The Mobile Revolution and the Rise and Rise of Possessive Individualism?

Posted on July 21, 2012


As per the just published World Bank 2012 Information and Communications for Development: Maximizing Mobile the world of ICT4Development (ICT4D) has been undergoing some truly profound changes and including in rural Sub-Saharan Africa. Those changes are being precipitated by the remarkable development of almost ubiquitous mobile telephone access into even the most remote of rural areas, the development of low cost mobile phones, and the dramatic lowering of communications costs through widespread deregulation and the related competition between mobile carriers. Related to this and of particular interest from a “development” or ICT4D perspective are the design and implementation of services meant to be of particular interest to the rural sector and their offering in many cases at very low or even no cost to the user (supported in some cases by advertising, in others simply as a loss-leader to boost subscribers and usage).

No less authorities than the Economist and the World Bank see these developments as having profoundly beneficial and transformative impacts on the rural sector. As the dispersal and utilization of mobiles has increased there has been a related and parallel decrease in overall interest by the “Development sector” and particularly funders in other rural information delivery systems notably telecentres but other media as well. Going with the evident winner seems both a politically and fiscally prudent thing to be doing and since the drivers here are the private sector with little or no public money or involvement except for the previously mentioned deregulation, there is general jubilation that it is now possible to declare a “developmental” victory and move onto something else (the something else seems to be Open Data but that is another story).

Policy makers in the development sphere in any case seem more than happy to shift their attention to urban issues in Lower Income Countries now that there appears to have been the emergence of an increasing majority urban population globally. Not surprisingly these shifts have impacted in ICT4D related areas including research, research funding, NGO involvement and interest among others including Community Informatics where CI’s “historical” emphasis on “communities” on “networking”, on “community or public access” seems suddenly a bit well, passe…

In the last day or so I’ve been having a great interaction with staff and students at the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT here in Accra, Ghana where I am at the moment helping with the start up of a new project being undertaken by NEPAD/the African Union.

I was giving the folks at the KACE-ICT my capsulized “Intro to Community Informatics” presentation which in this context was focused rather on how Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can support economic and social development and particularly from the grassroots and there seemed to be a bit of restiveness as I wasn’t focusing much attention on mobiles.

At that point the conversation rather turned direction and we began to talk more specifically about mobiles and how they are impacting in Ghana–95% (coverage), 90% utilization vs. 5% or so fixed line, even less for stationary access to the Internet and so on. What became clear (to me at least) as we were talking was that all of the mobile applications that they were mentioning as benefiting the rural sector–access to market information, access to weather information, health notices to pregnant women–that sort of thing, were all one-to-one (or in a pinch many-to-one) applications; that is applications that involve communication of information from one individual (or perhaps an institution or agency) to another individual.

However, as the discussion progressed further (needless to say being prodded by me) it turned out that according to these folks almost all of whom either were from a rural village or were only one generation removed from one — in fact, rural villages in Ghana at least (and notably Ghana is still roughly 50% rural) don’t function in this kind of individualized (one-to-one) information mode. Rather information at the village level takes a notably collective form where information communicated to the village becomes shared more or less immediately within the village and information communicated from the village is the product of collective village processes and processing. Information in these villages is not an “individual” but rather a “collective” good. An example, in a recent excursion here in Ghana I happened to notice that the local artisanal in-shore fishery consists largely of boats with up to a dozen fishermen. When it comes time to haul in the nets up to 30 or so villagers may be involved. These folks don’t need to know as individuals what the local price of fish might be in a particular market (they aren’t selling the fish as individuals), or what the prospect is of a storm and thus the need to haul in the nets, or even how to handle pre-natal information (since birthing is a village activity not solely a family one). What is needed are means for the most rapid and effective form of one-to-many communication i.e. how to get the information to all those in the community who need to be able to use it as part of their collaborative activities as quickly, efficiently and effectively (i.e. without information loss) as possible. But one-to-many communication for mobiles requires a fairly significant degree of financial and planning overhead — certainly something beyond the interest of most commercial mobile operators.

So, in the vast majority of instances (and the design of both the mobile systems and the individual applications almost require this) the information is made available onIy on a one-to-one (individual to individual) basis. Any follow-on as for example through the sharing of this information with others say in the village is solely at the discretion (and the responsibility) of the individual without there being any formal or informal (let alone technical) structures to support this (in fact community radio often becomes a means for “community” integration of mobile communication but that is a subject for another blogpost).

Whether or not the information (say concerning market prices or weather alerts) is passed along depends on individual judgement and interest. Rather as probably happens most often, the individual is expected to get whatever information they may want or need himself or herself and any collaboration concerning this information is done at least without the support of (and quite possibly in opposition to) the way in which the information service is designed and implemented. To take market pricing information as an example… Making the market price for an individual item in several different locations available to potential sellers is clearly a good thing as it “empowers” the information user to be able to find the best price for his or her product. Inevitably (and by design) information presented in this way gives the individual user a leg-up in a competitive marketplace. However, in many if not most areas of agricultural production in rural Africa for example, the products being brought to market are not the result of individual production but to a considerable degree represent collective action by many people working together at the community level in various stages of the production process–in fishing it may be the multiple persons doing the fishing, those doing the fish storage or cleaning, those tending the boats and nets and so on–some of those roles will surely overlap but it is very unlikely that one will find a significant artisanal fishery where at least at the boat level and more likely at the community/village level the participants are not competitors but rather collaborators and the information is needed not by individuals taking fish to market but rather by the community overall who need to make collaborative decisions on how to proceed with the output of their collaborative labour.

In this context the conventional (even technologically prescribed) mobile communications mode i.e. one-to-one (or many-to-one) is non-functional or even potentially destructive. By providing one-to-one information access the result may be to empower individuals within communities (information being power of course), but how that helps the overall process of development is not clear at all rather it would seem more likely that it would impede the process by introducing individual competition and information hoarding into otherwise collaborative contexts. So the message that I came away with from this discussion was that at least in some particular contexts, for some particular purposes, mobile technology is deeply value-laden concerning the nature of one’s being in the world (e.g. “individualistic” or “communal” for example); and that the forces of mobile technology design combined with the forces of commerce, ideology and inertia (and in the absence of popular resistance and/or public policy) can be and very likely are being deeply (and ultimately irresponsibly) reconstitutive of the nature of the lived world of very many rural dwellers and their communities and how they experience and act in this.

C.B. Macpherson in his classic analysis of the ideological and political economic underpinnings of early modern British philosophers such as Locke and Hume described this process as being the rise of “possessive individualism”. It would appear very likely that we are seeing a similar process taking place in many rural parts of the world in this case driven by mobile telecommunications rather than steam engines and spinning jennies.

That this may be destructive of the very basis of communal life and thus the emotional and cultural underpinnings of social well-being in many parts of rural societies throughout the Global South may be an unanticipated (but perhaps not unwelcomed) outcome of the current intensive focus on mobiles as the basis for bringing rural society into the 21st century.