Freedom of Expression: Interview with Danny Butt
Director: Namita A. Malhotra, Subasri Krishnan
Duration: 00:28:25; Aspect Ratio: 1.819:1; Hue: 85.912; Saturation: 0.073; Lightness: 0.593; Volume: 0.126; Cuts per Minute: 0.035; Words per Minute: 111.932
Summary: This is an interview with Danny Butt, a writer, teacher and consultant on culture and technology, based in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here the interview is about the role of the internet, free speech movements, sexuality and the discourse by which internet is defined and understood.
The interview is taken in front of a large window along the coast of the island of Penang, an exceptional food paradise in Malaysia. In this interview Danny Butt ends by referring to the internet as a space that offers a variety of meanings, hopes, explanations that are not possible within the strict definitions provided by modern, heteronormative, familial and familar paradigms.
Namita - Ok! Can you tell us who you are and any thing about yourself.
Danny - Ehh!.. Ok!.. My name is Danny Butt and I was born in Australia on the gulf coast to...
Danny - My family come mostly from.... England. And my mother's side from Norway.... In a motto context it's very important to just establish your... that genealogy and history....
Danny - Because the way of connecting with people. And I think one of the things about my upbringing is that, I was brought up in....
Danny - May be perhaps the beginning of the decomposition of certain kind of English speaking public culture. Yaa!...
Danny - I was born in 1971 which marks the beginning of post modern capitalism instead of a global kind of frame.
Danny - So... I think a lot of work that I do kind of flows from feeling that sense of decomposition of a certain kind of publicness that I was... I was brought up with. So...
Danny - Ehh.. That move has taken many forms. I guess starting out by discovering punk rock and becoming a musician.
Danny - And leaving... You know dropping out of the university. Going to play punk music in Sydney. Discovering trans-national...
Danny - I guess community of people who were also interested in that... That lead to my move to New Zealand and from there...
Danny - I have mostly worked in new media area as a designer. As someone organising new media arts projects. And I guess more recently as a writer...
Danny - And specifically interested in issues about local knowledge in New Zealand.
Danny - Indigenous knowledge has .... and the debates around traditional and indigenous knowledge have a very present force because they are embedded into the treaty of Waitangi which is the nation state.
Danny - So a lot of writing around those kind of issues. Relationship between culture and technology.
Danny - At different times I have been an independent consultant ... But at the moment I teach in an arts school in the University of Auckland and...
Danny - Its my second time in the academy and I... I like it. I like teaching.
Danny - There is real value generated in that kind of a conversation which for example when I worked for Sache & Sache, there wasn't necessarily a feeling of going home each day and generating value.
Danny - So that's not a sixth sense itinerary but that I think that just sort of sits up why I am interested in these kinds of questions.
Namita - Ok!.. I have picked up on something you have mentioned about broken cultures and broken knowledge and....
Namita - Whether there has been some way about thinking about the internet in terms of what ever there is in terms of diversity in ways that are different from the way like say you would be talking about in this conference.
Namita - Just whether there are other ways in which one can do that?
Danny: I think that's something that is emerging and evolving over time.
Danny - I guess the question for me is not so much whether it is possible to talk about it in that way but who would listen to anyone who is going to talk about it in that way.
Danny - If we just see for instance, at this conference, there is obviously quite a strong register of discussion which is centred around a view of development.
Danny - Which obviously emerges from a European or Northern perspective where, Iris Marion Young calls it a distributed paradigm, where something comes from one place and is given to somewhere else.
Danny - Its not really a dialogic kind of exchange in anyway.
Danny - I think that's the paradigm of development and in a sense of internet culture or technology, I guess we're obviously still talking about something which is fairly new.
Danny - Emerges very specifically in North America and I think that kind of cultural imaginary is built into one of the very frameworks that organized the protocol that developed the internet.
Danny - So we're talking about you know, domains, there are all these special metaphors that I think sometimes, enable us to think in certain ways and that limit us in thinking in other ways.
Danny - So someone I've worked with Cheryl L'Hirondelle who's a Cree artist from Canada says that....
Danny - Was working on a programming language in Cree which is an indigenous Canadian language.....
Danny - And she talks about the fact that, that the language is perfectly capable of the forms of abstraction, organization that we expect for a programming language...
Danny - But it just so happens that the languages which have been implemented have been based on not just necessarily a European model but often just a English model.
Danny - So its definitely possible for us to think about it differently.
Danny - And one of the projects that I'm interested in is, how do we move towards that space of being able to re-conceive it.
Danny - There's not so much a conceptual question as maybe a political question around it.
Namita: One of the reasons why we are doing this is kind of music film which documents....
The kind of film which talks about something which is yet another tool of movement /medium /space but one of the things we wanted to capture is that technology is talked about differently by different people.
Namita - Like you used different ways of describing it so... ways in which even if you are using English you describe it in terms which are completely different from our.
Namita - Someone who knows the correct language will describe a trogen or a virus as compared to someone in Tibet who is being hacked, he continues to be attacked by viruses thinks he is being hacked would be a wrong description and various complications.
Namita - But this is how we talk about it and it kind of seems important to capture that in..... which is one of the reasons why we are also doing this film...
Danny: One thing that's interesting about that, is that in this part of the world, the mobile phone is a hand phone.
Danny - If you think about it, in Europe and North America where there has been so much fixed telephony, the important thing about the mobile phone was precisely its mobility.
Danny - But if you think about it as a hand phone, what is important about it, is its in your hand.
Danny - And that's not to say that there's a totally different way of thinking about it, people more or less use it in the same way.
Danny - But I do think that those kinds of metaphors that are used give a different sense to what we're talking about, particularly when we come to talking about a policy, the environment, those kinds of things.
Danny - They have an influence on that. We're very interested in it and it relates to what you're doing in the documentary, its that more anthropological approach to why you think about it in this way.
Danny - What are the implications of thinking about it in one way or the other?
Namita: Can you just describe a little bit the width about using special metaphors or kind of language that, like domains, you know?
Danny: Well I like to think about it as a domain... Like in the early days of the World Wide Web, there was a lot of frontier type metaphors, taken from the US imagining of the west.
Danny - The idea that you were moving into a new frontier, you know this kind of language would be used all the time.
Danny - I think one of the implications of that is an idea about property starting to emerge and specifically a European idea of property, based on being somehow bounded and exclude other people from it.
Danny - So if you have a domain, you have fences around it, you have domain squatting, a piece of real estate that they have no right to be on in some way.
Danny - I think once you start to look at the metaphors which are being used, those kind of ideas being operationalised.
Danny - One of the most powerful anthropological implication of that is we see that the spread of the internet is based upon a concept of property which is very distinct to Europe.
Danny - And perhaps, we might even say western Europe.
Danny - And in environments where there is a different view of what your relationship to the land is rather than something that you own and you keep people off or you sell and trade it.
Danny - Those type of things, to me, are a completely different way of conceiving what that land space is.
Danny - So I think there's been a certain kind of impatience of this framing, the internet has been zoned in certain ways ready for certain kinds of development and not necessarily ready for other kinds, if you take that land metaphor.
Danny - I'm not sure how far you can push the analogies but I think the point is that those analogies are embedded in the discussion from the very beginning.
Namita: Wild wild west!
Danny: Yeah, John Parry Barlow even talked about digital natives and immigrants and talking about the people who didn't understand about the internet as being immigrants, who had to be excluded somehow from control of what the internet was about... So all those things...
Namita: What do you think about process like the internet governance forum and what do they mean to the world?
Danny: I think they're a response which emerges from an understanding that the kinds of underlying infrastructure that control...
Danny - That organizes the internet, has developed without inauguration by a nation state and has not been subject to those kinds of processes.
Danny - Once they become so extremely important, for example if you own cars.com
you can sell that for a million dollars or something like that...
Danny - The only reason you can do that is because there is a control on the supply of the domain name.
Danny - So there are all these kinds of structural decisions, which I think are kind of infrastructural decision which have traditionally been the purview of governments...
Danny - And authorities in some way and the internet has just sort of gone on without them.
Danny - But at the same time, the US government does actually have a role in its relationship with organizations like ICANN and those are organizations that control the logical structure of the internet.
Danny - So with the Internet Governance Forum, what we see very clearly is that, trying to move from a unilateral process where even though ICANN proponents will have a say, this is a user oriented democratic system....
Danny - Its nevertheless not only subject to these informal kinds of capture where you have to be able to not only write English but write it in a specific kind of way to get any attraction.
Danny - And you also have this very formal relationship with the US, which obviously other governments are not very keen to see what is now the critical infrastructure underpinning a lot of their information systems to be under the effective control at a governance level..
Danny – Maybe not at a day to day level but at a governance level, so the US has that.
Danny - In that respect I think its very similar to a lot of UN sponsored processes where its very hard to have a negative view about them because their role is to coordinate and equalize the power relationships in that discussion.
Danny -But at the same time, the general kind of critiques of the UN, of its bureaucracy, of its capture by certain kinds of interest groups, by its ineffectiveness at certain levels....
Danny - You have decoration after decoration which may not have any binding or enforceable kind of role.
Danny - All of those critiques stand to colossal use of resources to something which doesn't have a binding kind of position.
Danny - I think its just a marker of the fact that we understand now that the protocols of networks like the internet are very important for all our futures, whether we are internet users or not, it is the channel which is carrying so much information.
Danny - It carries the trillions of dollars of finance capital from one place to another.
Danny - So trying to move that to a more public policy issue as opposed to a private sector issue I think, is a necessary move. I think its going to take a long time.
Namita - Basically just one question which has to do with privacy images coming up again and again ... How does one think about privacy beyond the obvious paradigms of a private company collecting personal data from the internet? [AUDIO LOW]...
Danny: I think we have to first ask whether the privacy framing – how useful is that framing?
Danny - I think its useful in certain kinds of situations and obviously within a broad European paradigm, public and private is a key societal distinctions that structures our social space.
Danny - There is a public sphere, there is a private sphere. Certain behaviors are not supposed to happen in a public sphere.
Danny - And obviously other cultures have very different ways of conceiving what those structures that regulate behavior between the individual and the group or the larger group and the smaller group, what those might be.
Danny - So, I think that's one area that might productively put some pressure on the idea of privacy.
Danny - Nevertheless when we look at what some of the challenges are that are being raised by network information systems, its obviously very clear that those systems are being used to mobilize risk and move risk in very transformative ways for better or worse.
Danny - And there needs to be some kind of a discourse that can account for the extreme asymmetries and how data can be gathered, how it can be used by certain kind of agents and yet....
Danny - I have no particular ability to return that data back from any kind of agencies, like Google and use that in any kind of productive way.
Danny - So the privacy discourse having a strategic value. I tend to put things in a power-type framework....
Danny - Maybe a risk kind of a framework and start to use the question of privacy to consider whether this historical legacy of a public and the politics of that genealogy or legacy can be used to block some of these more obvious grabs for power, particularly corporate entities or transnational entities.
Danny - When you talk about the distinction between the west and the east, there's a danger of seeing the western concept of public as a homogeneous, straight forward process.
Danny - Like a writer called Lauren Bellon in the US has done some very good work talking about the idea of a citizen in the US, there are actually 2 very different ideas of a citizen.
Danny - One is the classic mode of the citizen who is someone who has certain kinds of rights, duties, participates in public culture in a certain kind of way.
Danny - But there is also another idea of a citizen which emerges from the feminist movement, civil rights movement, from subaltern groups who mobilized the idea of a citizen, not necessarily because they shared this kind of a belief system of what citizenship entails...
Danny - But is seeking a relief from pain, from being excluded from certain kinds of rights and responsibilities.
Danny - And I find that a very powerful characterization of what it is to be a citizen, to see that it has these two kinds of dimensions.
Danny - So you might think about discourses of public and private as perhaps also being split in certain kinds of ways.
Danny - Yes, privacy is a value which we all desire but we also have to remember that privacy might be used to justify domestic violence.
Danny - Those are the kinds of examples when Privacy International will go around for very good reasons talking about the need to protect privacy.
Danny - I think we also need to look at the ways those discourses might be mobilized for other kinds of reasons and hold that, not to throw out public-ness or privacy but to realize that what we think we're seeing is the problem is perhaps the provisional kind of a framing.
Danny - And by implementing certain kinds of laws or undertaking certain kinds of actions, we're not going to solve those problems.
Danny - At best we're able to stop certain kinds of things happening that we want to stop and perhaps enable other kinds of things that in the future, we don't know what they are.
Namita - Have you heard this program song – The internet is for porn? What do you think about it?
Danny - Well the internet is for porn, well I think at some kind of empirical level, the internet is for porn! is a very straightforward kind of statement.
Danny - I don't know if the song is also trying to make some sort of value claim or normative claim of what the internet is for.
Danny - But maybe pornography is a very useful kind of example where one of the most important – experiences in development and the culture that I grew up with, the regulation of sexuality is a very strong memory for me.
Danny - A compulsory heterosexuality which had a very limited range of roles that you were supposed to work within, to be a sexual person.
Danny - I think the development of alternative forms of culture, for me, though it wasn't necessarily pornographic, in my search for other kinds of reflections of things that I was experiencing....
Danny - That didn't seem to be reflected by public culture was a very important part of me coming to search for something like the internet.
Danny - Where I could see some variation of something that felt more like myself being reflected back to me.
Danny - And perhaps sexuality is almost like the fundamental level in which that dynamic between the interior life and an exterior public life gets played out.
Danny - Again, Bellon talks about the performative subject, that we don't actually perform our identity but that we're constantly auditioning for our role in the world!
Danny - In what you see around you, in normative life, you're auditioning for roles that you don't even really want!
Danny - But you feel like you have to take those roles to get by because you're a C-list actor or something!
Danny - And to feel that there are paths of your interior life which can't find any expression in public sphere as its sort of constructed around you but through technologies like the internet or other forms of alternative media...
Danny - I think we overstate the novelty of it. Its precisely about this kind of feeling that yourself can find a home in some way or another.
Danny - I think that's what the internet has been about for me, its been about fun places that I can call home!
[ CLIP END ]