Before moving to Sydney, I'd promised myself that this site wouldn't become completely overwhelmed with notes on Australia. Yet these are precious moments, when my wide eyes are eating everything up, even more than usual. This is a rare time, first impressions hitting hard – as Dyer said of Lawrence, he would start writing about a place from the train on the way there. The active naïvety of the outsider - familiar in some of my favourite writing by Raban, Robb, Carey, Dyer – is a powerful force when well trammelled. Mark Twain said something similar. Though you never know with Mark Twain.
Every day provides a cavalcade of differences, a sensation will be familiar to anyone who has lived in another country. From yoghurt pots to the layout of bus timetables to bar protocol to forms of government, and all points in-between. Even the certainties of death and taxation will be handled differently. Australia, which shares the same language as my native Britain – to some extent – and with it a strong residual cultural influence, is still utterly different. Perhaps it's more surprising as at the meniscus, the culture seems familiar, but the differences are actually fathoms deep. If you're on top of things, this is a wonderful feeling, a gently bewildering, continual mild surprise.
The basic setup of life in a new country immediately brings many of these differences rushing to the foreground, in a way that holidays never do. I won't bore you with my thoughts on what the differing designs of electrical plugs can tell us about national characteristics (OK, then: the overly safe, sturdy British plug, as if made of brick; the insouciant apparent lack of a pin for earth on the Continental European; the Australian discreetly positioned half-way between European and American styles, doing its own thing etc.) nor the other quotidian surprises: Weetabix being called Weetbix, the shape of coins, randomly different pronunciations, the curious affection for lawn bowling, the abundant size and flavour of local produce, with exotic fruits no longer exotic, the prevalence of school uniforms, the trajectories of news coverage. More immediate again: the more expansive, more experimental architecture; the obviously different climate and beautiful flora; the genuine political issues; the enlivening sense of limitless space, of earth and sky, that you just breathe in 'till your chest swells and your head is filled with possibilities …
All these subtly different experiences will ultimately tell me a lot about this place, as the dust settles. In all this, I discover a bit about local approaches to technology adoption, regulation, geography, urbanisation – and some global patterns too. As with most western economies, they're all caught on the apparent dilemma of providing both individual choice and effective public service, bobbing up and down in the often turbulent wake of Milton Friedman's work, particular interpretations of the call-and-response between government regulation and market forces. Australia has of course developed numerous iterations of its own political and economic strategies, filtered through a complex historical prism and multiplied by geography and regional aspect – it's far too detailed and subtle for me to appreciate yet. But if the reasons for things feel obscured, blurred, opaque, the differences are felt sharply nonetheless.
In setting up a business, I encounter more contrasting systems – here, the importance of state-level business administration versus national taxation systems. Equally, registering for health care, opening a bank account, moving about. In terms of public transport, one has the feeling that Sydney is sort of trying them all out at once without really getting behind any of them with any vigour: bus, tram/light-rail system, an urban rail network that briefly dips underground downtown, as if trying out being a subway then quickly thinking better of it, ferries, taxis, water-taxis, even a monorail for goodness' sake. With banking, we find internet-based e-banking and contemporary financial services, but also charges on ATM transactions and in-person appointments with an actual human representative to open an account. (This latter turns out to be a more improved service, actually.) Health services are far more responsive, less under the cosh than in London. Getting a mobile, I find a far more confident, competitive and coherent 3G market than in the UK. Bolder, sharper.
Alongside all the myriad benefits and improvements I see – albeit through the rose-tinted view of the newcomer – one negative difference that hits home quickly is relatively woeful broadband environment. It's a shock to feel it, coming from the UK, where the rabid competition in telecommunications has hammered everything in favour of the consumer, leading to low, low prices and relatively fast speeds. And this is something you feel; it's like suddenly carrying a lead weight. In Australia, the available speeds are much slower on average, products can be non-standard, service can be poor (connections drop without warning), the former state telco Telstra still dominates, and the deals are structured around limited data usage and bandwidth per month, rather than the flat rate 'as-much-as-you-can-eat' packages you get in the UK and elsewhere. It's only with flat rate packages i.e. consistent pricing irrespective of usage, that this technology is really freed up.
In this respect, Australia suffers from a particularly unfortunate comparison with its South East Asian near-neighbours. Urbanisation is often mentioned as the key to South Korea's reputation as high-speed haven, as it's only really Seoul that benefits from ubiquitous high-speed connectivity but that's the majority of the population. Seoul's infrastructure was built through a combination of government drive and corporate muscle, but neither driver appears to have really kicked in yet in Australia, leaving the environment caught between regulation and competition with neither apparently able to move quickly. It needs to invest, sharpish. The government should make it a priority, at national, state and city levels, and provide whatever catalysts are needed for infrastructure provision and then let intense private competition do the rest. I'm too new to the market and culture here to take the detail of this argument much further, so listen to Leith Campbell:
"If the race has started to develop really fast broadband in the Asia-Pacific area, Australia has already all but lost, a leading telecommunications analyst says. And if that situation is to change, the Government has to encourage investment in taking optical fibre cables not just to street corner nodes, but all the way to homes." ['The connection's just not there', Sydney Morning Herald]
Australia has one of the most urbanised population in the world, so it should be able to share some of the natural benefits South Korea had. Given that, there's no need to worry too much about far-flung communities. (They can almost be picked off as special cases, and will not get in the way of commercial roll-out to the majority. Again this is different to dispersed European populations, where there's a complex variegated spread of population in a relatively smaller space.) So despite its massive scale, Australia benefits from a very usefully focused dispersal of its population. Yet some think this is not the case:
"The comparisons are somewhat unfair, of course. In Asia, with high population density, a fibre-optic cable connected to the base of a large apartment block instantly connects hundreds of people to very fast broadband." ['Wide hopes on broadband', The Age]
Indeed, Australian housing patterns are lower density than in Seoul, but they're still highly concentrated, when viewed at a macro-level of broadband rollout and compared to the European situation. By far the majority of the population lives in the well-organised 7 coastal cities – opinion varies as to the actual proportion, from 75% to 95% of the population. Any resistance to the idea that Australia should have extremely fast broadband, competitive with its Asian neighbours, smacks of defeatism, myopia and lack of ambition.
The best story I heard recently for a successful technology- and culture-inspired rollout that takes advantage of urbanisation is perhaps somewhat oblique. But it's also an Australian story; that of how it ended up with the best coffee culture in the world. (Yes, New Zealand, you may quibble now.)
Coffeegeek.com has a great article explaining how this happened, written by coffee entrepreneur George Sabados. Before 1948, and the invention of the mass produced electric pump-driven espresso machine, most Italian emigration was to the United States, taking with it the old-fashioned approaches to making coffee, and little knowledge of the espresso as we know it. The invention of this new espresso machine coincided with the Australian government attracting vast numbers of new immigrants, via its '£2 ticket' scheme, whereupon most Italian emigrants then switched course and headed South. (For the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a third of the city's population were Italian, or Italian-Australian. And Peter Robb, in his majestic 'Midnight in Sicily', writes briefly of this Italian emigration to Australia, particularly from the mezzogiorno, and the taste for coffee that went with it.)
The way Sabados tells it, the acceleration of coffee culture in Australia was enabled by its urbanisation – "The concentration of the population bases in these cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane) set the framework for the rapid spread of espresso" – and then through competition, during the eighties and nineties, competing in terms of quality of experience as well as quality of coffee. This leads happily to a vibrant, distinctive small entrepreneur-led market, as well as some national franchises. (Interestingly, Sabados tells of how Australian coffee developed the integration of milk with espresso too, leading to more variety than the Italian market and the fabulous Flat White.)
The result is an extraordinarily rich coffee culture, arguably the best in the world, with numerous fantastic cafés throughout its cities and a highly knowledgeable populace brewing at home too.
It's perhaps frivolous to suggest telcos and government could look at this and learn from it, but essentially this too is a story of regulatory catalyst, technology adoption and new cultural influence through immigration to an urbanised population, wherein competition can improve quality. The ingredients may be electricity and water supply, trade routes and knowledge, and the context quite different historically and culturally, but all these facets are also the results of that 'call-and-response between government regulation and market forces' I mentioned earlier, and take strategic advantage of Australia's urban culture. Seeing broadband as a feature of a culture akin to coffee shops, rather than technical problem, may help too. Coffee shops often get used as metaphorical placeholders for the information age – not least here – but here's something that describes their genuine culture- and technology-driven evolution, through urbanisation. Equally, in terms of immigration-driven change, standing in a long, busy line at the Department for Immigration and Citizenship the other day, I was only one of a handful of immigrants who didn't appear to be South East Asian. Perhaps they will bring the broadband, as Italians brought the coffee.
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