In 1982 virtually no one used a computer. Roberts may never have even seen one. Computers were easy to fear.
We are mostly familiar and comfortable with information technology today and value it as a tool for creativity, communications and productivity. But the Snowden leaks give pause for thought.
They show we are being watched, we are being recorded and we have been kept in the dark about what our governments have been doing. They also show at least some of that international surveillance was illegal, as it was in New Zealand when targeted at Mega Upload founder Kim Dotcom.
After apologising to Dotcom, the New Zealand government corrected its errors by legalising surveillance against citizens and permanent residents, a move that sparked nationwide protests.
Now the meanings of Roberts’ action are being reassessed.
A new art exhibition, “doublethink” by Ann Shelton, has recreated in sparklers the words Roberts painted on the toilet wall, erecting a series of photographs, one word on each, along the route he took between his home in Taranaki and his target in Wanganui.
The words are a translation from an 1809 proclamation of independence from the Spanish by South America’s first independent government, the Junta Tuitiva in La Paz, in what is now Bolivia.
Over two centuries later, Shelton asks questions about the message’s relevance and meaning in 1982 and to us today.
The exhibition catalogue (pdf), by curator Meredith Robertshawe, offers a quote from Snowden that seems to eerily echo the graffiti Roberts left behind.
“We are actually involved in misleading the public and misleading all the publics, not just the American public, to create a certain mindset in the global consciousness… but the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capabilities at the expense of the freedoms of all publics.”
Very little was known about Roberts. He was a blank canvas on which others could and continue to write their own meanings.
He worked in a restaurant in Auckland before moving to Taranaki. He used the name “Null” rather than Neil. He had a dog called Umbrella that was sent to Auckland by train before Roberts went to Wanganui.
But there was that message: “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.”
In the end, the Computer Centre Roberts hated wasn’t killed by protests or bombs, but by new, more powerful and more ubiquitous technology. The agencies using it were able to set up their own datacentres with vastly more storage capabilities and link these together through high-speed networks.
The Wanganui Computer Centre closed in 1995. But the computers keep humming.