Dust or Magic, Tuesday, February 13 2007

Mobiles in the DRC: not a revolution, unfortunately

Here’s an article from Smartmobs.com: “The next social revolution booms in Congo”:
http://www.smartmobs.com/archive/2006/07/09/the_next_social.html Western technology, says Howard Rheingold, is “empowering” the people of “war-torn Congo”. I fear this misses the point by a whole planet.

Much mobile phone use (certainly in the DRC) is to solve problems that people shouldn't have in the first place.

It is strongly related to precarity. For the wealthy and secure, the mobile phone is of minor importance - the wealthiest often don't have one, or forget to take it with them and joke that they can't remember its number. For illegal migrants and asylum seekers, it is a lifeline.

An extreme example: the 18 Chinese "illegals" who drowned in Morecambe Bay in February 2005 while collecting cockles for a restaurant supplier all had mobiles and many used them as they drowned. One them used her last credit to call home (in China) to ask if someone there could find the UK emergency number - but she drowned anyway. (The events on which Nick Broomfield's film "Ghosts" is based.)

Or the guy interviewed by Felicity Lawrence in Calabria (Guardian, 19.12.06), kept like a slave by the gangsters who control the orange harvest, who had just texted his wife and children in Cote d'Ivoire, whom he hadn't seen for two years and had less and less hope of ever seeing again. And to have any hope of getting work, it is vital to have a mobile phone that works, and has some credit. I personally know people who go without food to feed their mobiles.

In between these people (and there are millions of them, underpinning more and more of the economy) and the rich, are layer upon layer of people who, in an increasingly unequal society, feel more and more precarious.

The high usage of mobiles among teenagers may say a lot about their unmet needs for love, respect and friendship. The mental-health and self-harm statistics for teenagers indicate that these needs are certainly growing ones in the "advanced democracies".

There was a more positive-looking example (shown on BBC TV last week I believe) of an African farmer who is able to sell his crop for a much better price thanks to his mobile. But why was the market rigged against him in the first place? How did the market become so powerful, that it can dictate whether a farmer thrives or starves?

I think the obvious arrangement would be to make inequality illegal. In that fight, mobile phone technology will undoubtedly be very useful indeed. But what will the technology look like, how will it be manufactured, and how might it be used, once inequality has been abolished?

Posted by Bob Hughes on Tuesday, February 13 2007

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