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Ooh! Shiny!

My friend JC Herz spoke at the same State Department event I was attending in Washington yesterday, and came away with the best quote of the event: “For the most part, coverage of technology by journalists doesn’t get beyond ‘Oooh! Shiny!'”. This “shiny bias” means that journalists fall for stories that are “too good to check“, as Clay Shirky describes journalists’ largely uncritical coverage of Second Life.

(“Oooh! Shiny!” is one of the most charming lines uttered by Kaylee Frye, the adorable and spunky engine mechanic who keeps the starship Serenity running in Joss Wheadon’s late, great series, “Firefly”. But it’s a line that you could imagine attributed to Templeton, the crafty but charming rat who shares Wilbur’s pen in Charlotte’s Web. Or to any highly distractible animal who gets misled by flash and motion. You know, like journalists…)

JC argues that the stuff that’s shiny is often the least interesting technology and the tech that looks least shiny can be the most fascinating. She used an example from my talk to illustrate the point: the M-PESA payment via mobile phone system introduced by Safaricom in Kenya is something that is having an impact on millions of people in the real world. M-PESA lets you transfer money between mobile phoines – it’s already so widespread in Kenya that you can use your mobile to pay for your taxi fare. After I explained M-PESA in my talk, one audience member said, “It’s like people in prison using cigarettes for currency, right?” When a pair of speakers showed off Second Life, the audience made analogies to the web in 1994. In other words, Second Life is way shinier than mobile micropayments.

In terms of what distracts me, I think M-PESA and other mobile phone cash systems are pretty much the shiniest things I’ve seen lately. Then again, I thought Dr. Amy Smith’s work on making sustainable charcoal was the shiniest thing at last year’s TED, so perhaps I’ve lost my geeky sense of shiny and adopted some new appropriate technology criteria instead. (“Crunchy”? “Useful”? “Dull”?) But M-PESA makes me want to go out and start businesses, which is a classic shiny response.

Specifically, the business it makes me want to start is a business to allow online payment with mobile phones. If you’re placing an order with Amazon from Nigeria, you may discover that your credit card won’t be accepted. This is pretty common with African credit cards – some merchants are willing to make the tradeoff of refusing legitimate transactions from African nations in fear of chargeback from fraudulent transactions. Furthermore, most Africans don’t have credit cards. Building a network of phone companies who would turn airtime into cash and make payments to venders – a PayPal for the mobile phone set, perhaps – could help open markets for vendors, both local and global, in developing nations.

Of course, another key to this system is making it possible for users who generate a lot of mobile minutes to cash them out – this requires functionality closer to the Wizzit e-banking system being pioneered in South Africa. It’s an interesting opportunity for companies like Safaricom or MTN to start making inroads in banking, and changing the ecosystem in this fashion would open the opportunity for hundreds of other microentrepeneurs in Africa to start selling to local instead of global markets. (An example came up at an A2K panel this afternoon, where a group of literary journal editors mentioned their difficulties selling locally produced journals in Africa. Gary Dauphin of blackplanet.com mentioned that selling subscriptions to African readers using phone payments could change the market for literary content.)

Some of my geek friends seem concerned that I’ve lost my sense of shiny. Talking with friends at South by Southwest, they were concerned that Global Voices wasn’t very appealing to the social software geek. You can’t vote, you can’t edit our articles, you can only read or leave a comment. Not very shiny. “Maybe you should add a digg-like mechanism to let people rank articles? Or add a spinning globe that shows where posts appear around the world in real time and deliver those updates via Twitter?” It felt like an intervention: “Ethan, your lack of shininess has become a problem for you and your friends. We care about you, and we want to make sure that you understand that you seem to be missing the shiny.”

The journalists – the primary audience for Global Voices – doesn’t seem to be complaining about the lack of shiny. And I’ll happily admit that the pretty maps are, at least in part, shiny and designed to meet your shiny needs. But I think there’s something very deep to JC’s diagnosis – there’s a good chance that underneath the shiny is something that isn’t very interesting. (Not always, but often.) And that some of what’s deeply, truly, long-term transformative isn’t shiny at all.

6 thoughts on “Ooh! Shiny!”

  1. Well, why not allow Africa join the nations of credit card holders? Nowadays credit cards are actively used in India, Pakistan, Brasil and other developing countries and these small plastic things are the reality…

  2. The “Ooh shiny!” factor doesn’t only apply to journalists, but defense appropriations as well. DARPA gets mad cash for funding stuff like remote-control mud guppies and laser rifles, but when it comes to basic social science research on places like Iraq or Afghanistan, the money isn’t there.

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Digital activists find ways to help Kenya

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