Social Implications of Mobile Technology in Developing Worlds

Malcolm Gladwell said “poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation.” Often the smallest technological advances create the largest social impacts, take the Internet for example. Technology impacts the developing world in great ways because the contrast it has to the developed world. Mobile technology is no longer the shiny new accessory; it has succeeded in the developed world and I argue it can help provide a cure against the isolation Gladwell mentions. Companies and governments already know the opportunities mobile technology can bring to the developing world, but what are the social implications? Unable to participate in the global market because of the lack of technology, these developing worlds see the affect of inadequate communication by being unable to compete for a piece of the global profit. Mobile technology can change lives, but in what ways? Despite how fascinatingly different cultures around the world are the inability to understand all of them prove that communication is important and universal. Within this paper we’ll step outside the traditional studies of mobile technology in the developing world and focus on the social implications using case studies and examples. I will look at three social implications: the blurring of livelihoods, family communication and the pursuit of relationships.

When your community is connected through technology, people hear each other and a culture of expectation regarding consistent communication builds. UW professor Kathy Gill said in a November 2009 lecture, “culture is the way we express ourselves as individuals.” Therefore it is plausible to believe that without technology, people in the developing world are unable to express themselves as well as those in the developed world. But what are people saying about mobile technology and the developing world? C. K. Prahalad says, “cell phones are a part of the lives of the rich and poor alike…as a result, awareness of the conditions and nuances of the Bottom of the Pyramid is increasing.” He coins the term “Bottom of the Pyramid” in reference to developing worlds. Richard Ling talks about mobile communication allowing “us to participate in social interactions that were previously reserved for only those who were physically present.” In his interpretation the role of participation has been given another dimension of possibility. Another angle on what mobile technology is creating is a profound insight from Clay Shirky. He states that “when we change the way we communicate, we change society.” This is quite profound and circles back to the reasoning that mobile technology can provide a cure against poverty and isolation.

Prahalad, Ling and Shirky all have something in common, their mention of technology dances around the social implications without much interpretation. So why look at the social implications of mobile technology in the developing world? While it would be easier to look at the effects in the United States, “mobile penetration in emerging markets has grown 321% compared to 46% in developed countries,[1]” and according to a research article by Jonathan Donner, “the next billion new phone users will use primarily mobiles.” Unlike the United States, developing worlds use mobile technology differently. While extracurricular communication, scheduling, email and Internet are important to us culturally in the United States, the developing world uses mobile phones as a link to information and knowledge that can help reshape their communities.

Before we dive into the remainder of this paper, I feel a need to clarify what is meant by the developing world since we have already seen it expressed in many ways. Paul Collier states, “countries that are now at the bottom of the global economic system…five billion of the six billion people in the world.” Prahalad states, “the invisible, unserved market…the world’s poorest consumers.” Primarily they are the unfortunately countries isolated due to poor technology and unable to have the ability to successfully engage in the global market. Likely this is not because of their choice but due to the traps Collier outlines in his book The Bottom Billion: conflict, natural resource, landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance. Often it is more difficult than it appears to solve these traps, and bringing a case of cell phones will not solve the problem.

Blurring of Livelihoods: This term, coined by Donner, is deep. What he refers to is the overlap from work to social life in the developing world. One of the major changes mobile technology brought outside of telecommunications is the ability to reach people, not just a place. Some feel this creates a runoff of work that overshadows family time; others argue it helps build stronger bonds with coworkers and business associates which in turn could have an impact on family income. Ling calls this shift micro-coordination. This can impact relationships between business associates where once it was purely transactional due to the scarcity of communication vehicles, but now ease of availability can evolve relationships. For example, prior to mobile phones you might have to walk hours to get to a phone to place an order for goods, now the supplier is at your fingertips. According to Ling, “The device lowers the threshold for interaction within the peer group to the degree that it readjusts the ratio between strong and weak ties.”

Donner takes a deeper look at mobile phone usage in a study of 277 operators of small enterprises in Rwanda. He found that about 1/3 of all calls or SMS are business related. This leaves 2/3 left for connecting with friends and family. So whether the overlap of work usage during family time is frustrating, overall it appears insignificant to the overall communication used with the device.

Blurring of livelihoods is ok for now in the developing world because the idea of connection is important in helping to solve isolation. But as a contrast to this Yochai Benkler states, “hunger, disease, and deeply rooted racial, ethnic, or class stratification will not be solved by a more decentralized, nonproprietary information production system. Without clean water, basic literacy, moderately well-functioning governments, and universal practical adoption of the commitment to treat all human beings as fundamentally deserving of equal regard, the fancy Internet-based society will have little effect on the billions living in poverty or deprivation, either in the rich world, or, more urgently and deeply, in poor and middle-income economies.”

Family Communication: Indonesia has the “highest maternal mortality ratio amongst Southeast Asian countries…in 2006, 9.7 million children who died were under 5 years old, of which 4 million did not live past their first month.[2]” In a study of the Midwives Mobile-Phone Project in Indonesia (launched in 2005 in partnership with the Tsunami Response Programme), we can see mobile technology can bridge the gap between information and field implementation. Two of the main goals of this program include “using simple voice calls to reduce maternal and infant mortality by facilitating communication between midwives and obstetrician-gynaecologists, and assessing the suitability of mobile phones as a tool for data collection.”

Imagine having to live with the statistics above, not knowing if your child or wife will survive. Then imagine the social shift of hope brought with mobile technology. How would it change the lives of people in Indonesia if the odds of their child dying were much less? The article Midwives and mobiles: using ICTs to improve healthcare in Aceh Besar, Indonesia  talks about 4 pathways mobile technology makes this possible: producer of opportunity, enhancer of capabilities, enabler of social ties and generator of knowledge. Providing midwives with mobile phones in remote villages in developing worlds enhances the professional trust between healthcare workers and the community. According to an interview in the report, “villagers’ respect and trust towards midwives increased as a result of midwives’ instantaneous access to expert medical advice.”

In addition to family planning, mobile technology can also be used to lessen parental anxiety. According to Araba Sey from the UW Center for Information and Society, mobile phones are a safety net for people to connect primarily with their friends and family in Ghana. She cites that social inclusion is a solid enough reason for people to connect due to the obvious fact people just want to connect. Family and friend coordination in the past has centered around the clock, whereas now it centers on the mobile phone. Individuals in essence can be more spontaneous with their time and seize opportunities more readily.

Pursuit of Relationships: One situation brought up to us during our discussion with the Sudanese Global Health Leadership Fellows was the effect “free minutes” has on teenagers who are talking into the early hours of the morning. It would seem the novelty of the mobile phone would wear off, but as we see in the United States it hasn’t. Teenagers who choose to use the free minutes and talk all night long to their friends are proving that social interaction and communication is important, almost more important than schoolwork and sleep.

But what else does the general use for communicating with friends and family mean? Your interaction on the mobile phone can help identify your relationship with the person on the other end. For example, you define each contact by the type of communication you have. If you always call someone after school that means something about how important that person is to you. Anthony Giddens believes that mobile technology may actually provide another channel for “performing intimacy.”  In some instances, as we learned from the Sudanese Global Health Leadership Fellows, a phone call can actually take the place of physically attending a wedding or family event. The mobile phone can also determine power and status by the user’s etiquette to interrupt face to face conversations to answer a call. This implies something about how important the person who called is.

There are also programs that work to disseminate information despite social norms and values. The Straight Talk Foundation in Uganda is responsible for creating an SMS based program where teens can text in and receive objective health information. In countries like Uganda where it is taboo for parents to discuss sex with their teenagers this can be extremely valuable. Often when people think of Africa a few ideas come to mind, sadly HIV is one. With programs like the Straight Talk Foundation teens can text in “how do I get HIV?” and receive an answer. The alternative is listening to the myths and rumors which, without sex education, teens have no idea if they are reasonably true or not. Information through mobile technology definitely shows that with education an impact can be made by providing knowledge.

Stuart Campo and Irene Kituyii of Straight Talk Foundation provided feedback on their program and Ugandan family values. When asked what the impact between the parent-teen relationships were with this program, Irene stated, “we’re talking straight, not obscene.” If in Uganda, teens can’t talk to their parents about sex, what does that do to the relationship between teen and parent? Apparently there is no bias in the received SMS, it is just pure objective fact. Stuart addresses the issues of encouraged sexual behavior and said “it is not the case.” According to him and his research, it is actually more dangerous for teens to play off the myths about sex they hear in their neighborhood.

Other Impacts: All of the above, blurring of livelihoods, family communication and the pursuit of relationships are similar because they are rooted in ritual social acts. Prior to phones or digital technology people communicated with families, made a living and learned, but mobile technology is allowing them to do it on another level. There is great value in maintaining cultural norms, Ling states “ritual interaction is still a central function of the collective.” In Benkler’s book Wealth of Networks, he talks about a more statistical approach to social, the Human Development Report. This tracks and reports “components of what makes life livable,” and is typically measured in three ways: life expectancy at birth, adult literacy and school enrollment, and third GDP per capita. Looking at the social implications of mobile technology is important to this program because often a strong GDP per capita in developing worlds is dependent on harnessing and innovating technology to turn a profit. All three elements are dependant of the ability to access information.

Once harnessing technology, communities can innovate and can create programs like early warning systems. For example, in Kenya in 2007 following a controversial election PeaceNet was started. This program is a text message service which provides real-time information on violence and attacks. In some cases, text messages were able to avoid conflict altogether because the authorities would get wind of it and arrive before something bad happened.

Long Term Implications: Just because I’ve spoken most about the positive side of mobile technology in the developing world, doesn’t mean there isn’t another side. While I don’t want to dilute the fact that mobile technology can be a powerful tool in the spread of information, I believe there are some social implications we should consider especially since Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone adopter.

Mobile technology could be seen as the entry drug to the digital world. Marketers might try to capitalize on the data from these countries. With the progression of new information in developing worlds, companies could use this ignorance to their advantage and start steering conversations to exploit these individuals. Also, like in China, as mobile technology grows, we could see censorship issues, but this might prove a test for people’s ability to get information out. According to a Chinese blogger the Internet “is like a water flow — if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.” Developing worlds are also entering into a pool were mistakes have already taken place in developed worlds, but due to the lack of connection, they are unaware of these mistakes. It is obvious to think that they will likely not learn from our mistakes and create their own.

There are however many efforts around the globe that are trying to expose positive efforts using technology. These will likely have a positive long term implication. One good example is Microsoft’s Indian Research program AlwaysWithYou. This site follows the lives of 4 people in India and their relationship with technology. Using videos and photos they tell how these people use technology in their daily lives. This is not only a site for other Indians to learn about their country, it is also a great platform for people around the world to learn about different cultures and build an appreciation for difference.

Microsoft has also partnered with Blue Label Telecoms in South Africa to offer OneApp. This tool “enables feature phones…to access mobile apps like Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live Messenger, and other popular apps and games.” Tools like this are not only for fun, but are expected to provide additional opportunities for growth in small communities, as well offer information to help people within their daily routine. This also helps to eliminate the isolation by connecting individuals with information from around the world.

Mobile technology can also be used in conjunction with programs that collect and centralize information. The Aquatest Program is a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with hopes to launch in South Africa and India by 2012. This program integrates a water testing device that over 24 hours will indicate if the water is contaminated, and how contaminated. This program is partnered with a mobile device that can scan the barcode on the sample collected and enter it into a database. This database can then be updated with the sample details and uploaded into a centralized database to help identify water contamination patterns.

Time will tell what the true implication of mobile technology in developing worlds will be; all we can predict is from what we have seen in the developed world. Some questions we might want to consider are what changes will there be to individual responsibility and transparency in communication? If you are always available via a mobile device, you are simply…always available. Family structures might also change as people are able to connect more frequently across vast distances creating borderless families. According to a 2008 article titled, Families without Borders: Mobile Phones, Connectedness and Work-Home Divisions, “The capacity of mobile phones to operate regardless of location gives rise to a new pattern of continuous mediated interactions that has become known as ‘constant touch’, ‘perpetual contact’ or ‘connected relationships’.”

Conclusion: Technology changes the way people look at culture and their individual place within a society. It offers a door to a world outside communities, which allows for innovation and educational opportunities. Ideally the more connected you are, the more relevant of a global citizen you feel. According to Ling, “ritual interaction is still a central function of the collective,” and thus is extended through technology as well. The fact that mobile technology is not pushing aside cultures, rather helping developing worlds meet their full potential is important. The three social implications I mention in this paper are just some of the implications. Diving deeper into specific cultures will surely uncover more.

Even though there’s bias that the developed world is pushing their values onto others, we must remember that developed worlds are embracing this and truly making it their own. Despite all the different cultures around the world, the importance of communication is universal. The traditional studies of mobile technology in developing worlds will need to consider researching social implications as adoption rates increase around the world and as help provide a cure against poverty and isolation.

Web Sources


  • Wealth of Networks, Yoachi Benkler
  •  Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky
  •  New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion, Richard Ling
  •  The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
  •  The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  •  Mobile Communication, Richard Ling & Jonathan Donner
  •  The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.C. Prahalad


[1] 10 Facts about Mobile Markets in Developing Countries

[2] Statics provided by the World Health Org 2007 and UN Children’s Fund 2007


25 thoughts on “Social Implications of Mobile Technology in Developing Worlds

  1. Pingback: Social Implications of Mobile Technology in Developing Worlds … | Indonesia Day

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  4. Hi there-
    Thanks for posting this! I found it very interesting–especially the discussion of how mobile phones impact villagers perceptions of midwives. I have a blog that tracks news and blog coverage of the global epidemic of maternal mortality–and recently linked to an article about cell phone use in Ghana and the ways cell phones are helping to reduce maternal mortality there. This piece was more focused on the use of phones to contact emergency services—not so much about perceptions about the midwives. (

    Anyhow, really enjoyed reading your post. I will check in on this blog again.

    • This might be a bit off the topic, but I just came from another site talking about how cell phones can influence our health…

      So just for interest sake if you don’t mine, my father in-law works for a major mobile phone company in South-Africa ( Vodacom ) where they did some tests to see what happens to an egg if you place a phone next to it while on call…

      They used a special chamber to isolate outside interference and after about 60 minutes ( Can’t remember EXACTLY what the time was but I think it was about 60min ) the egg was more than half cooked!

      Scary stuff!

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  9. Hi Michelle, great post indeed!! I’ve been following the mobile phone revolution across Africa & Asia of late. I call it grassroots-level innovation that potentially touches (and is already showing remarkable early positive signs) the lives of “the other 90%” of the world’s population, some of whom survive on less than $2/day.

    With your permission I’d like to repost your article in my blog “Ideas Inspiring Innovation”,

    Let’s stay connected.
    san diego

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  12. “Wouldn’t be dificult due to people starving? who would want to buy a mobile when they don’t have somethng to eat?”

    In this age? Trust me alot of people can do it.

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