Rijksmuseum – The well-stocked kitchen

The Well-Stocked Kitchen – painted 1566

In 1566, the painter Joachim Beukelaer warned us about the dangers of Facebook, Pokemon-Go and distractive technologies. Perhaps not literally, but he illustrates the point beautifully in his painting: The Well-Stocked Kitchen. In this painting, we are drawn first to the kitchen maids in the foreground, then to the abundant display of food.

The Well Stocked Kitchen

All of this is designed to show us how easily we are distracted from perhaps the more significant scene deep in the background – which is a representation of Christ visiting Martha and Mary. But of course our attention has been drawn by the brighter colors, the shiny objects, the sensual world, and it would be easy to miss the figures in the background and their significance.

Modern sources of distraction

So too, today, we are easily distracted by the latest car, the latest smart device, the most colourful and shiniest of toys. All of which can easily blind us to more basic human values, and the actual world around us. How often do we see people sitting together deeply engaged in text communication with other people, far removed.

Now, there may be good reason for such behaviour at times – when we simply can’t be physically present with our significant other, or perhaps there are urgent arrangemements to be made, that simply can’t wait until after our companions have departed.

Perhaps our attention is so arrested by the succulent artichokes and onions and meaty delicacies embodied in a 60+ Hertz refresh-rate on our screens, that we fail to notice our companions have each fallen silent and that they too are gazing and tapping like urgent woodpeckers on their smart devices in deep communication with others not physically present.

There is clearly a place for such technologies. The challenge is to know when to switch them off and foreground those who willingly share their presence with us despite the lure of the endorphin-inducing screen – or a well-stocked kitchen.




Eucla – connecting east and west

Eucla Telegraph Station

The Eucla telegraph station was particularly important because prior to Federation in 1901, South Australia and Victoria used American Morse code, whereas the rest of the country used International Morse Code. So the station was staffed by both South Australian and Western Australian telegraphists – separated by a barrier across the telegraph table which held the equipment.

South Australian telegraphists transcribed messages from that State and passed them through holes in the barrier, to Western Australian telegraphists who translated the messages into international morse code for delivery to the West – and vice versa. With a sense of ceremony, the barrier was taken down in 1901 following Federation. But it could easily have remained in place. When the Federation was drawn up in the Constitution, Western Australia was not keen to join, whereas New Zealand was written in (later crossed out) and Western Australia was given the option to join at a later date should it so choose.

The Eucla station was first opened on 8 December 1877. At its height in 1927, more than 600 messages a day were passed across the single copper line. The station closed in 1929 when a new line was erected along the trans-continental railway. By 1927, Australia was the 7th most wired nation in the world – which says something about our human need to communicate, and overcome our isolation.

Eucla Telegraph Station

The State of Victoria installed Australia’s first telegraph cable system as early as 1855 – just 11 years after Samuel Morse invented his famous dot-dash code. and Australia joined the international telegraph network in 1872 – an early adopter of the electric telegraph.

The Eucla station was particularly important because prior to Federation in 1901, South Australia and Victoria used American Morse code, whereas the rest of the country used International Morse Code. South Australian telegraphists transcribed messages from that State and passed them through holes in a barrier on the telegraph table, separating them from the Western Australian telegraphists who translated the messages into international morse code for delivery to the West – and vice versa. The barrier was taken down in 1901 following Federation. But it could easily have remained in place. When the Federation was drawn up in the Constitution, Western Australia was not keen to join, whereas New Zealand was written in (later crossed out) and Western Australia was given the option to join at a later date should it so choose.

Early Eucla telegraphists

Eucla telegraphists 1898 (image photographed at Eucla Museum)

Plagues of rabbits

After plagues of rabbits in the 1890s and a subsequent plague of cats (introduced to deal with the rabbits) the damage to the vegetation holding the sand dunes together was complete and shifting sand drifts further complicated the lives of those keeping the telegraph station in operation.

Finally, in 1927 with the advent of automatic repeater technology, the coastal telegraph station was closed down leaving the buildings to the mercy of the sand dunes.

Eucla Telegraph Station

Eucla Telegraph Station

Eucla Museum

Eucla itself comprises a roadhouse, two motels a museum and the old Telegraph Station – but it is well worth visiting the museum and telegraph station ruins as they tell a fascinating story of Australia’s communication economy and history. The museum is open 24 hours a day and operates on an honour system.

telecommunications equipment Eucla Museum

telecommunications equipment Eucla Museum

The wind-the-handle handsets were still in use in the one public phone box there in 1976 – I used one to call my place of work in Adelaide to let them know I had been delayed. The call was sent via Kalgoorlie Exchange where they still used human telephone operators to make the connection via a manual switchboard. They would time the call and at the end you were asked to put in the right number of coins. In this case the operator must’ve heard my plight and claimed she hadn’t switched on the timer so the the call was free – I really appreciated that act of generosity at the time – and hope she didn’t get into trouble over it.

Many earlier drivers have broken down in the vicinity – it is a psychologically challenging road today, but there are reminders that the road takes a physical toll on vehicles too.

ute wreck

Eucla is also home to another signpost to the rest of Australia

Eucla signpost

And a ‘Big’ Whale – which is actually quite small as whales go…

Big Whale

In light of the UK drifting away from Europe, perhaps one day they will need a sign to guide them… 🙂

EU sign

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Reflection in an age of mass distraction

We are marinating in information and distractive technologies. I noticed recently that I check my phone quite regularly from the time I wake up until the moment my head hits the pillow – just after I’ve plugged the phone into the charger. I do occasionally make actual phone calls, but mostly, the phone functions as a universal information device. It is the camera I have with me – as well as the computer on which I process some images. It enables me to upload those images to social media.

Sunlight through trees

The phone is my instrument tuner – whether at practice or concerts. It also generates tones for tuning the plates when making instruments, and it is a decibel meter for loud places, and a recording device to improve my music practice and to record soundscapes – an image of another kind.

The phone gives me a data-rich means to monitor my fitness and provides feedback on progress towards my health goals. It is the GPS to guide me from place to place. It is the universal translator for travel overseas, and helps me reach my language learning goals.

Its library catalogue helps me avoid buying duplicates in bookshops (it wasn’t always the case) and it is a universal look-up and research tool – particularly when in wifi range. It is a travel blogging tool (with a small bluetooth keyboard), and it keeps my ebooks handy for a good read over coffee.

I watch a little TV in the evenings, but spend more time on the internet. I enjoy social media – it keeps me in touch with real friends and family near and far, and they – with the members of photo interest groups – provide (mostly) constructive feedback on my photos, and a reading list (blogs/zines/static sites) to help me follow my interests.

So I have a data-rich life, but how does that affect my ability to reflect? I thought to reflect on this when I read an article – encountered via social media – in the New York Times, titled “The End of Reflection” in which Teddy Wayne makes the following observation:

“There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up.

Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or, on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned “telephone call”). The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower.”

For me, that ‘last place’ is probably on my morning photowalks that masquerade as a fitness regime – walking 5-10km per day in the near countryside among the trees and kangaroos and birdlife around our national arboretum (yes we have a tree museum in Canberra(!)). The phone accompanies me on these walks, but is rarely used other than to monitor my distance travelled. I do stop to smell the lavender, and I observe the wildlife as it observes me.

kangaroo

kangaroo

For many, the device is all-absorbing, and part of a culture of instant gratification – indeed I still see a disturbing number of drivers texting while driving, or at least while stopped at traffic lights (haven’t they heard of Siri/hands-free?). I take a perverse delight when I see someone texting in the car behind at the lights, in taking off smartly when the lights change, leaving the hapless texter exposed with a queue of cars behind them waiting for him or her to notice the lights have changed.

As I contemplate undertaking the pilgrimage walk of the Camino de Santiago, I see people advising others to ‘leave the phone and camera at home’ as though they worry that somehow they won’t experience the Camino, but instead will have their noses in their devices all the way. But of course, it is more complex than that. I understand that it is important to ‘disconnect’ from the day-to-day world of the office or the hurley-burley of modern life… but… like it or not, we are a technological society.

Walking in solitude

Walking in solitude

I would have missed much of what I observe today if not for a camera. The camera has taught me to observe, to consider the nature of form, of contrasts light/dark, cool/warm, how light plays on the water. Am I not observing nature when I consider how best to take a photo of frost on red and green leaves? Am I not observing nature in marvelling at the texture of light at dawn and play of rays through the morning mist.  I don’t look at life through a camera lens, but I do set out to capture for later recollection those wonders I see with my own eyes.

Leaves with frost

Leaves with frost

For those who think that carrying a device means being less authentic, consider that the early travellers and pilgrims carried books for reading and sketchbooks for capturing those scenes that caused them to stop at the dew on a branch, or a sudden view of a lake or ruined castle.

By all means take the device, but I think it is important to keep it in perspective – the device is secondary to the experience, but it can enrich that experience enormously.