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. Continue reading

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Internet Censorship in Iran

According to Rahimi and Gheytanchi in Politics of Facebook in Iran, “the Internet is viewed by the ruling clerics as potentially a dangerous domain, which requires harsh measures to control its content.” Although, it is not the content that is being controlled, it is the citizens of Iran. I can see how the Internet can be so scary and dangerous, with stories of a “saber-toothed cat in armor” that ate dinosaurs, visually offensive but fascinating galleries of Wal-mart shoppers, and heaven forbid multiple points of views on important issues! But all of these things are hidden inside a glass box. Maybe it is the assumption that consuming certain one dimensional data will have three dimensional thought and action.

I don’t think it is right to censor the Internet…there, I said it. Especially when it is, according to Yochai Benkler, what drives us to be more creative and explore our culture using a different medium than the past. By censoring the Internet you are effectively saying “don’t engage in understanding your culture.” There is so much ammunition for the “pro-Internet” side that it seems Iran is denying citizens their basic human right. In fact Finland just signed into law the right to have broadband Internet access because it’s that important! Continue reading

Citizen Media

In this weeks reflection we take a look at citizen media using mobile technology in developing areas. MobileActive.org posted an article (Mobiles in Citizen Media) that describes the cell phone as a Swiss Army knife, meaning it has everything you could need for communication. This is true. Mobile phones have video, radio, camera, internet, SMS and voice capabilities. With so many features, these phones are the perfect device for areas that don’t have landlines or much computer access. We hear a lot about how wonderful mobile technology is, but rarely the other side of the coin.

Citizen media, according to MobileActive.org, is “everyday citizens posting news media directly from a mobile phone to the Internet or people’s cell phones and thus, an online public.” The MobileActive.org article talks about the positive impact of citizen media, but also about the struggles with using mobile technology. While the list is not surprising, it is obvious to know that there have to be challenges. Just because there is not a strong infrastructure say in Pakistan as there is in Seattle, people still need to work through frustrations when there are technological roadblocks. The majority of challenges deal with cost, but others are quite similar to developed nations.

Technical problems, spam and the issues of personal security are challenges that follow this technology, and one could assume that different culture deal with these in different ways. For US teens, it is not as drastic if text messages between friends are not received. But in a place that benefits from early warnings of natural disasters or terrorism, having uninterrupted service could save a life. For example, in Pakistan, mobile phones are used to tune into radio shows to warn citizens about areas of violence. You could argue that this type of information doesn’t have a price tag.

But with so many different programs for mobile communication sprouting up all over continents like Africa, how will communication unite people when everyone is connected, but all by different companies, programs and policies? Will there be pressure to unite for ease and profit sake? Will the efforts of NGO’s be forgotten or praised?

First-World Solutions Promote Change to New Technology

Karim Khoja’s story, Connecting a Nation: Roshan Brings Communication Services to Afghanistan, is a great description of how someone realized the need for modern technology and how he could help. The story begins with his shocked account “to hear that Afghans …once had to walk 700 miles to place an international call.” We have many modern conveniences available to us within arm’s reach in the United States, this statement brings a realization or urgency in the importance of affecting change. And while his account is that of a Croatian, it brings some authenticity to how people outside of the United States view developing nations.

I found Karim’s story very convincing and engaging. Scholarly journals have a way of removing emotion from the subject; therefore this article gives the reader a personal connection with the experience through Karim’s eyes. The goal of bringing phone service to Afghanistan was to “enhance their quality of life and well-being,” so no one would have to walk 700 miles again. But how can you bring such advanced technology to a place without any infrastructure to launch it? You build it. Continue reading

The Impact of Innovation in Developing Worlds

Africa is adopting mobile technology at a rate higher than any other country. The market is there, and so is the need to impress upon the communities how it can help them.  A recent New York Times article tells the story of a man in Uganda who uses mobile technology to help his community by being the communication hub in their small banana farming town. How is the possible? It’s made possible by innovations from organizations like the Grameen Foundation, who’s concerned with fighting poverty by opening channels for new technology. According to a World Resources Institute report, “as developing-world incomes rise, household spending on mobile phones grows faster than spending on energy, water or indeed anything else.”

The investment in this technology is obvious. As an example, a roadside merchant mentioned in the September Economist, selling ice cream and underwear was found to have increased his earning by 70% now that he had a mobile phone. The reason? He was able to communicate with suppliers, negotiate pricing and likely reach potential customers. To me this seems simple and obvious, but the merchant had grown accustomed to the rhythm of his business prior to the phone, this likely dramatically changed his life and allowed him to think about his roadside cart as a business rather than a lifeline.

Mobile technology is opening up another portal of opportunity for developing countries. As the Economist states, “adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points.” It is fascinating the drive people have to continually move forward, learning and using all the resources they have around them. But in contradiction to the Economist article, they quote that Africa “is the new battlefield and the new laboratory for development.” What war is trying to be won? Continue reading

Mobile Technology, the Middle-man in Human Interaction

Using stereotypical examples, Ling and Donner help us understand the varying degrees in which mobile technology has and can affect our lives. No longer being tied to a location, the ability to reach a person when they are out and about changes the way we interact and live. In Schwartzman and Parikh’s paper Establishing Relationship for Designing Rural Information Systems they analyze an alternative way mobile technology is changing lives in a developing country. Mobile technology helps people join the global market, even if it’s to be on the level with their own community and social needs.

One thing not mentioned in Ling and Donner’s examples are the negative ways mobile technology can affect a changing social structure. Much is mentioned about the feeling of security and connectedness, but none on the affects of relying on a device to be the middle-man in human interaction. In the example of Alberto, the Italian businessman, he is connected 24/7 with his phone and is always in touch with work, family and friends. In result he is “mesmerized by technology” and likely unable to function without it. Continue reading