The twenty-first century: white noise?

In the opening lines to the BBC series Torchwood, Captain Jack announces that the 21st Century is when everything changes, but he might have added that it’s when everyone panicked and forgot how to act in a time of change.

And there is much to panic about it seems – global warming, the war on terror, coming plagues, cybersafety, obesity epidemics, interventions and bursting global bubbles.

Some of the threats are only too real – Sept 11 and 7-7 is scarred into all our memories and who in Canberra could ever forget January 2003, nor the Victorian fires.

But it’s not like this is the first period in history where there has been widespread change and uncertainty.  The first fifty years of the 20th Century were, by any measure, mired in war, depression, calamity and hate of an intensity not seen before or since.

But while the attitude of those times might have been to ‘keep calm and carry on’, the 21st Century sees us mired in a persistent “tone” of crisis that is not always anchored in reality and has us baffled and paralysed.

Talkback radio is all around us screaming that crime is “out of control”.  Elderly women shut themselves inside their houses – bolting, locking and alarming – despite the statistics telling us that the victims of crime are most likely to be young people or caused by people you already know.

Antiseptic handwashes, washing powder, gels and dishwashing liquids proliferate as we scrub and salve away the coming bacterial nightmare.

Television dramas, reality shows and movies surround us with images of vast post apocalyptic terrors and survivalist scenarios.  On Pay TV there is a whole Channel devoted to crime – a serial killer for every day of the year.

The language of risk has invaded every space – even the most mundane project plans in my line of work in the community sector must now include sections on risk management, crisis management and a “what if?” worst case scenario plan.

The tone was set early on.  Remember Y2K?  When every computer, mobile phone and internet connection was set to come to a grinding halt at the strike of Midnight at the turn of the new millennium.

In Canberra circles I remember dire mutterings that computer records would be lost, electricity would shut down and Australia would be run by a small shadow government of public officials churning out letters on typewriters by candlelight while huddled around walkie talkies.

And where there is fear there is anger too.  Much was made of the tone of the recent Alan Jones interview with Julia Gillard where he admonished her for being late to an interview, but I was more amazed at the tone of the talk-back caller “Brian” played at the interview.

Literally screaming with incoherent rage – Brian seemed symptomatic of a society that is confused, furious, overloaded and angry – but not quite sure why.

Part of it is surely the “Sydney syndrome”, where bad planning decisions, an imploding government, overcommitted mortgages, overpopulation, culture shock and hellish traffic congestion have combined with venomous shock jock radio to create a coarsened, vile public discourse.

But I think there is something broader going on too.   A similar tone can be found on the anonymous posts on most major blogs.  A mean spirited angry thread of bitterness, disappointment, bile and triumph in others misfortunes – but ones instantly carried on a sea of tweets and posts though a 24 hour news cycle.

Put simply, public participation is happening like never before but we are not, in the words of John Laws, being kind to each other.

We are becoming a culture that is drowning in overload, feedback and political white noise.

And in the 21st Century there is so much too panic about that it is hard to know what to start fixing or if it is better to hide.

The responses are the obvious ones – gated communities – real and virtual.

Communities like Facebook offer a way to interact where everyone, well almost everyone, uses their real names and where there is only a like button to share the love.  Home theatres mean you never have to go out.  The kids are only a mobile phone call away and there are even phones for three year olds.

But the real impacts of all this wasted energy and retreat from real engagement is an inability to strategise long term and commit to lasting changes.

Where is the room in this cacophony for polished, deft approaches to big long term national problems?  For policies which might involve risks?  For things that might fail, but need to be tried?

Like the nation building of a Bob Menzies who calmly constructed Canberra; a John Gorton who invested in the arts and laid claim to our natural resources at sea; a Gough Whitlam who addressed the needs of those in the suburbs; a Jeff Kennett who imposed his bold vision on the city of Melbourne or a Hawke-Keating Government which steadily opened up Australia to the world, implemented progressive responses to public health and introduced Medicare. Or John Howard banning guns and stabilising the tax base with a GST.

Crisis management is not about these long term solutions – which might involve allowing things to get worse while allowing time to plan a real response to make it better – it demands an instant response.  A need to be seen to act.

The current hour is a bad context for public policy and I worry for the future of Australia

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.