One Cellphone Per Child? Ethnographic Insight and Individualism

Lots to mull over.

Haven’t read this report by Daniel Miller and Heather Horst (PDF) yet, but it does sound quite insightful:

The whole report is full of examples for ethnography’s ability to check (and often disprove) common-sense beliefs concerning the benefits of new technologies

Rich ethnographic reports about the uses of ICT in low-income communities « Culture Matters

Especially interesting to me is the discussion of the potential implications of cellphone use in “highly individualistic” Jamaica:

One promising way would be to provide limited internet access through the (highly popular) cell phone.

Rich ethnographic reports about the uses of ICT in low-income communities « Culture Matters

In some cases, Internet access through cellphones sounds more appropriate than Nicholas Negroponte‘s well-publicized brainchild, the One Laptop Per Child project. Like many others, I have been thinking about the implications of the OLPC project. And about the fact that cellphones might be a better tool than laptops in several of those contexts in which Euro-American technocrats try to empower others through technology.

On a Radio Open Source episode on the OLPC, cellphones were very briefly mentioned as an alternative to laptops. I really wish they had discussed the issue a tiny bit more.

After all, cellphones may be The Globalisation technology. And it can be very local. So “glocal” is the ugly but appropriate name.

One thing which makes me think cellphones may be more appropriate than laptops is the rate of penetration for cellphones in many parts of the world. Even in West Africa, where computer networks tend to be rather slow, cellphones seem quite appropriate.

A few months ago, I was discussing cellphone use in Africa with a Ghanaian professor of economics who made me realise that, contrary to what I thought, cellphones are quite compatible with African sociability. Yes, a cellphone can be the prototypical “individualistic device” but it can also be a way to integrate technology in social networks.

One problem with cellphones is the perception people may have of the technology, especially in educational contexts. Some school districts have banned the use of cellphones and such bans have led to intriguing discussions. Some people see cellphones as disruptive in learning environments but at least one teacher, Don Hinkelman, has found ways to use cellphones in the classroom. It seems relevant to point out that Don teaches in Japan, where cellphone technology seems to be “embedded in the social fabric” in ways which are quite distinct from the ways cellphones are used in North America.

Fellow anthropologist Mizuko Ito and others have published on cellphone use in Japan (see Savage Minds). Haven’t read the book but it sounds fascinating. Also interesting to note is the fact that books recommended by Amazon.com in relation to Ito’s Personal, Portable, Pedestrian mostly have to do with cellphone technology’s impact on social life. Yet anthropologists are typically anti-determinists, contrary to McLuhan followers.

Now, to loop this all back… Another book recommended for readers of Ito et al. is The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, written by Heather Horst and Daniel Miller. Yes, the authors of the article which sparked my interest.

Turns out, I should really learn more about what fellow anthropologists are saying about cellphones.

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About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

3 responses to “One Cellphone Per Child? Ethnographic Insight and Individualism

  • enkerli

    Emptyk,
    Interesting comments!
    We’re agreed that the differences between laptops and cellphones are rather minimal. Form factor might be the most important one, and it tends to be overblown.
    Technologically, it’s easy to imagine a device which can work as a hybrid wi-fi phone (switching seamlessly from VoIP to cell network), a mesh-network device, a video conferencing camera, a location device, and a sub-sub-notebook/handheld computer. Personally, I tend to dream about such a device. But I’m a PDA user, so maybe I’m biased.

    One thing about cellphone penetration is that it shows the potential for what people call “disruptive technology.” Contrary to laptop programs sold to national school systems, cellphones are embedded in larger social processes based on people’s own decisions. And, as you say, flexibility is essential. The OLPC’s XO isn’t the most flexible device out there.

  • emptyk

    Well what is a cell phone, and what is a laptop? A cell phone is a unique security token, now further refined to the Simm card (small flash memory chip), and a radio transmitter. Of course other features can be added as well. Meanwhile a laptop is similar, particularly if there is a wireless card included. There is still some discrepancy, in that cell phones and wireless network cards generally use different radio data systems.
    The integration of electronics can (and has) provided a greater degree of adaptability. The laptops can establish ad-hoc networks, and cell phones can perform many duties of a computer.
    The best outcome for users in both developing and affluent nations is an increase of this flexibility, to provide the most suitable and robustly featured information systems at the least cost.

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