Society

Long before Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook, a company called Simulmatics Corporation sought to predict and control human behaviour through the analysis of big data. If Then tells the story of that company, from its humble beginnings in a tiny office on Madison Avenue to the hallways of political power in Washington, DC.

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Disaster movies tend to follow a similar arc. Our band of heroes not only has to survive flames engulfing the skyscraper or sea water flooding the cruise liner, but must also triumph over the calculated selfishness of others who are also scrambling for salvation. The implication is that, with few exceptions, Thomas Hobbes was right. Amid the upheaval of the English Civil War, Hobbes declared that our natural human condition is a war of all against all, and that order can only be secured by a powerful ruler, a Leviathan, that keeps our naked urges in check. The social contract of considerate behaviour and thoughtfulness towards others is a thin veneer. Under pressure it peels away, and we are soon at one another’s throats in a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

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A detailed timeline prefaces Fire Flood Plague. Stretching from September 2019 to September 2020, it charts events so momentous that Christos Tsiolkas describes them as being ‘imbued with an atavistic, Biblical solemnity’. Sophie Cunningham, the book’s editor, notes in her introduction that many of the contributors (herself included) have found themselves drafting their essays ‘once, twice, thrice, as we’ve progressed from bushfire and smoke-choked skies, to the early days of the pandemic … and into the exhaustion of what is becoming a marathon’.

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At first glance, the slender paperback, with its cover drawing of dark-skinned men and boys, looks like a conventional illustrated children’s book. A few pages in, it’s clear that Tjanimaku Tjukurpa is something else. The version I have is in Pitjantjatjara and English. There is also an edition in Ngaanyatjarra and English. To anyone familiar with remote Aboriginal communities, the illustrations vibrate with authenticity – the landscape, the buildings, the cars, the appearance and demeanour of the people. This is a story embedded in the reality of community life. Told through the eyes of a concerned grandfather, it is a narrative played out in various iterations across the Indigenous world.

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The concept of ‘trespass’ first entered English law records in the thirteenth century. That this appearance fell between the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the reformation of the English church by Henry VIII in 1534 is no accident. As Nick Hayes shows in The Book of Trespass, the process by which the English commons were enclosed by the statutes of the wealthy landowning class was slow but resolute; and it had everything to do with, on the one hand, the arrival of Norman delineations of property and, on the other, the disbanding of the monasteries that had worked in a bartering symbiosis with the people of the common landscapes of England.

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What is to be done? The question is asked whenever humankind confronts a new crisis. And the answers, whether from biblical sources, Tolstoy, or Lenin (or indeed Barry Jones in his imminent book, What Is To Be Done?), must confront universal moral quandaries at the same time as they address local needs, hopes, and aspirations.

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‘I never thought Australia needed culture of any kind,’ drawls Barry Humphries in Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley’s recent documentary on Australian ‘trash’ cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Perverse aesthete that he is, Humphries cannot resist the idea that lack of refinement might be a sign of vitality: ‘Culture is yoghurt, isn’t it, or mould? It grows on decaying things.’

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Australians have a reputation as avid travellers. Prompted by our isolation, our international ancestry or basic curiosity, we roam far and wide, often for years. One million Australians currently reside overseas. Away Game examines an expanding niche within this group; those antipodeans living Stateside at the respective helms of such corporate giants as Ford Motors, IBM, Dow Chemicals and, until recently, even the all-American bad boys of the food industry, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.

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The familiar triumvirate of globalisation, advanced technology and consumerism has altered feminist, activist and subcultural practices so dramatically that their originators have trouble recognising them, and academics are racing to keep up. Next Wave Cultures acknowledges and embraces these upheavals in women’s social and political action. Anita Harris has selected a motley group of eleven essays that cover a diverse range of lifestyles, identities, communities and activities.

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How effective is a voice of reason in a climate of fear? In his introduction to this book, Professor Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University says that he is ‘incorrigibly optimistic’ about the role of education in assisting us to make wise decisions about our future. Over the past twenty years, he has written twelve books, including A Big Fix: Radical solutions for Australia’s environmental crisis (2005) and Living in the Hothouse: How global warming affects Australia (2005), forty-five book chapters, more than thirty journal articles and six hundred columns for various publications. That work has been written for the general public, not just the scientific community.

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