Tuesday, December 4, 2012

No fixed thing called a cell phone: Problematizing M4D

In their analysis of cell phone use among resource-constrained communities in Cape Town, Donner, Gitau, and Marsden (2009) argue that there is “no fixed thing called a cell phone” but rather a process by which technologies and communities influence one another. Chenxing Han, South African Perspectives on Mobile Phones: Challenging the Optimistic Narrative of Mobiles for Development,” 2071.

Until this week’s readings on mobile telephony—Chenxing Han’s article on “South African Perspectives on Mobile Phones: Challenging the Optimistic Narrative of Mobiles for Development” published in the International Journal of Communication and Araba Sey’s article on “'We use it different, different': Making sense of trends in mobile phone use in Ghana” published in New Media & Society—I had not had much exposure to studies problematizing the “mobiles for development” (M4D) initiatives taking place in developing countries around the world.

When I think of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) and mobile phones, Iqbal Quadir and his work on GrameenPhone come to mind. Here he is in a 2005 TED talk video discussing how he came to realize that “connectivity is productivity,” whether it’s in a modern office or an underdeveloped village. His work supports the idea that the poor can be customers. He discovered that they are not just recipients of aid, but they can be resources as well, given that they are “eager learners” and capable of surviving many types of hardships.

Sey concludes “high levels of mobile phone adoption do not guarantee particular development outcomes, especially if other elements in the livelihoods environment (e.g. vulnerability context, livelihood assets, transforming institutions and structures, livelihood strategies) are not appropriately aligned. Even if they are, specific outcomes are still not guaranteed” (387). This is because different users have different use for mobile phones and other technologies. Users will uniquely “manipulate technological systems to pursue diverse livelihood goals” (387). People’s purpose for using cell phones in developing countries vary. Some may be for work-related purposes, as Sey uncovered with Wofa, a Ghanaian fisherman who fielded work-related calls. Other may be for social and familial purposes; Osei the farmer, when asked, replied that he does not use his phone for discussing farming or work-related information. Instead, he uses it to communicate with his sister living in Accra.

While mobile phones connect people, compressing the reality of time and space, there are also a number of downsides, as Han points out when she highlights the dangers of blindly advocating for M4D with optimistic narratives without exploring the ways in which it can first be problematized. Mobile phones in South Africa are not as affordable as advocates often claim, Han notes. Moreover, the use of M4D to help prevent HIV/AIDS may actually be undermined by the fact that “women may chose to engage in transactional sex to afford cell phones” (2065). There is also concern that teens communicating on mobile chat rooms may also be at risk for sexual predation (2066). These factors, along with security risks associated with violent phone theft, are real and must be considered, Han writes.  

“Instead of fixating on the positive influences of mobile phones with “missionary zeal,” mobile enthusiasts must consider negative or neutral outcomes. Future academic research must consider more critical and skeptical perspectives to address the “epistemological shortcomings” of the current literature…(2070).” Han’s admonishment reinforces the need for continual awareness of the need of contextualization in our field of research. 

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