The geography of thinking

He arrived in a town untarnished by globalisation. There was no electricity, the streets were unpaved, and it seemed like a feudal system of hierarchy was in place.

With a mindset shaped by his first-world upbringing, the American tourist felt the bus he had arrived on was a time machine, delivering him to a different century.

This experience, and many others, led this once naïve photojournalist turned futurist to teach himself about the future of technology. He was on a quest to answer the question he frequently asked himself — why are some parts of society ignorant of the opportunities, free knowledge, and technological innovation that the world provides?

If this futurist did not exist, neither would the five sentences below.

“If you lived in any of the two million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web, you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests are as a creator, your one-thousand true fans are only one click away.”

This was written by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly in his 2008 blog post 1000 true fans.

Geography of thinking explained

The geography of thinking — the study of how our surroundings dictate our behaviour — has been around for a long time.

Like many, the concept is layered. Without it, small towns could lack a sense of identity and character.

On the other hand, cultural imperialism — the dominance of one culture over another — may not exist.

Rio Tinto stands tall among Perth’s skyscrapers. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.
Many Perth residents spend time navigating through the business district. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.
Shoppers explore Perth’s London Court precinct. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.

Behind the psychology

Microsoft founder Bill Gates attended one of the few American schools with a personal computer in the late 1960s.

“If there had been no Lakeside, there would have been no Microsoft,” he shared in a 2017 interview with Insider Magazine.

Geography is “undoubtedly” impacting our thinking according to Margaret River-based psychologist Aaron Milward.

“If you’re looking through that like a broader lens, thinking about geography as incorporative of surrounds, which includes culture, family, and school, it just broadens even further,” he says.

“But even if it was just natural landscapes, it would undoubtedly have an impact on our thinking.”

Spending time in the natural environment, otherwise known as nature bathing, can also affect our thoughts says Dr Milward.

“From that, it’s speaking directly to this idea that where the place in which we exist to the place in which we are immersed has a direct impact on our internal, mental, physical, and physiological functioning,” he says.

“There would be significant impacts on the way in which our brain is structured as the consequence of that.”

From walking the dogs through the pine forest on a brisk Sunday morning to chasing salmon up and down the length of Boranup Beach, for many Margaret River locals, their optimal weekend involves spending time in nature.

Margaret River locals share their thoughts on the geography of thinking. Video: Noah O’Reilly.

Sustainability mindset

Sustainable living is a concern for many people living in Western Australia’s South West.

Uruguayan-born Fede Butrón moved to Margaret River more than 10 years ago. He hasn’t returned to his birthplace since.

Sustainability is a common concern among Margaret River residents. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.
Fede and his family eat from their home garden on a daily basis. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.
Many Margaret River lcoals practice sustainability through gardening. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.

When the surf is blown flat by a strong southerly, you will find Fede in his home garden.

This way of living would not be possible in Uruguay according to the passionate gardener.

Fede says there is a greater sense of safety in the South West, compared to life back in South America.

“If I got new shoes, I would get them dirty, or break them a bit, because if not, they might get stolen,” he says.

“I love being barefoot.

“No one here cares if you are barefoot, but where I grew up if you are barefoot, you are poor, or you don’t have any resources, or your feet are going to get infected.”

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede created the dimensions theory to bolster the understanding of cultural differences. Infographic: Noah O’Reilly.

After more than seven years of living in regional WA, Doctor Milward’s perspective of the urban environment also changed.

“The way I perceive the city is so stark,” he says.

“Both regarding how little nature there is, how much concrete there is, and the level of visual and auditory stimulations.

“I think it’s just a good illustration of just how the environment in which we exist has a definitive impact on our neurological wiring.”

This perception, however, may just be a by-product of creating new experiences, according to Dr Milward.

Although access to nature may be good for you, a report shows rural living can be far from carefree and can actually impact poorly on mental health.

Globalisation, a two-sided coin

Many multinationals increase their competitiveness by building large factories in developing nations and filling them with desperate employees who are willing to work for a low wage under poor working conditions.

There is evidence that globalisation has also increased the rate of climate change, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and leading to the premature extinction of native species.

International business skyrockets. Infographic: Noah O’Reilly.

Fede’s partner and environmental educator Lauren Scanlon says she’s unsure if “industrial globalisation” is good for society or the planet.

“We need to be localising more than globalising,” she says.

“We need to get more connected with the people around us and realise our life depends on each other.

“We’re going to run out of oil for starters, which means that the lifestyle we have now is totally unsustainable.

“I think that what we need to do is strengthen our local community, strengthen the skills we have and the resources we have within our community, and to get way more local than global.”

For Lauren and her family, the consequences of travel pose an ethical dilemma.

“For us to go see the cousins in Uruguay, that’s days and days of travel, and the world doesn’t need more people flying around,” she says.

“We wrestle with that because we love our families, and we want to see them a lot.”

“Family time is important for sure, but I just don’t know how we do it sustainably,” Fede added.

Nevertheless, Lauren does not undermine the benefits of social globalisation.

According to Lauren these include: the abandonment of dated beliefs, professional and personal growth, the fusion of arts and culture, and the adoption of a global mindset.

International intelligence

Dr Shahid Ghauri says travelling enriches your perspective. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.

As a child, Master of Business Administration advisor Shahid Ghauri believed he was a fault in the state’s education system.

He thought study just wasn’t his thing. Now he has a doctorate.

His education, however, was not entirely built within the confines of four concrete walls.

Curiosity for personal and professional growth has taken him across the world, more than once.

Professor Ghauri says he has “always been exposed to the global environment,” and has developed a wealth of cultural intelligence — the respect and awareness of a lifestyle different to one’s own — because of it.

“I’m more tolerant in some ways, but I’m less tolerant in others,” he says.

“And what I’m not tolerant of is people telling me their view when they have a very one-framed view of the world.”

A lack of cultural intelligence negatively affects, not only the individual but those around them according to Shahid.

“I’m at the point where I can’t stand racism,” he says.

“I’ve been exposed to it too much in my life.

“If I see it, I stop it.”

Thanks to global exposure, Shahid knew where opportunity was, and significantly, where it wasn’t.

“Perth is, for me … just a mining town,” he says

“So, in my field, I didn’t get into the mining sector.

“I needed to get exposed to some more opportunities internationally, and I was.

“I was given good opportunities in agribusiness, and when the opportunities came, I didn’t ask questions.”

People “flourish” when they are given opportunity says Shahid.

“There are just situations and circumstances that put people in the roles they are doing.”

Reaching from regions

Born and bred regionally, high school student Ysabeau Wilson has never left the state. Her dreams, however, are worldly.

“Growing up in such as small town, I’ve just kind of gone, wow, I really want to see the world,” she says.

She aspires to be an actress and has planned to audition for the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.

In pursuit of her passion, it is only a matter of time before she packs her bags and leaves her hometown.

“What I’d like to do with my life is pursue musical theatre, and being somewhere regional, I don’t have many opportunities to get lots of experience and explore the passion that I have for it,” she says.

Ysabeau Wilson thinks some regional people limit their options. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.
Living regionally can make it hard for Ysabeau to pursue her passion for theatre. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.

The commute to rehearsal practice has even become a burden.

“I have to travel, you know, 45 minutes to Busselton just to get to rehearsals,” she says.

“I know that I would love to take acting classes, and really involve myself more in the arts, but it’s really difficult with distance.”

Ysabeau thinks many regional people restrict their options to whatever is available within geographical parameters.

“I know quite a lot of people who have chosen certain pathways that are very suited to, you know, where they live, and they haven’t really thought of anything outside of their area,” she says.

“I believe that if they were presented with the opportunities of the city, then they’d have a completely different outlook on what they can do.”

Nevertheless, Ysabeau does not guarantee travel will make her any happier.

“A place can’t make you happy, you have to make yourself happy in that place.”

Ysabeau Wilson

Geographical thinking is not solely isolated to regional communities says Perth-based career advisor Lois Keay-Smith.

“The same even happens in the outer metro,” she says.

“What we were finding was that some of the kids had never been into the CBD before.

“They didn’t know anyone who worked in a corporate type of environment, and that’s not to say that’s the be-all and end-all, but it was just the fact that geographically and socio-economically, they just didn’t have that exposure,” she says

You can’t be what you can’t see is a phrase some believe is limited to the professions of those closest to us. According to Lois, it’s not true.

“We live in a global village,” she says.

“You can live in Margaret River and work around the world, and that is such a big opportunity.”

The growth of remote work during COVID, and the rise in Perth’s empty office spaces support this.

Remote work is expected to increase. Infographic: Noah O’Reilly.

In most cases, however, skills are required to build the employer’s trust for staff to work remotely says Lois.

Nevertheless, Lois says technology has provided a springboard for curiosity.

“If you have a thirst for knowledge and want to learn things, you’re really not held back by where you are,” she says.

“But the practical application can be a little harder.

“You first have to think that this is possible, and you have to kind of open your eyes to it and then it’s through avenues of other people.”

Lois Keay-Smith says online learning is a great resource. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.

Lois thinks new experiences help a person understand, not only why they think what they do, but also “what makes them tick”.

“I’m a big advocate of the gap year,” she says.

“Spreading your wings and observing different people in different places doing different things widens your view and allows you to not be too myopic.

“So, when you are younger, trying lots of different things and exposing yourself to lots of different things, is a good way to start realising what your interests are and what you value,” she says.

Urban parks have attempted to offer a feeling of the natural environment. Photo: Noah O’Reilly.

Shahid shares this perspective.

“If you immerse yourself in something different, you will grow,” he says.              

“The human condition is one of becoming, not being.

“And the only way you’re going to evolve is by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.”

Exposure, and the unique context we each have, is one of several factors that influence the geography of thought says Lois.

Shahid says exposure broadens a person’s depth of perspective.

“If you were travelling and spending time in a country which perhaps didn’t provide the opportunities and luxuries that we have here, I think you wouldn’t take things for granted. You would have a different view, and you would be more appreciative of the stuff you have,” he says.

Despite different beliefs, there was a consensus among the talent.

Although ignorance may be bliss, knowledge is power, and the thoughts of one person can impact the lives of many.