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
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.
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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