In 2003 the historian Alun Howkins in his book ‘The Death of Rural England’ concluded;
“What we have here it seems is perhaps the final moment in the battle between town and country – and the town appears victorious. Yet it is an odd victory – if a victory at all”. (Howkins 2003: 234)
The irony is that my copy of this book disappeared some time ago and so I had to look it up on google books – which takes me to my next point. In a recent novel, ‘The Peripheral’ William Gibson starts reflections on the near-present with a character who lives in the rural US with a high-speed internet connection, who is linked to people in London and through a web portal to the future. Gibson who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ had found the future to be in part rural.
In 2003 I was just back from the hearth of the foot and mouth outbreak, already watching how mobile phones were changing rural life and online shopping was beginning to alter the configuration of market towns. More than a decade later and the transformation now seems to be becoming complete; rural life is as much mediated by social media, ubiquitous ICT and mobile phones as urban life – possibly more so. One of my key pieces of field work information is a contact’s mobile number or email address. I work with groups who coordinate much of their activity via web tools and social media, augmenting and extending village life via the internet. Simultaneously I have been researching and writing about urban agriculture, as citizens start to re-work what urban life means. They are blurring the boundaries between cities and rural life, just as technology is doing the same – all that is solid is melting into the internet.
Simultaneously how we relate to technology has changed, as we all work with haptic interfaces, we touch technology, and it changes us. At the moment this is through interfaces on our tablets or phones, but we stand at the edge of virtual reality, which will quickly blend with drones to allow the rural to be flown over or through just as we currently watch graphical simulations such as the products of GIS simulations. Farm machinery is becoming autonomous, the rural rendered through data and all relayed back to us via the screen and our fingertips.
I increasingly view rural England, densely – but not uniformly – connected by 4G phones, high-speed broadband and a multitude of devices as having moved beyond the rural of 10 years ago, not the same as urban life but certainly past the rural as we often understand and see it represented – a post-rural situation.
In 2017 I’m going to spend a considerable amount of time writing and discussing this. As part of this will be a panel at the European Society for Rural Society, but there will be other places as well, not least, on-line.