The Significance of Place
14 August 2018 at 7:45 am
Will Dayble and Bonnie Cochrane interview each other about place.
This article is a little different to my standard one-sided diatribes.
I started writing a piece a month ago about the significance of place and geography in the technology world, and quickly felt underqualified and foolish. I needed help.
I hit up Bonnie Cochrane, founder of Tipiac, an online program for teachers and schools around Australia. They produce online resources and lessons written with Aboriginal perspectives by Aboriginal teachers. It’s a beautiful concept and business.
Bonnie led me through a conversation about the significance of place, and it was fascinating to learn about how different our feelings and approaches were to the same topic.
In an attempt to reconstitute our conversation for your benefit, gentle reader, below is a two-sided interview, first from me to Bonnie, and then again the other way around.
I hope you learn something about your own views from the differences and similarities in ours.
Will asks Bonnie some questions…
WD: Why are place and geography important to you?
BC: I think place and geography are important to me because I am connected to a place. It’s the stories, images, symbols and feelings that I connect to when I am on my country. It’s the passing down of knowledge and understanding. It allows a feeling of familiarity to settle into my essence, my energy connects to a source that helps me to touch base and re-energise.
My country, my stories, my learning all comes from that place of birth, that place of true deep connection that happened at birth. I believe it is vital for any human to connect to a place, it’s a belonging, a connection to something that’s bigger than me.
It’s like that “going home feeling” where everything is perfect, that true feeling of belonging, like in meditation where you become one with who you are at a deeper level and everything is silent, perfect and calm. It’s like an ocean that is rough and the waves become big, but underneath the waves it’s perfectly calm. That deep water below is that “place” where everything is ok. Even though on the surface everything seems to be rough and terrible.
WD: What does “connection” mean?
BC: To me connection is the essence of life. The true connection to everything that was, is and will be.
Think of it as a timeline throughout eternity, I am a speck on that timeline but at will I can travel back and forth on that continuum. It’s like being connected to time and space, to everything that is, to the energy of life itself. We are each a part of that. It’s like tapping into an energy field and higher vibrations, and becoming one with source and gaining a deeper understanding of how everything seems to work and why it either does or doesn’t.
It is connecting to a parallel world and becoming aware of everything that is, in my world and in the world of others. When I dig my bare feet into my Mother Earth I connect to the roots of life itself. In this connection I gather knowledge when I connect to “My Place”, it’s a space where all questions can be answered.
WD: Technology moves very fast. Is this a good thing?
BC: Tech and the future… Tech is moving way too fast, but so is time! I am conflicted and torn with this question as I do believe that we need to move forward with technology as it is our future. Life-saving technology and new technology that has not even been created yet will lead us to hopefully becoming a better society and a more sustainable society.
But then on the other hand, if we look at society as a whole and the amount of waste we generate as we all strive to keep up with the latest trends with phones, and other technology – I see landfills overflowing and our pockets are empty, all in the name of keeping up with the latest trends. This is a whole other conversation though.
A huge thing for me as an Indigenous person is technology in the sustainability area. Everything that our Elders in the past created came with a deeper connection and understanding of how everything works and is connected. Sustainability was a key part in moving forward with technology. When we are connected to Mother Earth and the essence of who we are, we understand the bigger picture. I am what you are, the trees are, every living thing is connected. Therefore when we create, we create with that in mind. Nobody gets left behind, everyone has their purpose and job in the process. Everyone has the opportunity to use or benefit from the new technologies that were created and are created in Indigenous culture.
Let’s look at technology as we develop into the future with this same understanding that everything is connected. We are one, therefore nobody should be left behind as we develop into the future. You know the saying, “the rich become richer and the poor become poorer”. This too applies to society as we are continually developing and moving forward into the future with new tech. People are being left behind and that division is becoming larger.
Not everyone can afford to move forward or even understand how tech is moving forward to better allow us to survive and sustain into the future. We truly need to make sure that the connection is there when we are developing these technologies. How do we create new technologies where equality becomes a part of the plan to create new tech? How can we make sure no one gets left behind?
When I think of connection I think of the technology behind it. Like how nature grows, everything that grows, grows at a slow pace. Everything is perfect at each stage of the process because there is a deeper connection. The plants are connected to everything and they need to be to grow and survive. The dirt, nutrients, roots, sun, everything helps them to grow, they’re connected. The bigger picture of oneness.
Technology is moving fast and I agree that it has to in a way because it’s going to anyway. We need to keep up, but how do we do this with equality in mind? How do we make that connection to the bigger picture?
WD: You previously told me that “roots matter” and you talked about “starting with the roots” when you think. Talk to us about that.
BC: Yes indeed, “roots matter” is a vital part to who I am as a human being. Let’s use the story of the tree. A huge, 200-year-old tree with roots that have an underground connection to the life-giving soil, it’s nutrients, connection to other roots and systems not seen above ground. The roots give everything that a tree needs to survive, thrive and grow into the future.
When I say I need to connect to my roots, it means I need to swim around in that calm ocean under the rough sea above. The rough sea is my mind, the calm waters below (the roots) are my soul. Connecting to this calmness (the roots) allows me to draw on inspirations and thinking from that source.
That place that is connected to everything that was, is and will be. It allows me to draw on and connect to it as I move forward with decisions, thinking, ideas, answers, etc. It brings with it that connection. It’s not just about me as an individual but me as a collective of something bigger.
WD: How can geeks like me think about place and geography?
BC: Think of it as that “feeling” you get when you go home after work, after a big day at the office. That place where you feel most comfortable and you are able to “be you” without the fear of someone judging or asking you to do something, that place where you are able to just “be”.
Place and geography is this belonging. This feeling. Without that feeling we are lost in the system, we are not connected, we are flat. We need that connection to recharge our system or reboot so we are working at our best. Our functionality is working at it’s best level.
Place and connection is just that, the rebooting, the system shutdown. We all need this every once in a while, maybe everyday. Once we connect we can come to the next task/workday with new energy, a new thought, a clean slate with no preconceived ideas about the topic or question at hand. Without somewhere where we as human beings can reconnect to ourselves life would be chaos and full!
WD: What’s the right way for me to ask these sorts of questions to Indigenous folks?
BC: The key here when asking questions like these to other brothers and sisters is to make sure you fully understand and are aware of the true connectedness of everything that is. That is, the true person and how we are all connected to the wholeness of existence. Making sure that you connect to the human being you are talking to, understanding that deep level of awareness that each of us have. To understand the past hurt and true history of our beautiful country. Know that these hurts and pains are passed on to each new life that is created. How do we move forward without this true understanding of why people behave the way they do? How we each carry our own stories and that of our parents and grandparents. Education and understanding is key. Don’t let the fear of asking “folk like us” stop you from asking the questions. I mean the way forward is to make sure that we can approach each other and have a conversation.
Bonnie asks Will some questions…
BC: What are your thoughts on connection to “you”? How do you reboot?
WD: Honestly I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a skill I’ve really learned, and as a result I’ve gone through cycles of moderately obsessive workaholism for years at a time, followed by burnout.
This seems to be a pretty common trend amongst entrepreneurs and technology geeks: we focus so much on the problems we’re solving that we forget about the person solving the problem.
BC: How do you think we could connect technology and Australia’s history to move forward in developing a deeper understanding of culture and history?
WD: Of course I’m going to answer with “good teaching”. Good teaching solves a lot of problems!
I think one of the biggest barriers to good teaching in Australia is our unhealthy obsession with marks, success and achievement. If we could give kids the chance to connect with each other and the land, while also exploring the fun parts of problem solving with technology and interesting techniques, we’d go a long way towards having a healthier and more productive new generation of problem solvers.
But the more I learn about the education sector the more intractable that problem seems. There’s a lot of politics and infighting, as well as a ton of passionate and capable teachers and administrators.
My idealism doesn’t gel well with the staunchly neoliberal approach we have to work and life in Australia.
BC: What are your thoughts on coding and how we could teach it in schools to help children reach a deeper level of understanding on technology? How do we make this available to all students?
WD: I think the whole “teach every kid to code” thing is stupid. It’s a distracting oversimplification of the modern skillset people will need once they graduate. Hell, the very idea of “graduating” is grossly outdated. We’re all lifelong learners, our institutions pretend we’re not.
When I think of “tech”, I think of “technology” and “technique” as interchangeable concepts. We can teach kids (and some open-minded adults) techniques for problem solving, and while some of those techniques involve sitting in front of a laptop writing code, that’s just a subset of the overall mindset.
Maybe the question should be more along the lines of how will we teach our students, not what will we teach them. Do we want to train behaviours like compassion, creativity and patience, and then use coding as an expression of that mindset?
There are some other factors in here like free access to laptops, or time within computer labs, but that sounds like more a question of equity than a curriculum.
I’m a big believer in self-expression as a goal for teaching. Not examination.
People are coming around to the idea of code and data as a valid form of self expression, and in that light it’s a beautiful thing, and worth teaching.
BC: What can we do to help with equality in technology, so no one gets left behind?
WD: This one is tricky for me, as a technically capable person. I feel I’m blinkered by my own biases.
The more I see the dark patterns of Silicon Valley play out (tech monopolies, aggressive consolidation of power, disruption), and even via the stories of my techy friends in tech over time, I think equality is less about technology and more about ownership and power.
Who owns equity in the venture capital funds that are making these technology startups successful? Who are the majority shareholders in the companies?
For example, most of us are sort of “digital serfs”, or technical peasants within the Facebook and Google empires. We are gifted with a plot of land to nurture, but we don’t own the land, or anything we create on it, and we tithe to the lords who own the land. It’s weird when you think about it, a sort of digital colonialism.
Equality to me is more about power than technology. Yes, tech can create wealth and power, but it seems to have a nasty habit of amplifying existing wealth and power dynamics.
Bill Gates is who he is today in no small part because he’s a clever guy. But it’s also because he came from a wealthy family of bankers, and his supportive parents could afford to buy him a computer when he was young, and then because he went to a private preparatory school and was given access to the school’s computer. And so on, continually, throughout a wonderfully lucky life.
So to create equity in technology, maybe we should be working on the inequity problem first? A kid from a poor family who’s excited about technology will have better opportunities if their parents can pick them up from school and ask them what they’ve learnt today, instead of working a second job.
BC: How do we connect culture and technology? How can they link arms?
WD: This is a lovely question.
It makes me think back to the “tech as in technique” thing. When you look at techniques like Agile, specifically the manifesto, you can see solid cultural definitions, with things like “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and “collaboration over negotiation”.
I feel like we can lose that in technology, it turns into a perverted sort of technical colonialism, like war or diplomacy via more efficient software-driven means. I guess to me tech is a supercharger for whatever dynamic is playing out underneath the tech.
It’s like technology surfaces – in blasting technicolour – whatever is going on within a community or society, for good or bad. Maybe we connect good culture with good tech by deliberately examining what we want to surface and how those cultures are embedded and represented in the technology we build?
BC: What are your thoughts on awareness of place in regards to a human being being a part of that place? Its built into their DNA, it is who they are at the core of their being? If place didn’t exist are we taking a part of them away? Or if place was taken over, are we changing who the person is? Are we forcing something onto people if place didn’t exist in tech?
WD: I struggle with this one.
I’m super comfortable sitting on a laptop in an airport, or on the other side of the planet, doing work. My connection to the cloud can feel more important than my connection to the earth. But then I fear I’ve fallen into a weird Stockholm syndrome sort of relationship with my laptop, where my “normal” is actually damagingly unnatural.
You see this with the digital nomads, who wake up somewhere in Bali, do an hour of yoga, drink some herbal tea and then write code for the rest of the day. Some of them are tremendously happy and love the freedom. But it stops, they last a year or two and then they’re usually craving some sort of solidity in space, place and community.
It’s a funny irony to be writing this piece on a shared Google Doc with Bonnie, with her at her home office in Tamworth, NSW and myself in my equivalent in Fitzroy, Melbourne. We’ve never met in person.
At the end of one of our conversations, I asked Bonnie for advice on how I should be thinking about this stuff overall. She told me to go to the park, take off my shoes, and sit on the ground for a few hours.
I did exactly that, and while I’m no closer to a conclusion, I know a little bit more about the feeling of the grass underfoot at Carlton Gardens. It’s a start.
About the author: Will Dayble is a teacher, and founder of the Fitzroy Academy, an online social impact school. The academy works with students and educators to teach people about entrepreneurship and social impact. Will is at once a loyal supporter and fierce critic of of both the startup and impact ecosystems.
This is part of a regular series of articles for Pro Bono Australia exploring impact, education and startups.