Australia's Communication Futures

Tony Stevenson

June Lennie

This is the first book published by The Communications Centre and is based on a symposium held in May 1988, at what was then the Queensland Institute of Technology, to discuss communication issues in the context of rapidly changing communications technologies in Australia. The co-editors of the book are Tony Anderson, Director of the Communications Centre, and June Lennie, a research officer at the Centre. As well as editing, Anderson contributes two papers to the volume while Lennie provides a short appendix on recent policy decisions.

As they explain in their Introduction, the co-editors see the book as being published primarily for an Australian audience. So this reviewer has to ask if such a book can be useful to a Canadian readership. The answer depends on what you are looking for. If you want to learn more about the actual development of technological communications systems in Australia, this book is not very useful. One would do better to read, for example, the newsletter issued by the Centre for International Research on Communications and Information Technologies (CIRCIT) in Melbourne or refer to trade journals such as International Cable which cover international developments in communications. On the other hand, if you are looking for a general discussion of the social issues surrounding the development of advanced communications systems in an industrialized society other than the U.S., then you may find this book useful.

Before describing the contents of the book in more detail, it is worth noting the definitional distinction made by Tony Stevenson regarding "communication" and "communications." Stevenson relates the former to meaning in human relationships while the latter refers essentially to information delivery (p. 16). Thus the book's title indicates that human relationships are to be the primary emphasis.

The book is only 123 pages long yet contains 10 papers plus a short appendix so many of the papers (edited transcripts from presentations at the symposium) are necessarily brief. Of the ten authors or editors involved, six are Australians (Trevor Barr, Alex Byrne, Les Free, June Lennie, Ian Lowe, and Tony Stevenson), three are Americans (Benjamin Compaigne, Jim Dator, and Henry Geller), and one is Italian (Eleonora Masini).

The papers are organized into two sections; the first is on "Social, Cultural and Futures Issues" and is heavily oriented towards future studies approaches to the analysis of communication issues. Many of these papers are setting the futures framework and, as such, have little specific to tell us about Australian society, although the authors are quite willing to suggest what Australian society ought to do to make the future more friendly for its people.

The second section of the book is called "Economic, Technical and Policy Issues." More diverse perspectives are used by the writers, all of whom are interested in finding ways to improve the general education of the population about technology and about communication issues. They worry about the negative effects of communications systems on the less powerful and the less wealthy segments of society; topics such as the "de-skilling" of work, the information-poor, and social alienation are discussed.

Probably the most useful paper is by Trevor Barr, entitled "Telecommunications: Technology Assessment for the Future" (pp. 82-88), in which the writer raises a number of the central issues associated with telecommunications and future technological change. He raises these issues in the context of the Australian situation and refers to specific events and organizations in that country. The other paper that may be of interest to Canadian readers is by Les Free, whose paper is entitled "Convergence and Communications Policy." His paper (pp. 96-112) is the longest in the collection and does provide some understanding of the recent development of broadcasting in Australia (especially pay-TV and HDTV) as a useful comparison to similar developments in Canada.

In summary, Australia's Communication Futures has limited usefulness to Canadian readers. The greatest problem with it for non-Australian readers is not only that the policy content is outdated but also that it tells us little about the Australian social context in which the issues relating to communications technologies can be discussed and assessed. However, if one is looking for a general discussion of the social issues related to communications development in industrialized societies, this book may be quite useful.