Jun 04 2009

Can You Hear Me Now? Let Them Text!

by at 3:44 pm under Uncategorized

I still remember how devastated I became when my laptop died on me last December. I had just returned from a trip to Boston, and once I tried to start up my laptop, it kept crashing on me until it refused to turn on entirely. As soon as I resigned to the fact that there was nothing I could do to make it work, the panic began to settle in. When you’re a Silicon Valley native and member of Generation Y, reared off instant communication technologies made possible from the Internet, having no laptop means being disconnected from the rest of the world. The direness of this situation is further magnified when you’re a recently-moved college graduate with no family or University computer labs to fall back on. I didn’t even care that I may have lost all my music and personal files, or that I still had yet to submit my CCT application materials. I couldn’t Google for advice on what I could do about my laptop; I couldn’t monitor the news or the world around me. Cut off from my primary information flow source, I was utterly, achingly powerless.

Luckily, I still had a working cell phone—the one communication technology that still connected me to all my networks (mind you, I didn’t even have a landline). The simple act of calling a friend culminated in borrowing another laptop, summoning a Dell representative to come to my apartment to fix my broken laptop, and submitting my CCT application, all while I simultaneously tracked my Facebook newsfeed, G-Chatted and read NYTimes.com. Networked back with all my intangible, electronic resources restored, I recovered from this bout of punctuated disequilibrium. Alas, these are developed-world shenanigans. I realize, with much humility, that I am spoiled. I can’t imagine growing up without Internet access, much less growing up in a developing country where having enough to eat is a luxury.

The experience I describe above only accentuates the importance of technology in empowering not just individuals, but societies. Technology provides the means to be networked, to generate resources and to have a voice in the global exchange of knowledge, goods and services. Although introducing communication technologies to third worlds come with a multiplicity of cultural, structural and policy implications, I will attempt to simplify these variables by narrowing my focus on the challenge of expanding mobile coverage in the developing world.

Since mobile phones are smaller, more user-friendly, more portable and more affordable than computers, they are an ideal substitute for connecting communities in places where PC-use and Internet access levels are low. Furthermore, expanded mobile coverage provides the first step in transitioning to a wireless communication system—one that nullifies the problem of establishing expensive telephone landlines in rural, sparsely populated areas. The infrastructure of providing cell phone service can be modeled on the non-US system of pre-paid calls that does away with yearly contracts, monthly charges and credit checks.

By facilitating point-to-point communication, cell phones can also facilitate commerce between two individuals, as customers will have a means of reaching small business owners—whether they are fishermen, farmers, or taxi drivers. In other words, mobile technology supports efficient intraeconomy and intereconomy agency relations; and poor entrepreneurs will have a means of more efficiently building their businesses through this leveling of the information flow. In collective systems, mobile technology can also further facilitate in-group communication for maintaining accountability between merchants and agents. For instance, a simple text message can inform a group of boatmen about the state of the water and seafood catches, and whether an agent is pilfering fish.

Advances in mobile technology now even give mobile users the option of transferring money through text messaging. This holds promises in allowing citizens of developing countries to bypass formal banking systems and the risk of carrying cash in unsafe areas where they can be robbed. Overall, giving citizens a better means of communicating with one another promotes safety and further cooperative behavior and civic engagement, thereby building social capital among equal players in horizontal relationships. The use of cell phones can build and maintain trust between individuals and communities.

Granted, there are still issues to consider in terms of coordinating the distribution of mobile phones, spectrum management of mobile networks, pricing enforcements, and more infrastructure and organizational considerations. This may require the need for a third party through governmental enforcement. In turn, as Putnam had answered to North, a civic society would be necessary in maintaining a democratic system of checks and balances. Culture must be accounted for as well, as, in the case of Greif’s study of the Maghribi merchants, collective cultural beliefs may promote segregation, thereby restricting economic and social interactions in closed networks, despite facilitated communication prospects.

Local needs must be addressed to ensure a strategy that encourage social bridging, as well as policies that subsidize mobile phone purchases to households that lack the capital for them. As long as structural variables are countered with collective, coordinated, coercion-constraining institutions, just as the mobile phone had helped me recover my laptop, with the right steps, so can the mobile phone provide a path out of poverty.

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