For the past six months Charles Darwin University researcher Anthea Nicholls has been studying the role of the computer in the Ramingining community in East Arnhemland.
She will spend a further 12 to 18 months in the community as she works on her doctoral research project under a scholarship offered through the School of Education.
‘My research is entitled The social life of the computer in Raminging,’ says the former school teacher who already has a Masters degree from Deakin University based on her study of the telephone in Maningrida, a neighbouring community.
Ms Nicholls does not want to pre-empt the findings of her study, which will rely not only on her close examination of computer facilities in the community, but also on her own experiences of interacting with its members and observing how such communities function in a world caught between ancient traditions and modern technologies.
‘All communities have their actors and their narratives, and I want to tell the story of one of them,’ says Ms Nicholls, who previously spent four and half years teaching at Ramingining.
‘I want to live here, become involved and explore all sorts of things, to follow the actors in this story,’ she says.
‘I plan to document what is happening out here. The computer can be seen as an actor in the story – or even perhaps a catalyst – and can be seen as having a role that is not necessarily clear or expected or untroubled.’
On a less metaphorical level, Ms Nicholls has already done her research groundwork on the level of computer use in Ramingining. She says that at present there is only one public access computer for the population of 900 within the town and nearby outstations.
That computer is housed in the women’s centre, which, she says, does not mean it can be easily accessed by all of the community, particularly the men and boys.
An inventory of computers which she completed in July 2006 revealed about 130 exist within the community, but only about 12 of them were being used for work-related computing by Yolngu.
Of the 130, sixty were to be found in the local school, where they are used in many different learning situations, including a multimedia program in the secondary school.
‘But the problem comes after school, with very few children being able to access the Internet without the help and goodwill of teachers or white people who are currently the only private owners of computers here,’ she says.
‘This has created a new wave of dependency on white people who have greater access to this technology, in much the same way as the telephone made communities dependent when it first arrived.’
Ms Nicholls says young people at Ramingining have become fans of MP3 players, but are being frustrated by the lack of access to the computing facilities which support them for charging and downloading.
She says one of the aims of her study will be to explore creative ways to overcome such problems, and to build the capacity of communities to develop their own capabilities with computer systems.
Living in a remote community is tough, however, for researchers such as Ms Nicholls.
Unlike teachers or public servants who have access to government-funded housing, she had to find her own accommodation – in this case a caravan. Happily she was able to get support from the local Council, but even once a van was purchased and had arrived by barge, the next hurdle was getting power and water connected to the site.
There is no resident electrician in the town and only limited access to other trades people... and many people needing their services.
Meanwhile she relies on neighbours to access the Internet on her own lap-top computer, and is awaiting the installation of a satellite dish under a federal-sponsored broadband connection program.
‘That will mean one more internet access point for the community. The fact that it will be under a tin roof beside a caravan is a fitting comment on this project, and a great opportunity for exploring alterative ways to do things,’ she says.
Ramingining’s community and the nearby Arafura Wetlands were featured in the recent award-winning film Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer.