What is a “digital culture public sphere”, and why should we care?

The government wants feedback on its National Cultural Policy. It will run out of Senator Kate Lundy’s office and will feed into Arts Minister Simon Crean’s policy brief as he develops the policy, which Crikey is assured will be delivered some time next year.

According to Lundy, a public sphere it is setting up is “the applied use of social networking tools to capture and complement a traditional consultation process”.

Crikey readers who like to follow academic debates should note that in this context, the phrase “public sphere” means something slightly different to the traditional philosophical understanding of the term, as advanced by Jurgen Habermas and championed by NYU academic Jay Rosen.

The idea is to use social networking and other “government 2.0” tools to gather feedback and “draw together expertise and diverse ideas from individuals and organisations right across the digital arts and industry spectrum, and from all around Australia”.

Says Lundy: “We launched the government 2.0 taskforce at our second public sphere event, which focused on how to use public technologies to inform how to have a more effective interaction with government about public policy ideas. The beauty of digital is that you can capture it all and everyone can have a look at it.”

So is it about digital culture, or is it about the real-life arts?

“It’s kind of both,” Lundy told Crikey. “It’s not confined to online, in that there are lots of aspects where the use of digital tools might be a part of the design of the creative process, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s a way of focusing on all things digital — it’s often an area that deserves more attention when having a conversation about what the future of arts and culture looks like.”

Lundy concedes that the digital and new media arts have not always enjoyed the limelight in arts policy, especially when compared to their more traditional cousins in the performing arts.

“Yes,” she agreed, “but I also think that Minister Crean has acknowledged that, and that’s one of the reasons it’s part of the four principles in the [National Cultural Policy] discussion paper. The digital arts are a very specific aim of the minister’s.”

So what will the digital culture public sphere actually deliver? And if it’s all online, why is there still a public event?

“One of the strengths of the public sphere process is that it does have a beginning, a middle and an end. People are contributing to the website already, the middle is the live event, and the end is quite extensive too. We do collate and compile all those ideas into a wiki and then allow the community to make adjustments to how those things are expressed in the report. Once that’s finalised and wrapped up, it constitutes a submission to Minister Crean’s consultation.”

One of the criticisms of Labor’s cultural policy has been the glacial pace of its development. Peter Garrett first published an arts policy platform in opposition in 2006. The final policy is expected in 2012. Many in the sector are starting to wonder if the government will actually deliver.

“We will see a policy,” Lundy insisted. “One of the things I certainly credit Minister Crean with is taking this process to cabinet, and it has cabinet authority in having the consultation and issuing the consultation paper.” Garrett is also still involved. “Minister Garrettt is playing a critical role in phase two of the national curriculum consultations.

“Things that are worth doing don’t come easy, they need to be done well.”

Lundy argues the new cultural policy will play to Australia’s strengths in digital culture and services. She also points to the work that cultural institutions such as the National Library are doing in digitising their collections. “[That] is important for what I call the democratisation of our digital cultural assets.”

But is everything really that rosy in Australia’s digital culture sector? In recent months, Australia’s once-thriving gaming industry has been hammered by the high Australian dollar and the closure of several large games studios.

Lundy argues this is the point of the consultation. “I think there’s always been an issue of recognition of these strategic parts of the ICT sector … I don’t think there is enough awareness about it and part of the public sphere is how the message gets through to government about the ICT sector.”

With social networking sites such as Facebook now controlling the family photos and private information of millions of Australians, is it time for the government to look at regulating such sites for the public good?

Lundy says no. “I suspect not,” she responded, while cautioning that “there are policy issues such as privacy and transparency issues that govern public networking issues.” She argues that consumers “have chosen where they want to be” and that while they have “an absolute right to know what they’re in for”, government should tread lightly in the area.