and do not wish to be forced into any change — even for the better. People who are rich enough, comfortable enough, and ignorant enough, not to know that there is a bigger world out there for the taking. People who reject that world on principle, because it is something that they cannot understand. These people have always used spurious arguments involving the term “way of life” as justification for holding development back in their neck of the woods.
Australia is a democracy — and a robust one. Our national debate has room for ideas of all shapes and sizes. But what it does not have is room for ideas which are based on demonstratable falsehoods.
I’ve often been a critic of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. And yet when he stood up last week on national television and contemptuously demolished The Economist for what was a flawed piece of inaccurate research about the NBN, I cheered.
As a nation, we must take care to only pay attention to ideas which have some merit. Everyone has a voice in a democracy. But when we give credence to ideas that have no validity — and calls for society to stand still and reject technological progress have always been a prime example of this — we undercut that debate by considering weak ideas as being equivalent with the strong.
In short, some ideas are so bad that they should not be debated. They deserve to be ignored and cast back into the wilderness from whence they came. The idea that the National Broadband Network will somehow destroy someone’s way of life is one of them.