I was reminded, briefly, today of my time in Renmark. Although it was more than twenty years ago, I still have strong memories of my time there. I was at a briefing by Genevieve Bell who works for Intel, and who recently did some interesting research about the use of technology in regional South Australia. She’s an anthropologist, and thus her interest is in people, which is something I am really interested too. Although I’m a bit of a “tech head”, it’s the way in which people engage with technology interests me, and also for Genevieve too.
I was pleased that she said radio remains really important in people’s lives. “Everywhere I went”, she told us, “people listened to the radio” (or words to that effect). I was fascinated by the lack of engagement, she spoke about, for many people with technology, as they weighed up the pros and cons of the cost of using the internet as opposed to things like pay-tv. I was also fascinated as she spoke about the engagement of others, such as the bloke in his 70s/80s who had been building computers since the 80s, but still said, “I know nothing about the internet”. Her point was clearly that he was fully-engaged, it was just a definitional issue.
One of the most interesting issues for me, though, and one which was interested me for quite some time is what I’ve called “the politics of proximity”. It’s something I first wrote about in 1992 in the journal, Rural Society for Charles Sturt University,
The phenomenon which I call new localism involves going beyond parochialism: it is a localism based on context. For example, working in Bourke, Western NSW, taught me about the politics of isolation and its inextricable link with lifestyle; Bourke is a community that is both strengthened and weakened by its isolation. Working in Renmark, South Australia, taught me about the politics of proximity; Renmark is a community, likewise, strengthened and weakened by its proximity to Adelaide. Wagga represents the new face of inland Australia: a community more suburban than rural. Old localism would argue that everything that happened in Bourke was fine and those outside failed to understand. New localism would argue that Bourke is a community the same as, and yet different to, many other communities. Ian McNamara’s ‘Australia All Over’ is an example of new localism. There is nothing about it that concedes to specific localities and yet, to the listener, it sounds local. This is the challenge: to produce a sense of localism which is also good.
When I asked about the question of which towns had embraced technology, and which hadn’t, and the many reasons for such engagement – leadership, economy, proximity etc – she spoke about the high level of engagement she found in towns which were on the main roadways.
She also spoke about the notions of distance. “Imaginary distance was just as important as real distance” she told us, She was referring how people in regional SA, at least, often related their perceptions of life/connection with Adelaide, whereas people in Adelaide tended to see life outside as Adelaide as being of the same distance. “It’s all just out there”, is how people in Adelaide seemed to view regional SA, whereas people in regional SA often saw themselves as just outside Adelaide, or a long way from Adelaide, or closer to Melbourne etc.
It’s a perception I’ve noticed in NSW also. Up and down the coast, and inland a few hours is a day trip. Byron is a holiday. Everything else SEEMS to be nowhere in particular, it seems to a lot of people in Sydney. And when you go out of Sydney, it’s either a trip to Melbourne or a trip overseas. When I was in Renmark, a trip to Adelaide was a big weekend away, a trip to Mildura was a shopping excursion, and a trip to Sydney was “almost there” when you reached Mittagong.
Despite our “global world”, the “politics of proximity” remains an important concept, I think.