In a period marked by the pervasiveness of new mobile technologies saturating urban areas of the Asia-Pacific region, it can be easy to forget the realities of life in the rural areas. In a location such as Australia, in which 80% of the population lives in urban areas, one must be reminded of the sociotechnological realities of rural existence where often-newer mobile communication devices cease to function. This paper focuses on these black spots – and often forgotten areas – where examples of older, mediated technologies such as UHF Citizen Band (CB) radios can be found as integral to practices of everyday rural life.
As Anderson notes, constructs of the nation are formed through contested notions of what individuals and communities imagine and project as a sense of place. In Australia, one of the dominant contested imageries can be found in the urban and rural divide, a divide that is not just social and cultural but technological; it is marked by a digital divide. This divide neatly corresponds to the images of Australia experienced by Australians (predominantly living in urban areas) and exported tourist images of the rugged vast rural landscapes.
The remote Australia Outback is a popular destination for domestic tourists. Its sparsely populated and rough terrain attracts tourists seeking a quintessentially Australian experience. Roads are often unmade and in poor condition. Fuel and food supplies and health services are widely separated and there is almost no permanent accommodation. Apart from a small number of regional centres there is no access to mobile phones or radio broadcasts. As a consequence tourists must be largely self sufficient. While the primary roads carry significant road traffic it is possible to drive all day on secondary roads without seeing another person. Isolation and self-sufficiency are both an attraction and a challenge.
Travelling in campervans, towing caravans or camper trailers and staying in caravan parks, national parks, roadside stops or alone in the bush, tourists spend extended times in areas where there are few other tourists. Many tourists deal with this isolation by equipping their vehicles with CB radios. Depending on the terrain, they are able to listen to, and participate in conversations with other CB users within a 10-20 kilometre range. In some areas where there are repeater stations, the range of radio transmissions can be extended. This paper examines the role of these CB radios in the daily life of tourists in the Australian Outback.
The links between travel, the new communications technologies and the diminished spatial-time divide have been explored by John Urry. According to Urry, mobile electronic devices make it possible for people “to leave traces of their selves in informational space” (266). Using these informational traces, mobile communication technologies ‘track’ the movements of travellers, enabling them to communicate synchronously. People become ’nodes in multiple networks of communication and mobility’ (266). Another consequence of readily available communication independent of location is for the meaning of social connections. Social encounters provide tourists with the opportunity to develop and affirm understandings of their shared common occupation of unfamiliar social and cultural landscapes (Harrison). Both transitory and enduring relationships provide information, companionship and resources that allow tourists to create, share and give meaning to their experiences (Stokowski). Communication technology also enables individuals to enter and remain part of social networks while physically absent and distant from them (Johnsen; Makimoto and Manners, Urry). The result is a “nomadic intimacy” in an everyday social and physical environment characterised by extended spaces and individual freedom to move around in these spaces (Fortunati). For travellers in the Australian Outback, this “nomadic intimacy” is both literal and metaphorical.
Research has shown that travellers use mobile communications services and a range of other communication strategies to maintain a “symbolic proximity” with family, friends and colleagues (Wurtzel and Turner) and to promote a sense of “presence while absent”, or ‘co-presence’ (Gergen; Lury; Short, Williams and Christie; White and White, “Keeping Connected”; White and White, “Home and Away”). Central to the original notion of co-presence was that it was contingent on those involved in a given communication both being and feeling close enough to perceive each other and to be perceived in the course of their activities (Goffman). That is, the notion of co-presence initially referred to physical presence in face-to-face contact and interactions. However, increasing use of mobile phones in particular has meant that this sense of connection can be affirmed at a distance. But what happens when travellers do not have access to mobile phones and the Internet, and as a consequence, do not have access to their networks of family, friends and colleagues? How do they deal with travel and isolation in a harsh environment? These issues are the starting point for the present paper, which examines travellers’ experience of CB radio in the remote Australian Outback. This exploration of how the CB radio has been incorporated into the daily lives of these travellers can be seen as a contribution to an understanding of the domestication of mobile communications (Haddon).
People were included in the study if they used CB radios while travelling in remote parts of Western Australian and the Northern Territory. The participants were approached in caravan parks, camping grounds and at roadside stops. Most were travelling in caravans while others were using camper trailers and campervans. Twenty-four travellers were interviewed, twelve men and twelve women. All were travelling with partners or spouses, and one group of two couples was travelling together. They ranged in age from twenty five to seventy years, and all were Australian residents. The duration of their travels varied from six weeks to eleven months.
Participants were interviewed using a semi-structured interview schedule. The interviews were transcribed and then thematically coded with respect to regularly articulated points of view. Where points of view were distinctive, they were noted during the coding process as contrasting instances. While the relatively small sample size limits generalizability, the issues raised by the respondents provide insights into the meaning of CB radio use in the daily life of travellers in the Australian Outback.
The primary reason given for travelling with a CB radio was personal safety. The tourists interviewed were aware of the risks associated with travelling in the Outback. Health emergencies, car accidents and problems with tyres in a harsh and hot environment without ready access to water were often mentioned. ‘If you call a May Day someone will come out and answer…” (Female, 55). Another interviewee reported that:
Last year we helped some folk who were bogged in the sand right at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere. The wife just started calling the various channels explaining that they were bogged and asking whether there was anyone out there….We went and towed them out. …. It would have been a long walk for them to get help. (Female, 55)
Even though most interviewees had not themselves experienced a personal emergency, many recounted stories about how CB radio had been used to come to the aid of someone in distress.
Road conditions were another concern. Travellers were often rightly very concerned about hazards ahead. One traveller noted:
You are always going to hear someone who gives you an insight as to what is happening up ahead on the road. If there’s an accident up ahead someone’s going to get on the radio and let people know. Or there could be road works or the road could be shitty. (Male, 50)
Safety arose in another context. Tourists share the rough and often dusty roads with road trains towing up to three trailers. These vehicles can be 50 metres long. A road train creates wind turbulence when it passes a car and trailer or caravan and the dust it raises reduces visibility. Because of this car drivers and caravanners need to be extremely careful when they pass or are passed by one. Passing a road train at 100 km can take 2.5km. Interviewees reported that they communicated with road train drivers to negotiate a safe time and place to pass. One caravanner noted:
Sometimes you see a road train coming up behind you. You call him up and say ” I’ll pull over for you mate and slow down and you go”. You use it a lot because it’s safer. We are not in a hurry. Road trains are working and they are in a hurry and he (sic.) is bigger, so he has the right of way. (Male, 50)
As with the dominant rationale for installing and using a CB radio, Rice and Katz showed that concern about safety is the primary motive for women acquiring a mobile phone, and safety was also important for men. The social contact enabled by CB radio provided a means of tracking the movements of other travellers who were nearby. This tracking ability engendered a sense of comfort and enabled them to communicate and exchange information synchronously in a potentially dangerous environment. As a consequence, a ‘metaworld’ (Suvantola) of ‘informational traces’ (Urry) was created.
Making Oneself Known
All interactions entail conventions and signals that enable a conversation to commence. These conventions were also seen to apply to CB conversations. Driving in a car or truck involves being physically enclosed with the drivers and passengers being either invisible or only partially visible to other travellers. Caravanners deal with this lack of visibility in a number of ways. Many have their first names, the name of their caravan and the channel they use on the rear of their van. A typical sign was “Bill and Rose, Travelling Everywhere, Channel 18” or “Harry and Mary, Bugger Work, Gone Fishing”, Channel 18” clearly visible to anyone coming from behind. (The male partner’s name was invariably first.) A sign that identified the occupants was seen as an invitation to chat by other travellers. One traveller said that if he saw such a sign he would call up by saying:
“Hello Harry and Mary”. From then on who knows where it goes. It depends on the people. If someone comes back really cheery and a bit cheeky I can be cheery and cheeky back. (Male, 50)
The names of caravans were used in other more personal ways. One couple from South Africa had given their van a Zulu name and that was seen as a way of identifying their origins and encouraging a specific kind of conversation while they were on the road. This couple reported that
People call us up and ask us what it means. We have lots of calls about that. We’ve had more conversations about that than anything else. (Male, 67)
Another caravanner reported that he had seen a van with “Nanna and Poppa’ on the back. They used that as a cue to start a conversation about their grandchildren.
But caravan names linked to their CB radio channel can have a deeper personal meaning. One couple had their first names and the number 58 on the rear of their van. (The number 58 is beyond the range of CB channels.) On further questioning the number 58 was revealed to be the football club number of a daughter who had died. The sign was an attempt to deal with their grief and its public display a way of entering into a conversation about grief and loss.
It has probably backfired because it puts people back into their shell because they think “We don’t want to talk about death”. But because of the sign we’ve met people who’ve lost a child too. (Male, 50)
As Featherstone notes, drivers develop competence in switching between a range of communicative modes while they are travelling. These range from body gestures to formal signalling devices on other cars. Signage on caravans designed to invite conversation was a specialised signalling device specific to the CB user.
Loneliness was another theme emerging from the interviews. One of the attractions of the Outback is its sparse population. As one interviewee noted ‘You can travel all day and not see another soul’ (Female, 35). But this loneliness can be a challenge.
Some of these roads are pretty lonely, the radio lets you know that there’s somebody else out there. (Male, 54)
Hearing other travellers talk was comforting. As with previous research showing that travellers use mobile communications services to maintain a “symbolic proximity” (Gergen; Lury; Short, Williams and Christie; White and White, “Keeping Connected”) the CB conversations enabled the travellers to feel this sense of connection. These interactions also offered them the possibility of converting mediated relationships into face-to-face encounters along the road. That is, some travellers reported that CB-based chats with people while they were driving would lead to a decision to stop along the road for a shared morning tea or lunch.
Conventions governed the use of specific channels. Some of these are government regulated, while others are user generated. For instance, Channels 18 and 40, were seen as ‘working channels’. Some interviewees felt very strongly about people who ‘cluttered up’ these channels and moved to another unused channel when they wanted to have an extended conversation. One couple was unaware of the local convention and could not understand why no one was calling them up. They later discovered that they were on the ‘wrong channel’. Interviewees travelling in a convoy would use the standard channel for travellers and then agree to move to another channel of their choice.
When we travelling in a convoy we go off Channel 18 and use another channel to talk. The girls love it to talk about their knitting and work out what they’ve done wrong. We sometimes tell jokes. Also we work out what we are going to do in the next town. (Male, 67)
These extended conversations parallel the lengthy conversations between drivers equipped with CB radio in the United States during the 1970’s which Dannaher described as ‘as diverse as those found at a cocktail party’. They also provided a sense of the “nomadic intimacy” described by Fortunati.
While travellers used Channel 18 for conversations they set their radio to automatically scan all forty channels. When a conversation was located the radio would stop scanning and they could listen to what was being said. This meant that travellers would overhear conversations between strangers.
We scan all the channels so you can hear anyone coming up behind, especially trucks and you can hear them say “that damn caravan” and you can say ’ that damn caravan will pull over at the first opportunity.” (Female, 44)
But the act of listening in to other people’s conversations created moral dilemmas for some travellers. One interviewee described it as “voyeurism for the ears”. While she described listening to farm conversations as giving her an insight into daily life on huge cattle station she was tempted to butt into one conversation that she was listening to. On reflection she decided against entering the conversation. She said:
I didn’t want them to know that we were eavesdropping on their conversation. I’d be embarrassed if a third-party knew that we were listening in. I guess that I’ve been taught that you shouldn’t listen in to other people’s conversations. It’s not good manners… (Female, 35)
When travellers overheard conversations between road train or truck drivers they had mixed responses. These conversations were often sexually loaded and seen as coarse by the middle class travellers. Some were forgiving of the conversational excesses, distinguishing themselves from the rough and tumble world of the ‘truckies’. One traveller noted that the truck drivers use
a lot of bad language, but you’ve got to go with that, because that’s the type of people they are. But you have to go with the flow. We know that we are ‘playing’ and the truckies are ‘working’ so you have to be considerate to them. (Female, 50)
While the language of the truck drivers was often threatening to middle class travellers, overhearing their conversations was also seen as a comfort. One traveller remarked that
sometimes you hear truckies talking about their families and they obviously know each other. It’s kind of nice to see how they think. (Female, 50)
Travellers had similar feelings when they overheard conversations from cattle stations. Also, local cattle station workers and their families would use CB radios for their social and working communications. Travellers would often overhear these conversations. One traveller noted that
when we are driving through a cattle station we work out which channel they are using, and we lock it on that one. And then we listen until they are out of range. We are city people and listening to the station chatter gives us a bit of an insight into what it must be like as a farmer working land out here. And then we talk about the farmers’ conversations. (Female, 35)
Another traveller noted:
If you are travelling and there’s nothing you can see you can listen to the farmer talking to his wife or the kids. It’s absolutely awesome to hear conversations on radio. (Female, 67)
This empathic listening allows the travellers to imagine the lives of others in settings quite different from those with which they are familiar. Furthermore, hearing farmers talking about fixing the fence in the left paddock or rounding up strays makes ‘you feel that you’re not alone’. The networking of the travellers’ social life arising from listening in to others meant that they were able to learn about the environment in which they found themselves, as well as enabling them to feel that they continued to remain embedded or ‘co-present’ in social relationships in circumstances of considerable physical isolation.
The accounts provided by tourists illustrated the way communications technologies – in this case, CB radio – enabled people to become ’nodes in multiple networks of communication and mobility’ described by Urry and to maintain ‘co-presence’. The CB radio allowed tourists to remain part of social networks while being physically absent from them (Gergen). Their responses also demonstrated the significance of CB radio in giving meaning to the experience of travel. The CB radio was shown to be an important part of the travel experience in the remote Australian Outback.
The use of CB made it possible for travellers in the Australian Outback to obtain information vital for the safe traverse of the huge distances and isolated roads. The technology enabled them to break down the atomism and frontier-like isolation of the highway. Drivers and their passengers could reach out to other travellers and avoid remaining unconnected strangers. Long hours on the road could be dealt with by listening in on others’ conversations, even though some ambivalence was expressed about this activity. Despite an awareness that they could be violating the personal boundaries of others and that their conversations could be overheard, the use of CB radio meant staying safe and enjoying guilty pleasures. Imagined or not.