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Genevieve Bell complicates the mobile phone

Genevieve Bell, a legendary anthropologist who works with Intel, is presenting at the same conference I’m speaking at this week, and it’s a rare treat to share a panel with her earlier today. She gives an abbreviated version of a talk she usually titles, “Real Men Do SMS”. The talk is designed to challenge ideas and notions of what we consider to be ICT, information and communication technology. She mentions that “ICT” isn’t a term she favors – she might suggest “information, communication and entertainment technologies”, pointing to the ways in which people are using phones in countries like Japan and South Korea.

“How do we interpret an Internet based on paper?” She talks about the way in which an illiterate woman uses the Internet, dictating letters to a local youth who writes the text on paper, brings it to the local cybercafe and sends it to her daughter abroad. “It still collapses time and sitance, and it’s about connecting family, but it’s Internet without a screen.”

As an anthropologist, Bell tells us that she has a basic belief set, centered on the idea that behavior changes far more slowly than technology does, and much more slowly than technologists hope.This belief is informed by ethnographic research in 15 countries and 300 or more homes, discovering that cultural context matters a great deal more than the power of emerging technology.

Bell offers four pictures which she sees as pictures of the future:

– On a train platform in Tokyo, a dozen people are all staring into mobile phones. She posits that they’re all using phones for different activities – likely one is learning karaoke to impress a girl, while another might be reading, and other could be sharing photos. Each person has her own phone, supported by a rich (and expensive) network that’s supported through capitalist systems.

– A young man is installing a rooftop antenna in Adelaide. The antenna is designed to be part of a mesh network, connecting houses in the community in a network built of autonomous nodes, assembled not for profit, but out of a spirit of community, creativity and activism. Bell suggests that these motivations are a bit alarming to governments.

– An arrangement of paper objects, including a realistic-looking blue “MIKIA” mobile phone. These are objects made for the Chinese community in Malaysia, designed to be burned in a ceremony that gives the objects to one’s ancestors in the afterlife. A hundred years ago, Bell tells us, people would have burned representations of buildings and servants – now they upgrade phones for their ancestors every year, burning a paper mache version of a newer model.

– An Australian anthropologist standing in front of a radio wireless, sometime in the 1930s, showing the technology to members of the Aboriginal community he was doing fieldwork with. Bell reminds us that “technology constantly erases the technology that came previously.” The anthropologist was introducing wireless to the village he was living in… but that’s a very different form of wireless than the wireless we talk about today in the world of ICT.

Bell – like Greenfield in his talk yesterday – is interested in the cultural context of technology and its influence on technological development. Looking at the rise of the mobile phone in China – now a market that includes 400 million phones – she argues that the adoption path of mobile technology won’t resemble the intuitive path we understand from American and European technology. Texting in Pinyin isn’t an easy thing to do – it requires two to seven button presses for each character. Some of her Chinese friends tell her that “texting is for when you’re young – you have no money and plenty of time.” When you get older, the time/money scale inverts and you just make voice calls.

The fact that pinyin characters can convey so much more information than letters is critical to understand as well. Bell points out that Europeans text very efficiently, using abbreviations that eventually become their own language – this means that a few characters can represent a word. In Chinese, a character is a word or a phrase, and can be abbreviated further. This made it realistic to make a novella to be read on mobile phones, something that wouldn’t be reasonable to do in English.

Understanding cultural context gives help in understanding how technology will be used. South Korea has an amazing uptake of broadband, approaching 80% penetration. But it’s also got an enormous number of PC-Bangs, cybercafes that are usually focused on gaming. Why do Koreans pay to go to cybercafes when they’ve got great connectivity at home? Because it’s customary in Korea not to host guests in ones house, so playing games in a PC-Bang is the only way to socialize with friends.

Cultural context helps explain the different ways some countries consider using wireless spectrum. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi marked an agreement between British settlers of New Zealand and the Maori community – it gave Maori continuing rights to the land and to “taonga”, a word that translates badly as “treasure”, but is usually interpreted to mean the ocean, the sky, the trees and the clouds. This treaty was interpreted to grant the Maori rights of ownership to wireless spectrum in a 2000 decision.

To understand mobile culture in the Middle East, one needs to understand Islam. Once a wireless cloud was established in Cairo, an argument broke out over what should be first broadcast over the network. The minister of communications, citing the Prophet, stated that “the most beautiful voice” should be broadcast through the heavens, and proposed a nationwide contest to discover the most beautiful voice. As Bell points out, it’s uncommon in most of their world to see the minister of communications citing scripture to justify decisions. Islamic influence affects phone design as well – phones like the ilkone 800 include Islamic applications like a copy of the Koran and a qiblah finder (some distributed by a Malaysian mobile application company, Maxis.) The ilkone phone signals a call to prayer, then silences itself for 20 minutes to allow you not to disturb anyone in mosque. Bell points out that these applications are useful even if you are not observant – knowing the time of call to prayer is useful in scheduling meetings.

Cultures can create entirely new uses for mobile phones. In Ghana, where Bell tells us that the local phone networks have been destroyed by copper thieves (true, partially, but more a function of a dysfunctional monopoly telecom provider.) Mobile phones have linked up seven times as many Ghanaians as are linked by land lines, but despite the booming market, at least one Ghanaian company was having trouble making money. Close analysis of their call patterns revealed a new behavior – “flashing” – where callers dial numbers and hang up before calls can be completed. A pattern of flashing can contain a message – one flash might mean “everything is okay” while two might mean “call me”. Ultimately, flashing was a function of tarrif structures – the companies needed to reconsider their tarrifs to get people to actually complete calls.

(Bell didn’t get into much detail about this, but flashing was mostly a function of a screwed up tarrif structure, where mobile carriers charged a great deal for calls between networks. Flashing often happened when you’d call a friend who used another network and try to persuade him to call you back. Some of my Ghanaian friends carried two or three phones, so that they could make cheap calls on all networks…)

Bell ends her talk with intriguing ideas we might encounter in a longer presentation. She notes that there’s a strong current of technological anxiety – we worry that mobile phones may be killing bees, that technology is making our children more vulnerable to molestation. She mentions that the “leit-motifs of invisibility and magic” recur throughout societies’ encounters with technology. And she leaves us with the interesting contention that, as technology spread to different parts o the world, “the ideas of privacy, security, trust, risk, identity, efficiency, home, location, context, content, media and computing are all up for grabs.” That’s a lot to think about.

5 thoughts on “Genevieve Bell complicates the mobile phone”

  1. Great stuff, small points:

    * It’s “pinyin”, not “pinyan”.

    * “In Chinese, a character is a word or a phrase, and can be abbreviated further.” A word or phrase consisting of multiple characters could be abbreviated, but I can’t think of any good examples of a single character that can be abbreviated (I don’t see how it’s possible, short of simplified vs. traditional characters).

    * In some cases, Chinese SMS/IM uses the Latin alphabet for phonetic abbreviations because it’s faster to type and makes you look cool.

    * the “novella on a phone” thing isn’t really any more practical in Chinese than in English, and it’s been done in English (Virgin Mobile had one).

    * She’s totally right about the mobile phone effigies, though, and I’m digging her basic belief set.

  2. Thanks for the catch on pinyin, Dave – made that change. As for the rest of it: I type it as I hear it – take it up with Genevieve… :-)

    (Seriously, thanks for the feedback. And if you want to respond to these questions/critiques, you’re welcome as well, Genevieve.)

  3. Does anyone have a link to the Mikia paper phone? I haven’t been able to find images or articles online about it.

    I ran into the “flashing” behavior in Malawi this summer. People jokingly referred to the Flashers Association of Malawi (FAM)–sort of a double joke on flashing as well as the seeming propensity in the country to make an association for everything. “Flashers” tend to get a bad rap over time, since the idea is that they are insisting other people call them and use their minutes. It’s a bit like being a mooch.

    Interestingly, Telkom introduced a feature in their service whereby you can tap in a certain code followed by a phone number, and it will send a polite text message to the recipient requesting that they call the sender back–a kind of more organized (and more socially acceptable) way of flashing. For all the faults of Telkom (and they are legion), this is a pretty cool example of incorporating mobile phone behavior on the ground into their offerings. Celtel (their local competitor) doesn’t have it yet, but I’d be surprised if they don’t soon.

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