Seeing another future


Yesterday I saw another future. It was akin to hearing my first radio, seeing Armstrong step onto the moon, picking up a portapak and shooting video, and that extrodinary moment we knew we could code hyperlinks onto a web page. However this was virtually real, immersive, uncomfortably intrusive and yet emphatic.

Grant McHerron: How did your inner ear cope? No nausea due to lack of actual movement despite sight & sound saying you were?

It took me 20 mins to feel normal-ish again. I was ill from motion sickness, particularly when looking down onto the Icelandic plains and seeing nothing beneath me. Looking up there’s the undercarriage of a helicopter that the camera mount was suspended from, as was I, or so it felt. That sunk my guts!

Overall, it was a staggering experience in spite of vast reservoirs of sceptisism on my part. I’m no happy chappy interactive media advocate either, however when empathy is some how possible through either means the possibilities are truly mind blowing… and I say this maintaining a level of sceptisism knowing some will no-doubt stretch the tech into morally repugnant areas. That said, I’m riffing on the benefits… imaginging what it would be like to immerse the elderly and / or infirm into journey worlds they would no longer have the capacity to physically reach… that my mother could visit a Mongolian yurt, as I did within a VR demo, is as tantilizing as it is hopeful that we may continue to lead enriching lives well beyond one’s unexpected, anticipated or socially dictated use by date.

Towards Ocean in a Drop


In January I had left Australia to work on a new film in India in collaboration with the Digital Empowerment Foundation and Inomy Media. I was there, based in Dehli, for five months. OCEAN IN A DROP explores the impact broadband is  making on mostly rural and tribal communities, some who have barely heard a radio nor seen a TV.

On route to Rajasthan.

On route to Rajasthan.

The Foundation has a target of providing one billion people with access to broadband internet and digital literacy training by 2020. Where broadcast has barely reached broadband is increasingly available. What are the consequences for communities that are literate in oral traditions, millions that have not yet forgotten how to remember, that in so many parts of the north east where I had visited provide the agricultural labour that pours food into India’s expanding urban and special economic zones?

With production completed and translations of up to sixty interviews rolling in I should have a reasonable grasp of next steps, from post-production funding to writing and post itself. Transcripts of the interviews thus far are a revelation. Clearly it was impossible to translate the minutia of the conversations I sought to have with each of our interviewees on location. What can I say? Reading and writing this next phase is a challenging joy!

Behind the scenes observations by Cathy Cheng and Mubeen Siddique were recorded on Tumblr via our working title of Upliftdoco.

Indifference in difference


Just as there had been a flourishing of flowers that brought colour and shape of all manner throughout the forests of planet Earth, so too was there a burst of humans reflecting the diverse landscapes and climates across the great continents, grand brush strokes of language, song and dance, creed and shade, all speaking to their lands and their lands through them. No much more so than in India where diversity is of a scale only comparable to the densest of rain forests where we still remain uncertain of the depth of species, flora and fauna, that we have yet to know and learn from.

Between Alwar and Baran (Rajasthan, India) we passed a forest from which trees emerged, penetrating the early morning mist as broken arms clutching at the air, a landscape rent and torn by illegal sand-mining. Three camel drawn carts were loaded up with sand quarried by hand. We stopped to shoot this enterprise and in doing so sought permission from the villagers there. They agreed, for a small fee and we obliged.

When the villagers were done we moved deeper into the forest to capture material for my serene, reflective cutaways. Each of us found a zone of our own, documenting what we saw there either on camera or through personal reflection. I sought to walk and look deep into the mist. It was at such a moment that a shepherd emerged. His crook as tall as a small tree. We spoke through hand signs and gestures.

We were both curious about each other. Clearly I wasn’t someone he would regularly meet there, an alien on his home lands, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to chat quietly with a shepherd. We communicated without any sense of indifference.

As we spoke a member of my local crew walked towards us with an urgent stride, whipped out his smart phone, remarked on the length of the shepherd’s crook and prepared to take photos. I asked would he mind requesting permission first, to which he replied, “Here we don’t ask.” “With all due respect,” I responded,  “on my shoot we ask.” To which my request was ignored and photos merrily taken.

Communication that had been found in silence and respect, in mere moments, was extinguished.

Indifference and disregard were themes that I would find a constant challenge throughout the shoot, described to me as commonplace attitudes found throughout the country. What is commonplace is that there is nothing common between regions, states, tribes, the minutiae of lives in buried in slums and the makeshift dwellings nomads and the homeless construct on the open road, in fields, beneath freeways. If there was ever a place more deserving of suspended assumption, it is India.

It’s not so much that people are indifferent to each other, there is a learned system of responses hewn from a culture of many cultures. There is no one India. It can not be personified in any single artifact nor language. It can’t be drawn, exposed nor compared to anything. There are simply too many variances, too many nuances, too many histories and layered differences.

Indifference is a strategy. I try to be open to everyone, to all experiences, but there is a kind of madness that comes with that. Because one can not know the layers, one can not know why people say one thing to someone else and another to you, both statements contradicting each other, but to someone who does know it makes sense – it makes sense that it makes no sense! Try experiencing this a dozen or more times each day for a month.

I say to myself more than anyone else, best see India as a complex country of countless differences where every shadow cast is contoured by the dust of a millennia lives decomposed and transformed into nutrients absorbed into every single tree left standing.

Photo by: Cathy Chen (taken from a respectful and non-intrusive distance.

Right to know – Part 1


Dense, chaotic thickets of electricity and phone cabling slung perilously over rusted scaffolding, window frames and round fragile bamboo poles. An overhead canopy woven throughout the urban fringe of Phnom Penh, Ho Chin Minh City, Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta, Beijing, Nanjing and Guangzhou. In the dark, amid the unruly mess a ragged and shadowy people would emerge from the rubble and garbage, risking their scant lives draping raw cables one over the other – an illegal maze of brazen off-grid grids, syphoning power to light their meager dwellings.

It was 1994. I had a Macintosh PowerBook 160, a Zyxel 14000 baud rate modem, a Sony Hi-8 video camera, fine tipped pens and a journal slung over my shoulder. I also carried a small tool kit and cables to literally hard wire modems into hotel room telephone sockets. In most cases it was the only way to get a line out. At that time you were only online for as long as it took to place a call to which ever server you had an account on, to make that modem connection happen, and what ever time remained to send pre-drafted emails and download any that were waiting for you. In my case I was making an international call to the Pactok1 server in Sydney. Pactok, a store-and-forward email service, collected all my Australian and international messages, mailing lists and posts to and from specialised self-published, open news groups. You had to be frugal, quick and efficient.

I travelled with Jagdish Parikh, legendary exponent of computer networking for workers lobbyist groups in South and Southeast Asia. We were researching the Indochina and Southeast Asia component of the first study of ICT use in the region. Commissioned by the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC)2 the consultancy also required us to introduce the fledgling World Wide Web to universities, governments and telecommunications providers, to gauge their interest and possible uptake. The end result was the landmark PAN Asia Report3.

Twenty two years later I find myself in rural India. You would expect such canopies of raw data and electricity in abundance here, but they barely exist. Where such an entanglement would thrive is instead progressively drawn by invisible weaves of unlicensed wireless communications, broadband internet and clusters of licensed spectrum that host today’s digital telephony. Book-ending the PAN Asia Report of sorts I find myself writing and directing a film with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). It is about the impact these technologies are making on communities where one is only considered literate if you can write your name, where local and traditional knowledge is undervalued and where ancient prejudices continue to undermine the lives of women, farmers and people of tribal or lower caste origins.

A rare wheelchair accessible community facility in Vijay Mandir, Alwar, Rajasthan.

A rare wheelchair accessible community facility in Vijay Mandir, Alwar, Rajasthan.

I am still carrying a laptop, video camera, fine tipped pens and a journal. I am also carrying a smart phone which I use as a wireless hub and a tablet for my e-books, music and some research. No more need for hard-wired jacking into cable infrastructure. Just enough coin for pre-paid broadband. “Times”, as Bob Dylan famously sang4, “they are-a-changing” for the people of rural India as they have done for me.

This is a personal observation of the diversity of DEFs vision and practice; far-reaching and reflexive initiatives focused through the lens of digital exclusion within the information divide and the work the Foundation does to reach the unreachable. For theirs is a right to access the internet and the right to know how to share their stories and knowledge there.

An information divide

It was at the 11th face-to-face Association for Progressive Communications (APC)5 Council meeting that I met Osama Manzar. Held on Panglao Island in the Philippines, it was less than a fortnight since the 2011 tsunami devastated Japan’s east coast. Many of us were still uneasy about the consequences of the tragedy. Amid the concern one face stood out. Osama was setting up a small stall of saris and other fabrics from Chanderiyaan, one of DEFs many projects. DEF was at that time new to the APC. We were to find we had much in common, much to share and learn from each other.

The DEF, Osama explained, is an organisation dedicated to bridging the information divide in India.

Osama explained that India was not lacking in information richness, only the means to share it. That such an ancient culture with so many people, with such historical significance was not yet able to disseminate its information to the world India was creating its own information divide, both internally and externally. Until it has the where-with-all to do so, Osama continued, how could it expect to contribute to our planet, to perhaps influence the governance and care of it in ways that could be fruitful to all?

In January 2015 I arrived in India and would see the information divide and the consequences of it for myself, visiting rural regions where vast populations live within meagre means and with few aspirations other than surviving from one harvest season to the next. It is near incomprehensible to come to grips with the fact that over a quarter of the population, a controversial figure at best, stills lives below the poverty line. The official figures list 21.9%6 of Indians are subject to below poverty line status, however rice subsides via a national food security scheme are made to support a massive 67%7, figures that may raise the poverty line presently under review8.


Millions tolerate air pollution as urbanity and industrialisation reaches out across rural India.

Either way there are millions of people with little to no access to education with few means to know their own rights let alone their own country. Community radio stations who would otherwise reach many of these people struggle to access licenses and where there is no electricity, no one has had the foresight to provide telephony let alone internet access there.

Having grown up in the small and once remote village of Islampur in the West Champaran district of the state of Bihar, Osama recognised both the information divide and the opportunity it presented; the very few had access to everything, the many to very little. Osama established the Foundation to reach the unreachable many.

25% of India's population remains without to electricity (World Bank, 2014).

25% of India’s population remains without to electricity (World Bank, 2014).

The Foundation’s plan is to use what ever creative, strategic and entrepreneurial means to encourage, stimulate and mobilise a billion people digitally literate people by 2020. That’s one billion people presently considered illiterate, one billion unaware of their rights and least of all their right to know that they indeed have rights, a billion people to reach. Being digitally literate does not mean one needs a computer and internet connection in your home, but the means to know how to make use of the internet, where to access it from. It’s quite a vision.

1 Pactok was a low-cost electronic mail network founded in 1991 serving community groups and non-government organisations working in and / or based in the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. It operated custom built store-and-forward software for both Pactok hubs and nodes. Nodes would dial hubs which would in-turn dial the Pactok server in Sydney, which would in turn make a UUCP connection to Pegasus Networks further up the Australian east coast. Pegasus would then transfer all international messages from Pactok to and from its partner APC (Association for Progressive Communications) networks world-wide. Much of the Pactok network was automated with calls placed at scheduled intervals. An article published in 1996 described Pactok as looking “for ways to explore cyberspace’s promise of publishing without a printing press with little more than a computer and a phone line (Fogg, 1996). The last Pactok hub, Pacific Media Watch based in Fiji, was decommissioned in 1999.

2 The IDRC is a Canadian based aid and development agency. The PAN Asia Network Report was commissioned by their Singapore office.

3 Garton, A. Parikh, J. Nanda, S. Fernandez, L. (1994) ‘PAN Asia Networking Report’, International Development and Research Centre, Singapore / Canada, ISBN 981006389X

4 The Times They Are A-Changin, Dylan, Bob. Released 1964 on Columbia Records.

5 The Association for Progressive Communications is an international network of organizations that was founded in 1990 to provide communication infrastructure, including Internet-based applications, to groups and individuals who work for peace, human rights, protection of the environment, and sustainability. Pioneering the use of ICTs for civil society, especially in developing countries, APC were often the first providers of Internet in their member countries.

6 Plan commission to use Tendulkar approach for measuring poverty, Rao, Kirthi., Aug 8, 2012

7 A new poverty line that shows 67% of India is poor, Kaul, Vivek., Jul 30, 2013.

8 New poverty line: Rs 32 in villages, Rs 47 in cities, Sing, Mahendra Kumar. The Times of India, Jul 7, 2014.

Women are stepping up in India’s off-grid rural communities


In India’s north-east, in its rural off-grid villages where electricity has barely lit a single light bulb something truly beautiful is taking place. Women and girls from tribal communities, many former forest dwellers, once hunter-gathers, where resilience thrives, are inspiring each other through a communal space very new to them – the internet.

This article is an extract from UPLIFT, a new film by Andrew Garton in association with the Digital Empowerment Foundation. UPLIFT traces the motivations, challenges and victories of the Foundation’s life among the downtrodden and unknown peoples of a continent where medieval communities and modernity finds both friction and fortune – heritage and triumph at the coal face of India’s information divide.

Below poverty line women find solidarity in Muzaffarpur

Indu Devi’s husband sold fish at the nearby markets in Muzaffarpur, a town in the Bajjikanchal region of Bihar. He fell ill, Indu describing it as a “brain disease”. Their family is now entirely dependent on her for their income. She is legally entitled to work at least 100 days per year on agricultural land. The work offered to her barely meets the quota allocated to all Indian’s who live below the poverty line.

Sanjay Sahni is an electrician. He works 10 days a month in New Delhi and spends the rest in the agricultural communities of Muzaffarpur. Within a dirt floor, stone and brick farm building Sanjay fires up a laptop, a single internet connection and loads up a government website. Every day for the rest of each month he will provide women like Indu, who stream in from off the fields all day, with labor market information; hours worked, how much they ought to have earned and what to do if employers rip them off. Plenty of them do. Many of these women are much worse off then Indu. Their husbands are abusive, refuse to work spending much of their days drunk, stoned or both. In spite of the harsh circumstances the women of Muzaffarpur are finding strength and solidarity directly as a consequence of knowing their labor rights.

 Sanjay Sahni, Indu Devi, Madina Begam

(L-R) Sanjay Sahni, Indu Devi, Madina Begam. Photo – Andrew Garton

Led by the formidable Madina Begam they have formed themselves into an organisation, the Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sansthan. They cry “solidarity” when talking about their strengths and when called upon will, as a group, humiliate husbands when their behavior becomes entirely unacceptable. They have come to protect each other.

A job card that every below the poverty line worker is entitled to and a single net connection has seeded a movement among the women of Muzzaffarpur, informed and emboldened them.

Basanti and Reena escape child marriage in Baran

In the once lush forests of Baran, in the southern region of Rajasthan, Basanti Bheel and Reena Sahariya tell me why the internet is so useful. “It’s great for fashion tips,” and burst out laughing. “Aloe vera is good for the skin!”

Basanti Bheel and Reena Sahariya

Basanti Bheel and Reena Sahariya. Photo – Jary Nemo

Now both in their late teens / early twenties it is incomprehensible to think that only a handful of years ago they were too frightened to speak. Both had attended a course at the Manomi Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) where they learned how to use computers and the internet. They now teach there. Manomi is the home to a vast wireless broadband network established with the support of the Delhi based Digital Empowerment Foundation who also supports Sanjay Sahni’s work in Muzaffarpur.

Where barely a radio has been heard Basanti and Reena’s communities of former forest dwellers have access to video conferencing, telemedicine services, video on demand, email. Name it and they have it. Though they may adore aloe vera as any woman of their age might, both have high hopes for themselves and their communities. Basanti has already gathered around 500 women in her village to whom she shares information about women’s health issues, sanitation, general access to the internet and no doubt fashion tips.

Though child marriage is still rife in Rajasthan Basanti and Reena found that even a meager education ensured their escape from this practice. Both their families and friends are supportive of their new-found strength and commitment to helping other women.

It is women such as Indu, Madina, Basanti and Reena that are changing the perception of women in their villages. Small steps in a vast country.


Communications surveillance in the digital age


Contributing to the third GISWATCH report my chapter explored the net we had sought to create in the early 1990s, what it had become and where we seem to be headed. It reflects, in part, on an article I wrote just over 20 years ago, The Net: opportunity or threat, for 21C Magazine.

GISWATCH 2014 was launched at Memefest/Swinburne on Tuesday 18 November 2014.

A ground-breaking report on national and global mass surveillance will be launched on 18 November 2014 at the first Memefest/Swinburne at Swinburne University by contributing author Andrew Garton, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Memefest/Swinburne, an extradisciplinary symposium and workshop. The report explores the surveillance of citizens in today’s digital age by governments with the complicity of institutions and corporations.

Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) aims for an open, inclusive and sustainable information society and has produced reports yearly since 2007. This year’s edition of GISWatch is entitled “Communications surveillance in the digital age” and contains thorough contextual analyses from civil society representatives in 58 countries. The reports in GISWatch 2014 expose governments’ use of weaknesses in legal systems and user ignorance to monitor, intercept, collect, analyse, use, preserve, retain and interfere with global internet communications.

Memefest/Swinburne and the APC invite you to enjoy presentations by Memefest special guests and contributing GISWatch 2014 author Andrew Garton. Presentations will be followed by an open discussion on solutions to protect human rights on the internet, followed by a light snacks and drinks.

GISWatch reports are available for download at

GISWatch 2014 is a publication of the Association for Progressive Communications and Hivos.


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