An interesting article in the New York Times magazine discusses how cell phone manufacturers are employing people with anthropological training to help them understand their customers.
And the numbers of those users are growing rapidly as networks spread, get more robust, and people take advantage of their new ability to communicate outside their immediate sphere.
To someone who has spent years using a mobile phone, these moments are common enough to feel banal, but for people living in a shantytown like Nima – and by extension in similar places across Africa and beyond – the possibilities afforded by a proliferation of cellphones are potentially revolutionary. Today, there are more than 3.3 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, which means that there are at least three billion people who don’t own cellphones, the bulk of them to be found in Africa and Asia. Even the smallest improvements in efficiency, amplified across those additional three billion people, could reshape the global economy in ways that we are just beginning to understand.
I’m not sure I buy the premise embedded in the title, Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?, but it does sound as if they are playing a growing role in improving their economic lives.
It also struck me that people in these countries, where many have never used a computer, are now learning to make use of basic web tools like SMS messaging on these mobile devices.
So, what happens when their cheap cell phones get more traditional internet access? It’s very possibly they never will use a “computer”, at least in the form we’ve come to know.
However, there is a real irony in this story that’s much closer to home.
One of the big school board goals here in the overly-large school district revolves around our students gaining an awareness and understanding of these same people and their societies.
But as they expand their ability to communicate with the world, we continue to restrict our students’ digital movements to our local walled garden.
Oh, and we also ban their personal communications devices.