Tuesday, March 12, 2013


‘Local’ - it is an interesting word, simple and straightforward. Everyone knows what it means. There never seem to be any concerns to complicate matters. ‘Local’ is, well, (shrug), ‘local.’ We seem to understand what it means by our easy, unquestioned acceptance of its use, both in the way we hear it, and in the way we speak it. We see no ‘evil’ in it. It appears to hold an intuitive sense of ‘natural’ meaning. We get, for example, promotions that boast about food being ‘local.’ It not only sounds attractively positive, persuasively interesting and remarkably healthy, better, but we also know that it involves low kilometers and fresh food, straight from the hand that picked it, grown nearby by a member of our community. Well, we think that this might be so, as everyone seems certain about the concept of ‘local.’ Doubt is rarely expressed. Each individual holds something like a spatial diagram of place that can be known and understood as ‘local,’ or so we believe. It is sensed as the ‘locale.’ In spite of the friendliness and fond familiarity that pervades this notion, matters ‘local’ are far more obscure and doubtful than they appear, even though we rarely question the use of this word that flows off the tongue with a confirming certainty that requires no thought or challenge: just ‘local.’

We speak of ‘local’ people, as contrasted with those who are not ‘local’ - perhaps sensed as distant strangers: different; foreigners. We get the ‘local’ rag - the suburban newspaper - thrown over the fence every week. There is ‘the local’ just down the road, the nearby pub where ‘locals’ gather to listen to the yarns of the ‘local’ character, to drink ‘local’ beer and to chat about the ‘local’ weather and other ‘local’ events. What could be less ambiguous? What could be more desirable? Architects know about ‘local character’ differently. It has nothing to do with enjoying the quirky neighbourhood humourist’s company. The architectural stance has more to do with the word ‘character’ than ‘local,’ although ‘local’ is the core issue. In academic or ‘learned’ terms, this concept - ‘local character’ - is the genius loci. In classical Roman religion, this was the protective spirit of place. More simply and pragmatically, it has to do with an awareness of context where things ‘local’ are seen as reverences or some other unspecified inspiration or feeling - its ‘character.’ Sometimes this fascination just makes a good story that seeks to add value to space. It was Aldo van Eyck who shaped the phrase: ‘place not space’ in an effort to transform Bruno Zevi’s persuasive, pervasive vision of ‘architecture as space’ that was able to ignore things ‘local’ in favour of some more abstract, scholarly understanding and expression: usually self-expression, the articulation of self-importance. Space became the modernists’ intellectual base, formalized by Sigfried Gideon’s iconic Space, Time and Architecture. The elusive substance of architecture was seen to be held in the mysterious void of space: in nothingness.

To complicate the locational aspects of ‘local,’ we get those seemingly attractive telecommunication offers that try to tempt us into changing providers: ‘free local calls.’ The deals always sound so good! As well as this usage of ‘local’ that is not talking about free calls from the pub, we see traffic signs that seek to manage a particular situation by declaring a road as suitable for ‘local traffic only.’ It is a designation that is useful when koalas and other wildlife are nearby, or when residential areas seek more peace and quiet. The sign seeks to limit vehicular movements and their speed. There are many more circumstances that exploit the word ‘local.’ The scope is diverse; but no one asks what these various uses of ‘local’ really mean. It is as if everyone knows. But what is ‘local.’ What does it mean?

There is an old, often-repeated yarn that uses various different scenarios to make its point. While the framework - the ‘locale’ - might vary, the narrative always highlights the ‘local’ cow cocky’s view of things, and shows, like a fairy-tale might, how ‘local’ can be parochial when understood by a limited vision developed by a narrow-minded attitude, or so city slickers like to see things. The story usually starts in a small country town. It tells how one local - well, now one has to define ‘local’!: let’s say, for the sake of this story, it is a person who lives and works in this tiny town - was asked if the sacks of potatoes standing nearby were local. (The word just keeps popping up so frequently, with great ease and assumed meaning and relevance.) It was a question raised to break the awkward silence between folk, one waiting, watching as the other filled the petrol tank. This is surely now a service only offered in local country towns, the very small ones; such is the self-serve bug of efficient marketing promoted by time and motion studies that are driven by profit margins. “Oh no,” was the answer given as a drawl. “They come from over there,” and the finger pointed to the far side of the road as the other hand continued to top up the fuel at a pace that matched that of the response.

So it seems that ‘local’ is not a clear indication of anything. There appears to be some variation, some ambivalence in its understanding. Just what is ‘local’ produce? It looks as though it is relative. There are varying scales here: next door; across the road; from the same neighbourhood; from the region; from the state. It all depends on one's vision or point of reference. It could be the whole country; e.g. produce, ‘Produced (anywhere) in Australia,’ as promoted by the television hype, could be considered ‘local’ in the same way as the sack of potatoes from the other side of the road. Well, the same word can be used to describe these things - ‘local.’

So ‘local’ says nothing in particular at all. It merely establishes some unknown sense of reference with a scale that needs to be gleaned from other clues in the conversation, text or context. It is a little like a dangling superlative, a ‘catch-all’ that needs more information to refine and define its meaning more precisely. This subtle confusion drags an irrational quality into things ‘local’ in that ‘local’ says everything and nothing while sounding specific and authoritative. Its simplicity disguises a complexity that is rarely revealed, raked over or reconsidered.

So, in telecommunications, what am I being offered when the promotional information says ‘free local calls’? Do I get free calls to the other side of the road or to the whole of Australia? Or are the calls limited to the region I live in? What is a local call? Off the top of my head, as one says when making bold, uneducated, and ill-considered guesses on a subject, a local call is one made in the district that has telephone numbers starting with the same set of digits, like, say, ’55.’ To check this theory the question was ‘Googled.’ Nothing relevant for Australia came up. Some American sites offered maps to illustrate the scope of the ‘local’ call zone. The US is always better with information and customer care than the rough-and-ready Australian scene where information is scarce and customer care personnel are trained to argue to prove that the customer is always wrong. Is it the convict heritage?

So the search continued. Still nothing! Frustratingly, the most promising site, a chat site, was ‘down.’ So the telephone book was pulled out. It is amazing how thick this publication has become! So many trees! There was no reference in the index, so every page at the beginning and the end of the tiny-text listings was perused. There was not a single note to explain anything other than: local venue seating plans; government information; and telecommunication structures. A large, one-page map suggested some relevance. It looked promising. It was headed ‘the local area’ and delineated a coloured zone that extended over three local council districts. Ah, so I was right. It was the '55' region. So this was the ‘local call’ area? Well no. It included locations that I knew had been charged at national call rates, even though they were only some thirty kilometers away. So what was this map telling me? It was not clearly explained. Maybe it was identifying the ‘55’ area only, information that bore no relation to a ‘local’ call even though it was the ‘local’ area. The more one explored the notion of ‘local,’ the more one came to realize that ‘local’ has a real problem. Just what does it mean?

Eventually the promising site came back on line - the chat site - and one found that it was not the first time someone had been puzzled by this question: what is a ‘local’ call? It really was a whirlpool. One person was complaining that he had been charged national rates for a call to the other side of Melbourne. Others chatted on with their casual understanding that differed little to mine - a ‘local’ call was one made to the same initial set of numbers. One respondent offered a link that gave details of what are called ‘charging zones’ for one particular provider. Well this looked interesting. At least the concept and term was now exposed: zones define charges.

The information was downloaded. Zones, areas, districts, and exchanges were all scheduled with the telephone numbers they included. The chart also identified their proximities. This listing seemed to suggest some relevance, but it was not clear exactly what this relationship might mean for charging. Reference points, the co-ordinates used for calculating distances for charging, were all clearly and precisely itemised. The distances were not the diagrammatic or schematic lines one sees as flight routes on world maps, but arcs that carefully followed the curvature of the earth between nominated locations. It seems that there has been a very meticulous analysis of the order of things for charging that had a fine fragmentation that was far more complex than a simplistic numerical system. This is what computers have done for us. Smart phones accommodate a smart delineation and subdivision of classifications, and cleverly complex, instantaneous calculations. Still, in spite of all of this data, there was no answer to the question: what is a ‘local’ call?

A closer analysis of the published details revealed that we were in one zone and each nearby friend was in another. Just what the precise relationship between proximity and charge of call might be remained undeclared. There was no clarification of just what a ‘local’ call was; neither was there any indication of how charges changed with distance. One was left guessing: is a ‘local’ call one made within a particular charging zone; or in one’s district; perhaps between one’s neighbouring zones; or is it a call made within one’s exchange area? One was left with not even the slightest clue.

So what does the generous-sounding offer of free ‘local’ calls mean? Nothing? Nothing much? In spite of all the research, a ‘local’ call remained undefined: just nothing at all - not even an ill- defined suggestion of what it might be. Such is Australia. So the question was flicked off to the provider. One did not expect an answer. This is not the US that prides itself on good customer management. Surprisingly an answer arrived. It enigmatically noted “That is a good question. We do not know!”

Given this lack of any clarity on ‘local’ calls - there seems no problem with calculating the accounts! - one is left wondering just what the ‘local traffic only’ sign might mean. How can it be enforced? Considering the loose meaning and understanding of ‘local,’ is the sign merely just a waste of time? Is it yet another sign that means nothing? The sign could refer to only those residents who live in the street so signed: the ‘locals;’ or it might refer to those folk living within, say, one kilometre of the sign; or in the larger region - the suburb; or state; or the whole country? Who knows? Consider the spuds and the telephone call and ponder what ‘local’ might mean. The poor koalas have no chance with such careless disregard that seems to be a classic piece of spin to keep the concerns of complainants at bay: “We have erected a sign: go away.” Here the ambiguity of ‘local’ plays right into the hands of the political games that toy with deceit.

I recall the sign that declared a recommended speed of 25kph that stood above the quaintly worded ‘road closed to thru traffic’ text. This was never enforced. Efforts to have either the local council or the police do something only resulted in each blaming the other. Eventually the sign was removed. This is Aussie commitment! The ‘local traffic only’ sign might as well go too: see http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/road-is-not-road.html and http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/street-character.html  Why should we pretend that we are doing something sensible when no outcome can or will be modified by silly, vague signage? The concept of ‘local’ lies at the heart of this problem.

Australians like to put faux signs everywhere, signs that that look authoritative but mean nothing, and never can be or will be enforced. There is a new civic park in Brisbane that has crude signs screwed to pergola structures that tell health enthusiasts not to use these structures for training, for their rope exercises, pull ups and the like. Well, no one other than our aspiring ex-Prime Minister put a video clip on his web site of himself using, or trying to use, the pergolas for, yes, his rope exercises and pull ups, all with the assistance of a personal trainer - right next to a sign. Could neither read? The local paper - yes it rolls out easily does ‘local’! - was told about this situation. The result was that the image was published cropped, with the sign cut out. Will Mr. Rudd be punished; fined. Oh, no! This is Australia - ‘oi, oi, oi! - where ‘local’ rules are managed by ‘local’ councils in a uniquely ‘local’ manner; in this place where ‘local’ calls can be free; where our food is ‘local;’ indeed, where everything is ‘local,’ or can be because ‘local’ has so broad a reference that it is now meaningless, left at the mercy of things Kafkaesque: remember poor ‘K’? No, he was not a special breakfast cereal - just in a surreal world.

Now one has to ponder the question: what does this ambiguity do for that architectural notion of ‘locale’ that seeks to include matters of meaning in context, neighbourhood and place? Is this notion left lingering in certain limbo so that, as in our town plans, anything can become possible within any ‘locale’ such that chaos reigns supreme? Is this ‘local’ idea merely an intellectual pursuit? We need our language and our understanding of it to be more precise; to be more connected with lived experience. We have let our words become a set of sounds with fuzzy references that can be used to great success in advertising and in architectural texts. In a sense, we have let our words precede us. We have let them run from the intimacy of meaning, its expression: its reality. I recall a set of recent ads that promoted vaginal wipes. One illustrated a perfect peach, glowing fresh and flavoursome, luscious-looking, blooming, on a full page, in full colour. The line of tastefully beautiful, classically flowing text read: ‘the freshest one always gets picked.’ There were other variations of this advertisement, but the set carried the same suggestive promotional sense.

We see things like this everywhere, every day: they are forced into our point of view; they are impressed into our hearing, our understanding, and our feeling. There is little wonder that we no longer know what our words are referencing when ambiguity is so rampant - so spun out; so deliberately shaped with layered innuendo, insinuation, allusion, and intimation. There is little wonder that we no longer seem to care, leaving ‘local’ as just ‘local’ - whatever you want it to be, whenever.

This is not just a ‘local’ problem :-)

Oh, no! I have accidentally included the colon-dash-bracket smiley symbol. There is little to smile about here, especially in a world that is forgetting how to use punctuation when not playing graphic games. Indeed, this is no laughing matter. While it is clearly not a ‘local’ problem, in another way it is. ‘Local’ itself carries every quality that politicians love to manipulate: it facilitates their spin; and that of ‘creative’ advertisers too.

If we are going to make some sense of our world, and learn more about looking after it, and understanding it, and to learn from it, then we need to make more sense of our words. Our words need to regain that nexus with feeling and meaning that makes them hum as a truly rich and vital part of communication, not just resonate as hollow cores that tempt and tease us with their sad, echoing voids that seek attention with their intention to distract. Without any clarity and certainty, we are left in a meaningless haze of nonsense, where words become playthings. We must do more with our language, both verbal and architectural, because architecture too is suffering from the effects of this schism with life, with lived experience. There is no future other than more and more of the same hype when architecture is intent on being ambiguously clever, even when it seeks to be ‘local’: see  http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-language-shetand-dialect.html and


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