The New York Times asks “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” while The Economist asks what happens “When Everybody Becomes a Nomadic Monitor”? The two articles provide interesting insights into future iRevolutions.
The trend towards “human-centered design” as identified in the NYT article has important implications for iRevolutions (see my previous blog on people-centered conflict early warning). Technology companies initially catered their designs to large firms and organizations. Indeed, the name IBM says it all: International Business Machines. The information communication technologies (ICTs) of the time necessarily took on “institution-centered designs” since they sought to enhance existing institutional processes.
Today, however, the final frontier for mobile companies is the 3 billion people who don’t own mobile phones, yet. The profit potential is astronomical. Indeed, “people in the mobile-handset business talk about adding customers not by the millions but by the billions.” (NYT).
According to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence, it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide. The second billion sold in four years, and the third billion sold in two. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, which is double the level in 2000 (NYT).
One of the last barriers remains that of price. Not to worry though, where there is profit to be made, competition oft follows. Nokia, Vodafone and the new kid on the block, Spice Limited, are entangled in a tight race to tap into the multi-billion dollar potential. Spice Limited recently announced plans to roll out a $20 mobile phone and there’s even talk of a $5 phone on the horizon. Meanwhile, a new study cited by the NYT found that “even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category.”
So what are the implications for future iRevolutions? Are we likely to see more spontaneous organization and just-in-time mobilization of political protests and social resistance? Or will repressive regimes gain the upper hand? In her interview with The Economist, Katrin Verclas of MobileActive sums up her views:
Like every other technology human beings have ever invented [...] the tools of nomadism arm both sides in the eternal tug-of-war between good and evil. But there is room for optimism, she thinks, because the side with good intentions is more numerous and—so far, at least—has proved more imaginative.
Is this indeed the case? That is the question and subject of my dissertation—and I don’t have an answer yet. Whether these ICTs are made for activism and whether that’s just what they’ll do remains for now an open-ended question. As Karl Popper noted in “The Poverty of Historicism”, we can’t predict the future precisely because technological breakthroughs are inherently unpredictable.
At the moment, the latest empirical study on state censorship by the Berkman Center suggests repressive regimes remain in control of the information revolution. On the other hand, The Economist suggests that mobile phones lend themselves to more mobile activisim since “nomadic technology can expose human-rights abuses as honest citizens use technology to monitor and expose crimes and co-ordinate the response.” To be sure, ICTs today are increasingly distributed, decentralized and mobile—three characteristics that certainly do not describe repressive regimes.
(Incidentally, the use of the term nomadic is particularly apt. I was in the Western Sahara some five years ago doing field research on the conflict between the POLISARIO and the Moroccan Monarchy. I happened upon a Sahraoui Sheikh, who would delight in telling me, repeatedly, that mobile phones were made especially for nomads).
At the same time, however, repressive regimes have shown guile and aptitude in their ability to monitor and censor information. They continue to mount “information blockades” rendering “data smuggling” at times more challenging. So how significant is it that those with good intentions are more numerous? How important is imagination and tactical innovation? What other factors might determine the winner of the tug-of-war? Stay tuned, I’ll be frequently blogging about my findings as I pursue my dissertation over the next two years.