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The Second Life of Sacred Sites

25 October, 2007

Ute Eickelkamp put me onto a really fascinating article that appeared recently about legal and cultural issues arising due to real world locations being recreated in the online world Second LifeThe question of how to apply copyright is raised, but more interesting from my point of view is the controversy surrounding Teltra’s reproduction of a virtual Uluru without the permission of the traditional owners of the original, the Anangu people. The article reports that:

Designers of the BigPond site included a scaled down Uluru, with a barrier to stop people walking or flying over the sacred site. However, representatives of the traditional owners, the Anangu people, warned that even with the restrictions it may be possible to view sacred sites around Uluru, although they were continuing to investigate the issue.

Concerns have also been raised that Uluru and the opera house could be exposed to digital vandalism, following an attack on the ABC’s Second Life island earlier this week.


A spokesman for Telstra confirmed the company had not sought the permission of Uluru’s landowners.

Legislation has been in place to limit photography, filming and commercial painting at Uluru for 20 years, with tight restrictions on what is and is not allowed.

Capturing images of parts of the northeast face of Uluru is banned and all pictures taken of that part of Uluru must be submitted to the landowners for approval.

While visitors in the game cannot touch Uluru or fly over it, they can virtually fly in the no-fly zone to the northeast and take snapshots.

However, while the rules governing photography, filming and paintings have been in place since 1987, a spokesperson from National Parks said the issue of digital images online had never been raised before.

National Parks, which administers the area on behalf of the traditional landowners, now has lawyers looking at Uluru in Second Life and is considering sending a delegation to meet landowners to discuss the situation.

This article raises a lot of really interesting questions about the relationship between the digital technology, the sacred and cultural rights.  It’s worth noting that the Anangu people’s reaction is not to the unauthorised reproduction of Uluru but also because of unauthorised visiting and viewing of secret/sacred parts virtual rock itself. But given that this is just a digital model, in what sense are these virtual visitors seeing secret/sacred objects or sites? Unlike a photograph, a digital copy has no indexical relationship to the original — no physical connection between sign and referent. But nevertheless the Anangu are expressing a real concern about unauthorised people seeing what they’re not supposed to and going where they’re not supposed to.  The magical umbilicus between the two remains, it seems, and actions in a virtual world appear to be capable of damaging the sacred qualities of the original.

I don’t know a great deal about phenomenology of ritual and production of sacred sites in Aboriginal socieites, but it seems like an interesting case to explore how these are being rearticulated in response to the challenges presented by new technologies.

On Monday Ute will be hosting a round-table discussion about this article in her Art and Culture course here at Macquarie.  I might go along and see if I can learn some more about this.

Jovan Maud

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 October, 2007 12:21 pm

    I think it would be simple enough to remove the virtual Uluru as a show of respect for a culture that requests it. To measure a few dollars against the request of others seems idiotic… and very Western.

    Digital culture is constantly at odds with the concept of ownership. The only reason Big Pond would keep it is simply to get press. It is a shame that the press would even be considered more valuable than the wishes of an indigenous culture.

  2. 26 October, 2007 10:09 am

    Hi Taran. I understand the sentiment you’re expressing, and I support the idea that if the Anangu people want the virtual Uluru taken down their wishes should be respected. On the other hand, I’m not sure that this is what they want. The article seemed to suggest to me that the issue for them was more who has control over the reproduction and how it may be accessed and by whom. It may well be that some sort of ‘culturally sensitive’ solution is possible.

    I think there’s a danger in assuming we know what is best for Indigenous people, even when our intentions are good. This is a key point to the discussion about the paternalism of the NT Intervention we’ve been having on this blog. One of the major problems with the government policy is that there is virtually no consultation with Aboriginal people themselves.

    So in relationship to the Second Life case, we might also think that their culture is ‘opposed’ to making money, or ‘opposed’ to technology, but that says more about our assumptions about Aborigines in general rather than the desires of this group of Aboriginal people in question. Anthropologists who have looked at these sorts of questions often find that Indigenous people can have very surprising (to us) views on the appropriate use of technology, and can employ it in unexpected ways. This is one of the reasons that ethnographic studies, which attempt to find out what people themselves think and do about these issues, are so important.

  3. 29 October, 2007 10:58 am

    “I think there’s a danger in assuming we know what is best for Indigenous people, even when our intentions are good.”

    You’re preaching to the choir, but after having taken what was once a commons and commoditizing it, isn’t this more about who has the rights to use virtual and real aspects instead of protecting things?

    I’m no anthropologist, but I have dealt with indigenous peoples around the world and there is one common thing that people – including anthropologists – tend to forget: People don’t miss something until they don’t have it anymore.

  4. 9 November, 2007 10:12 am

    For an alternative approach to applying digital technology to aboriginal culture, have a look at Troy Maile’s presentation here:

  5. 9 November, 2007 11:18 am

    Thanks for the link Matt. I had a quick look at the presentation and it looked extremely interesting. Good to see that technology is being used in such innovative ways, consultation is actually happening with the groups involved (something that seems to be in short supply these days! a la NT Intervention)

  6. 9 November, 2007 11:21 am

    Taran, I think we’re essentially saying the same thing here. I essentially saying that there should be consultation with the traditional owners about what they think should be done with the virtual sacred site rather than simply assuming that they would want to have it removed.


  1. Second Life News for October 25, 2007 « The Grid Live

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