Australia’s soft-power icon and how technology is leaving some people behind.
Just as Australia was closing its border and locking down last year, tens of millions of children around the world were being introduced to the nation through a children’s programme called Bluey. This adorable cartoon, which debuted on abc in 2018 but premiered on Disney+ in 2020, revolves around a family of heeler dogs in Brisbane. The titular Bluey, aged six, and her four-year-old sister Bingo spend each snappy, seven-minute episode on a self-contained adventure with their mum, Chilli, and dad, Bandit.
It’s sweet, it’s silly and it’s very Australian. There are references to barbecues, cricket, the beach and an entire episode dedicated to fruit bats. It’s the reason my British-Canadian toddler has developed a “strayan”-inflected accent. And, like Finland’s Moomins or Belgium’s Tintin, the character is becoming a soft-power totem. The country’s leadership might have turned inward but Bluey is selling Australia overseas.
United approach Germany: With Brexit and spats over the rule of law in Hungary and Poland getting ugly, celebrating integration in Europe is vital. The International Karlspreis or Charlemagne prize will be given to Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis in Aachen, Germany on 2 October. After the overthrow of a brutal dictatorship in 1989, and disillusionment with the West and capitalism in the 1990s and 2000s, Iohannis is recognised for guiding his country toward “becoming the most European country in South Eastern Europe”.
Taking to the skies USA: The International Air Transport Association will gather for its annual general meeting and World Air Transport Summit in Boston on 3-4 October. There’s reason for optimism that clear skies are ahead: as vaccination rates improve across much of the global north and borders open, many are betting that demand will also rise.
Mother tongue Finland: Helsinki’s mayor Juhana Vartiainen has proposed making English one of the capital’s official languages alongside Finnish and Swedish. The proposal isn’t just about attracting talent from abroad but also encouraging foreign students to stay: more than 35 per cent currently leave shortly after graduating.
Spat of the month: Iran vs the UK and Russia
What it’s about
Chairs. Specifically, chairs on which the ambassadors of the UK and Russia to Iran sat for a photo. The chairs were arranged on the porch of the Russian embassy in Tehran in recreation of the famous picture of the principal participants at the 1943 Tehran Conference. New UK ambassador Simon Shercliff took Winston Churchill’s spot, Russian ambassador Levan Dzhagaryan Josef Stalin’s, and Franklin Roosevelt’s was vacant – just as the US ambassador to Iran’s post has been for decades.
What it’s really about Iran’s hypersensitivity over any suggestion of its being subject to the influence of foreign powers, as well as the new, hardline president knowing that posturing over such issues rallies his base and rattles those with whom he may or may not be seeking a renewed nuclear deal.
It will probably blow over but another such issue will arise in due course. It is unlikely that Iran will do anything quite as sharp as it did in 1981, when it renamed the road housing the British embassy from Winston Churchill Boulevard to Bobby Sands Street, after the Provisional ira hunger-striker.
I’ve always remembered a sad story about a colleague and her elderly relative that seems to sum up something we don’t talk about when we talk about technology: the people left behind by the speed of change. The pair had been walking through a sunny park when the elderly relative asked with genuine curiosity how people listened to music nowadays.
This octogenarian’s record player, then her CD player, had been packed and sold as she downsized and she had never owned a smartphone. She had missed a great technological leap and was left without means of playing music and a great deal more. She’s not alone: in the US there are tens of millions of – mainly older – people without high-speed internet access. In the UK, little more than half of adults over 65 have a smartphone and about 40 per cent of those over 75 have never used the internet.
This story is a reminder that the ease screens give us – of communication, to watch films, trawl the internet, check bank balances, heartrates or the temperatures of our homes – is inaccessible to people who don’t have such technology or who can’t use it. When we talk about a digital divide, we might imagine it hovering between richer and poorer nations or people but many who have the financial means to access touchscreen technology can’t, for reasons relating to age, ability or both. What’s more, in our rush to nudge every single interaction online, we are often leaving people without the means to communicate, participate, book a visit to the doctor or, in certain circumstances, pop the kettle on.
The charity Age UK says that this exclusion of the elderly is also adding to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, and a creeping sense of being helpless. This is not a good prospect in the context of an ageing global population. While strict legislation in many places means that architects and designers must take great care to make buildings and products accessible to wheelchair users and those who are in some way impaired, to my mind there’s a blackspot: technology companies should take some responsibility for this growing gulf and for shutting out seniors.
Imagine now the eerie hush surrounding the lady from our story, the one who can no longer hear her favourite song lilting through the living room and who isn’t sure where music comes from any more.
Images: Courtesy of ABC Australia