The Null Device
The Melbourne International Film Festival is upon us yet again, and I'll be going to see rather a lot of films over the next few weeks. This evening I went to see Contraptions, a double session of short films, featuring the new Wallace & Gromit Cracking Contraptions shorts and Bruce Petty's ABC-funded Human Contraptions animations. The Bruce Petty shorts were a bit disappointing; it wasn't the content that was the problem (they had some insights about the world we live in), but the waffly, semi-incoherent way it was delivered, full of non-sequiturs, gross factual errors (probably made deliberately out of a spirit of irreverence or "larrikinism" or something) and annoyingly insipid technobabble (the gimmick was that everything from sex to politics was described as a vaguely Rube Goldbergesque machine; this consisted of tacking on the words "module" and "unit" to various things). I'm half wondering whether the vacuousness was required in the ABC's impartiality contract as a condition of giving Petty (a known Communist of the old school) this series and/or fending off reprisals from Senator Alston's Inquisition.
The Wallace & Gromit shorts were a lot better, IMHO. Alas, I missed the first few, as the queue at the ticket pick-up office didn't move for a very long time. I managed to get a free ticket to another film for my trouble though.
As a society, we discard an alarming amount of electronic equipment. It has once been claimed that the average PC has a working life of just under 3 years before it is consigned to the landfill, usually still in working condition. Meanwhile, we toss our old mobile phones as soon as the coltan to make new ones is mined from Congolese national parks. Not to mention all those electronic devices which are built to last a few years (my Sony stereo is a case in point; not to mention the fact that anything with firmware in Flash ROM is going to be scrap within a decade). So it's not surprising that the landfills are filling up with old computers, dead TVs and last year's DVD players, all of them leaching toxic chemicals into the groundwater.
Recycling of electronic devices has been a dubious exercise, with horror stories of entire Chinese villages serving as computer graveyards, young children picking futilely through mountains of dead circuit boards, and everybody getting cancer and dying before their time. But the urbane, left-leaning westerner who sent their old Pentium to be recycled (and paid the surcharge for doing so, lining the pockets of the growing guilt-assuagement industry) doesn't see any of this so their social conscience is eased. Perception is everything.
Which is why it gives me hope to see stories like this one, about a new high-tech waste recycling plant in Japan, designed to efficiently disassemble all those old unwanted devices and use as much of their constituent materials to make new things:
Glass in television sets is carefully dissected with Matsushita's own breed of cutter to keep the toxic leaded glass in the rear portion away from the safer glass in the screen. The result is two kinds of glass that ends up in new TVs. Separating the different parts of a washing machine requires a complex arrangement of magnets and wind blowers to produce cleanly divided waste.
In the US, Congress has overturned the FCC's media-ownership deregulation plan, which was widely feared to result in further consolidation of media ownership and the squashing of what diversity remains. The vote took many by surprise, as they expected the Republicans (traditionally friends of Big Business; see also: the Democrats) to suppress the revolt in the House of Representatives. It's not over yet, as Bush has indicated he may veto the bill (though some are saying that doing so would be political suicide, especially now that the invulnerability of a wartime presidency has worn off).
While Senator Alston is trying to nail the ABC to the wall for insufficiently following the party line, Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch are trying to do the same to the BBC; to the point where some New Labour politicians are talking about cutting the television license fee that funds the BBC:
Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is what Blair must have fantasised about having on his side. The network was raucously pro-administration, delivering to George Bush the rightwing commentaries and inspiring pictures he needed to help him conduct the war. How convenient it would be for any centreright, interventionist British leader to have his own, Union Jack-branded Fox.
Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke have refused to play their allotted role as New Labour toadies. This is brave since they must know that they, and the BBC, have nowhere else to go. The Tories would privatise them like a shot. Now that the Conservative manifesto is likely to suggest slashing the licence fee, it is not hard to see a vengeful New Labour starting a Dutch auction, cutting and cutting. Then it will be curtains for the governors and the hunt will be on for a more reliable director general.
It'll be a shame if the BBC is cowed into a corner, and reduced to timidly reporting the party line between pumping out unchallenging Merchant-Ivory-style costume dramas for the Region 1 DVD market.