When phone meets the edges of world

ICTs adoption in emerging societies and its social, cultural and economical impacts

Years passed since we reasoned about possibilities to arrange a peculiar field of study for the telephone. Meantime, it has been written very much on topic, and many scholars added the group, focusing both general aspects and specific ones with essays that did not quite neglect anything, and the “quite” saves us from any next surprise.
In effect, if we would find an analogy to describe some phenomenon related to new media, and we want to be understood, we do never remain delude focusing on telephonic area. Surprisingly, the practice doesn’t work only in a way – recovering and evidencing through telephone what has just happened or experienced – but also in a projectile phase, namely following this medium as propellant for the development and re-configuration of basic social processes, whose complex societies of various Western cultures tend to lose cognitive sensibilities.
As usual, we speak of digital divide and social mobility through some recent readings. In this particular case we’ll use a dense handbook containing many essays on mobile communication by worldwide researchers. The book Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies (2008), edited by James E. Katz, an author used to explore mobile communication through essays elaborated by specialized scholars, has four sections. Besides that cited, the other three ones deal with co-presence and sociability, politics and social change, culture and imagination.
In the midst of sad discussions about our downturn, we have found very interesting the section treats development of Icts in countries normally living without their benefits. Although we can’t consider the evolution only under a technology-push view, technology often represents an essential presuppose of innovation and growth. Success of this dynamics is so clear that many international Ict companies are re-addressing their investments to develop and offer mobile terminal and services “designed” for the peculiar needs of these geographical areas. According to UN, mobile media are seen as “a basic necessity” around the world generating persistent strong demand throughout an economic downturn. “‘With or without a recession,’ millions of people in India, China, Nigeria, and other emerging markets will seek out mobile phones, according to the International Telecommunication Union” (Cell phone demand to stay strong despite downturn: U.N 2009). On the other side, although revenue margins have to face small quantity for person, the number of people living there suggests big hype.
In India, where mobile market reached the second place in the world ranking, telcos have signed 10 million of new users only on September 2008, “the same amount of people that a good European telco can hope to have after some years of activity”, while many “ad hoc” services have been launched, for example Reuters Market Light that, managed by a Nokia partner, “serves 40-50 thousands of customers in Maharashtra and Punjab States reporting update prices of 50 products for 200 rupees every three months. Soon service will cover also Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradeshin” (Lo sviluppo appare nel display del cellulare 2008). The same source reports that GSMA, the association of all mobile operators, foresees that 80% of all new mobile users will come from emerging countries.
On the other side, mobile technology diffusion can stimulate original initiatives and ideas to involve  people now connected to digital networks in work activities otherwise unthinkable. An example is  Txteagle, that offers to companies and privates the possibilities to distribute some tasks need human intelligence (categorization, translation in particular languages etc.) to these new subjects by textual cell phone interactions.txteagle
Then, we’ll try to penetrate the density of trend with help of these contributes, starting from the statement that “the diffusion of mobile communication and internet had no comparison in any other domain of human activities”. In the last 15 years Ict has been a key element for economical development, and in the domestic budget the very sector rose more than other primary services as health, house and food. Yet, if internet penetration has reached worldwide 15% of population, mobile adoption (30%) doubled because involved massively also emerging countries overcoming geographical, socio-demographical (genre, revenue, age) and economical (service costs, GDP, etc.) aspects. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tell us Tlc gap between developed countries and emerging nations was 33 in 1995, reducing to 3 in 2005.
Mobile communication has been a key factor: wireless users reached three billion lines before fixed ones, and around 80% of world population is covered by wireless infrastructures. The rest of areas, that collect 20% of people, is scarcely populated and hardly justifies a real logic of return of investments. Without a public policy, private investors will not find convenient to intervene in these areas thinking of a personal wealth of 1-2 dollars per day, the common condition characterizing about 2 billion of poor people.

Third World in the Fourth World
In the last tome of his trilogy dedicated to information age, End of millennium, sociologist Manuel Castells – following empirical evidences about inequality in access and exploitation of resource and knowledge regarding digital network – outlines the constitution of a “Fourth World” including social subjects that, in rich and poor countries, remain out” of the new wealth. In effect, new digital networks integrate and synchronize information, production and exchange. Then, people, factories and nations tend to organize themselves around them challenging the very power of State-Nation, transforming (but not substituting) factory system, changing (but not eliminating) human space-time experiences. How is Fourth World of Third World?
Referring to strong trends of Ict adoption in these areas, including very difficult one as Sub-Sahara region, it’s evident that person-to-person communication and low costs are the real key factors. Then, on this basic form of communication other needs can be satisfied: business, education, social and governmental institutions. In regions where people live in and of contingency, mobile communication is an ideal ally to manage and increase customers and suppliers, intercepting new job opportunities, having critical information on market pricing or, more generically, breaking isolation, calling ambulance, consulting an expert, coordinating remittances or checking the status of loved but distanced people. But, as many researchers explain, to guarantee the success is low costs for connecting local people instead of expansion and amplitude of action space (roaming). Then, we can see the effects in terms of trade, efficiency of transport and more distributed economical development, as well as reduction of isolation and increase of security for persons and organizations. Of course, all kind of contacts and coordination of international economical activities have chances to improve.
Yet, despite this positive correlation between economics/wealth and Ict infrastructure, we would consider many other factors to evaluate the real obstacles to mobile communication, first of all education. To be clear, all typical infrastructures of a community are fundamental for communication, namely the co-presence of health care, transport and power systems, financial and security institutions, etc. Mobile application as m-health, m-government, m-learning, m-commerce are useful only if enough supported by a network of physical organizations. On the other side, Icts can be considered a key factor in the research field, helping to institute and coordinate wider networks of knowledge.
In any case, at least for the next 10 years, mobile communication will be the only possibility to access telecommunication infrastructures in the poorest areas. Moreover, positive correlation between wireless density and economical participation in these regions are creating original cooperation between big telcos and small local tlc operators in order to independently share business risks. With reference to an Ict framework that follows the structure of consolidated power, crystallizing itself as the main blood arteries, mobile can be seen as a process forming capillaries. At the same time, understanding these micro-economical and socio-cultural aspects is not only a peculiar topic of mobile phone theory but revealing fundamental dynamics in many fields interested by the big change in global economical policy after the rising of India and China and the impacts following movements and re-modulations between rural areas and cities. If we think of “Fourth World”, as Castells affirms, “conscious actions” and “public deliberative policies” can contrast the typical polarization and isolation that information society makes.

Report form regions: Ghana
Ghana, first African State to obtain independence (1957), has about 21 millions of people (91 person for km2). The teledensity – index relating phone lines every 100 people – was 0.3 lines per in 1994, as in 1954. In 2004, 10 years after, fixed lines are 1.5, mobile lines 8 and internet accesses 1.5 (ITU 2004). Phone boots were 25 in 1997, rising to 5000 two years later. Now, adoption rate of mobile communication is twice then developed countries. There is a relevant difference between rural area and cities but, generally, mobile communication is well-suited for people don’t have fixed points of reference and used to communicate by voice. The structure of trading has a key role, highlighting complex and important institutions organized for gender and races, with specific leaders for every kind of goods. Travelling for exchanging goods is a big, busy business for wholesale vendors, while a great role is reserved to women in the retail phase. All the network is based on personal links both in terms of goods exchanges and information, so trust and reputation are fundamental.
Besides face-to-face communication, written documents (messages, letters, fax etc.), with all relative problems – access to people that can write, problems of privacy, errors of transmission -, played a main role for orders, credits and information about goods. Moreover, travels made to satisfy market needs are a relevant part of total ones (23%). As consequence, Tlc infrastructural poverty causes an information lackness that undermines people’s ordinary life and their vital commercial activities because of every possible contingencies and opacity regarding operation and variability of quantity, demand, pricing, transport conditions etc.
Icts enable new practices of trading even if there are big differences between retail and wholesale operators based on revenue. In general terms, every 100 people run commercial activities there are 2 fixed lines/faxes and 17 mobile lines – 2 persons have both options. Given the high costs of Tlc services, people often use phone only to receive calls and “flashing” – calling to request a call back – and signalling by ringtones are a common practice. The alternative of personal technologies is public “com center” (communication center), small rooms of 2×2 meters collocated inside commercial market, where sensitive information communication is a insoluble problem.
Generally, speaking about reduction of information poverty can mean to overcome mouth-word and travelling to guarantee the flow of information regarding commercial orders and contracts; contrasting volatile information on transactions need continue updating because of new events, requests or impediments relative to goods. On the other hand, the different conditions of regional connectivity produce disparities: disconnected areas see a diminution of demand in favour of reachable operators, making situation even more dramatic. The control of means and information is decisive, a factor that can redesign power because unequal accesses reinforce unequal power relations.
Finally, the study conducted in Ghana proves that Icts can considerably improve life and wealth of people increasing efficiency and profitability by substituting travels with electronic communication. The access of Tlc networks allows an improvement for the conditions of poorest peasants while, generally, mobile communication reduces information asymmetry and costs improving their competitive position. Nonetheless, Ict development and policy access have to advance homogeneously to avoid the risk to penalize specific geographical areas. Face-to-face relations remain important – partner screening, reputation care, taking responsibilities, valuation of behaviour, stipulation of contracts etc. – but mobile communication reduces very much travels made to obtain less sensitive information. Moreover, research proves that new space-time conditions depend strongly on economical and geographical factors. Nonetheless company benefits, it is also clear that market philosophy can’t be the only option to develop Ict infrastructures because there are rural areas that can’t attract private capital investments requiring a strong public policy to solve the impasse.

Report from South China
In South China migrant workers of Guangdong represent the poorest classes but register the highest increment in terms of mobile communication adoption in the entire country. We remind that a mobile terminal costs 3-4 times the monthly salary. DongGuann, a typical city of migrants plenty of farms, has 7 millions of residents. This environment has been valued a good place to see how social network can be created and modified by adoption of mobile communication having a direct clues about effects on people’s lives. Generally speaking, the study found a remarkable improvement of contacts between workers and original communities, as well as constitution of new social networks in the city, often prolongation of work friendships. Mobile communication has a key role also in the labour field, above all for temporary activities as part-time and odd-jobs because people can manage better life between spare and busy time.
In China emigration in West regions and from central to Est areas have had an increasingly growth starting from 30 millions of people to 140 ones (1930-2000). Economical reforms changed the patrilinear family structure . Young people are often the major contributors of family budget, stimulating claims and autonomy. Icts devices (tv, mobile) reduced cultural and ideological gaps among areas once quite sealed (rural zones and cities), producing effects on migration strategies. They happen not only, even if mainly, to obtain some economical improvements, but also for cultural and experiential reasons, for example to escape from legacy including social constraints and possibilities to be judged.
First of all, it is convenient to say that emigrant’s life is very hard dwelling in a condition of intense activity and hostile environment, in strange places where people feel desolation and insecurity. Then, contacts obtained by mobile communication are essential to recapture primary affects and have supports, as well as managing the new social network. Fixed lines are always very busy and doesn’t offer the same availability, while having a mobile terminal means to be able to catch every possibilities to organize meetings. Now, the frequent change of job and farm doesn’t impede to remain in touch, above all via Sms. At the same time, mobile communication improving contacts is useful to find new job or face dark periods. Before it, finding job was possible primarily by formal channels, including going in front of farm entrance; now, leaving own mobile phone number, people can be easily called. But mobile technologies became also an element to face work abuses, as well as to contract better salaries following market opportunities. indeed, mobile networks have obtained more rights than other legacy social organizations.
There is a peculiar sector of workers that have found this technology particularly suited: odd workers. The condition of odd worker, research affirms, is often a well accepted option by people, and very used in Chinese production model. This qualification often hides specialized workers that prefer being much paid for a brief period to exploit more free time. In any case, being able to grasp this demand becomes essential and cell phone – substituting pager – is an indispensable tool permitting to develop a network of contacts involving thousands workers constituting a very alternative manpower organization.

Illiteracy as barrier to mobile communication
Illiteracy is a huge obstacle for mobile communication expansion in emerging market where lackness of formal education is chronic – for UNESCO illiterate people in countries as India, China, Brazil, Indonesia etc. are 800 millions; India alone had 270 millions in 2004. Instead of speaking of illiteracy, a better thing could be insert people in a kind of category defined “textual illiterate”. This category of people has interested a Nokia research conducted in 2004-2005 in India, Nepal and China aims to understand their peculiar user experience in ordinary life.
Indeed, beside the evident benefit of vocal communication, people having problems with written symbols (letters and numbers) live a hard relationship with the ordinary functional phone context, for example in synchronic communication but also in asynchronic one as planning or organization of phone addresses. There is not only a question of preclusion toward written communication (Sms) but of understanding a less structured way to know, of exploring a world in which tactile, visual and aural feedbacks are fundamental, where intermediation of other people counts, as well as the peculiar forms and function of the same phone terminal. Illiteracy derives mainly from lackness of investments in structures of formal education that, at least, can support a basic knowledge that, for United Nations, consents people to understand, read and write a brief description regarding a generic ordinary life situation. Moreover, as research affirms, there is a great difference between rural and urban life; for example, in China it would be sufficient 150 characters to describe a typical rural situation while a urban scene would request around 2000 ones. Another huge obstacle is the need to gain life since youth.
User experience study requires a local immersion to catch real habits and difficulties in live environment. Illiterate mobile user problems derive not only from interface design but even from the state of cell phone. They buy frequently used mobile terminal that have poor visual symbols because of their old state and, at the same time, phone lines are so bad to oblige multiple digitisations starting a spiral of errors. Icon interfaces could seem a good answer but actually “soft keys” are always associated with other visual, written explanations. Moreover, many functions hide an entire universe of abstraction, for example Gprs network predisposition. Indeed, user experience studies have to understand the world from the real perspective of illiterate people.
In general, there are many aspects that characterize the life of this kind of people, first of all regularity in terms of behaviour and places. The regular patterns insist on a stable network of relationships in which other fellows can activate some help. Doing different things demands both major revenues – unaffordable with the secondary jobs of illiterate people – and ability to face new situations, moving in unknowable environments requiring some symbolic competence to finalize actions.
Nevertheless, there are not only limits but this studies discovery even an extraordinary abilities to utilize a “parallel universe” of clues (forms, surfaces, density, smells etc.) to “navigate”, as well as excellent qualities of intelligence and memory, although they result less flexible in context where options and failures abound, a quite normal situation in context supported by technical infrastructures and devices. The use of cell phone beyond access and answering involves different levels of activities with different levels of difficulties. Generally, local calls are much easier than international ones because they are more stable in terms of number variations, prefixes, and length of numeration. Local contacts full phone address book, often filled with the help of friends and quite impermeable to new adds given the difficulties to intervene without intermediation. Contacts are often replicated on paper, and phone numbers associated with peculiar signs or colours in order to make them recognizable. In effect, presenting a piece of paper containing phone number to operator in public phone boot is a common habit, even if operation can be hard because bad documentation in terms of wrong numbers or status of support.
Finally, mobile terminal designers have to understand a complete framework including people operating in their circle, having a model that can help them to set the best strategies to create functions that activate a synergetic relation between tactile, audio and visual clues of devices and human feedbacks. One of the big limit that illiterate users have than others is the scarce capacity to adopt the “trial and error” method to explore functions because each trial could become a unmanageable, even dangerous, condition. The improvement of devices for this peculiar category of users passes through simplicity, making them basilar in terms of function: activation/answering call; reduction of “soft keys”; high capacity battery; device automatic setting; audio feedback for menu (the great number of languages is a real problem…). For this purpose, audio-visual message could be another solution. In any case, device simplification must avoid to be much evident becoming a “stigma” to individuate a sub-class of users that, at this point, would refuse the mobile phone.

Uses and meanings of cell phone in the poor region of cities: Philippine case
While attention to understand how young people use cell phone in rich countries, we know very little about uses and meanings that urban poor youth gives in the so-called developing country. To partially fill this gap a research has been conducted in Philippines. It is a country strongly influenced by emigration where we can register both high rate of poverty (30% of population) and high rate of mobile adoptions (30%). Philippines has 85 millions of people that send each day 200 millions of Sms messages. Literacy is very high (94%) and Philippines have been defined “text capital of world”: organization of riots via Sms messages against Estrada in 2001 is one of the most cited episode in the world to explain how new media can effect political activism. Indeed, poverty doesn’t arrest the huge desire to obtain and utilize mobile technology.
The most common way to buy a cell phone is instalment locally called payakan – “fall of tears” to mean the difficulties of payments. In effect, urban poor people can gain something only occasionally and on daily basis. So, the real option is to get cell phone on second-hand market. These devices – paid cash and priced around 28-38 dollars – usually are old models in bad condition. Occasionally, new mobile terminal can be bought using remittances but this acquisition penalizes other primary goods. Cell phones are so desiderate that lottery is seen as a viable way to realize this dream! Pawn is an another common option allowing mobile terminals to work as cash because of its high exchangeability.
What rationale justifies cell phone purchase in a so precarious lives? Indeed, it’s just this condition pushing in that direction. The life of poor urban people is full of risks: they can be implicated as passive subjects in gang clashes, robbery, fires. The cell phone promise to increase the control and, in the male mentality, protects the family. On the other hand, mothers underline the possibility to care their children downsizing the level of own stress. But also to update husbands’ health, even if the dialogue via Sms messages with sons and daughters is more intense and effective.
Beside these functional reasons, cell phone as status symbol emerges strongly evidencing the desire to near lives of rich people – a wealthy and well-known world in which some poor people work daily -, possibly using the same device models. As everywhere, young people are the mastery of technology. The first things people learn about cell phone is texting: in effect, voice calls are used only in urgent cases and for little time. In the family it’s common to share cell phone while youth results to strongly suffer the lackness of cutting edge phones, as much as to feel embarrassed of their old models.
Given the user condition of structural poverty, Tlc providers developed original methods of payment. Of course, with users that live with irregular and daily wages, often without a fixed address, prepaid system is the main solution. Women are the big consumers of phone traffic. Although accused to be too chattery losting in contact with the neighbourhood, men forgive them because the alternative should be their physical mobility. Part of credit is used also to buy secondary gadgets as logos and ringtones. Scolded for chattery women reject accusation to gossip defining it a social engagement, a way to know about common events, to help and assist spiritually, also a kind of social exploration. The wide margin of move has two excuses: their function of children control and lightening of their domestic condition – cell phone as means of news updating and social expansion. In any case, discussions about the fair use and correct budget attribution between the “fundamental” tasks of man and the more “peripheral” function of woman are always livelily. Women also tries to maintain an intense exchange of Sms messages with their husbands in order to control their big mobility. Nevertheless, they speak of betrayals as an inevitable event . On the other hand, cell phone embodies the very threat of love relationships.
Considerations around the desire to have fashionable mobile terminals are very interesting. In general, the challenge has lived as unreachable target: poor people will have certain models of cell phone only when they will be obsolete. Yet, this ambition rises a big contrast because of the moral scandal to will something that hits primary needs. On the other hand, having a video cell phone among friends that don’t use the same technologies is useless, while there is a high probability to stimulate suspects of being a bad guy.
In this condition of great economical sufferance, mobile providers offers some options to add small amount of credit (micro-credit) on Sim-card. The so-called e-loads can value 0.5$ to consume in 3 days and there are also credit sharing among friends (share-load) of 0.28$ valid 24 hours. Indeed, Tlc providers create different commercial strategies for different user segments because some people are always in the red zone challenging continuously Sim-card expiration. Nevertheless, they act frequent campaigns to recall the imminent stop of service, provoking a tremendous psychological pressure highly annoying. Cell phone has seen as a means of protection but, paradoxically, bringing it is a motive to suffer robbery or attempts of assault because of its appealing and exchangeability. Finally, although critics for consumeristic aspects, it is impossible to negate that, even for the poorest people, cell phones became an increasingly important part of their life.


“Lo sviluppo appare nel display del cellulare”, in Nova Il sole 24 ore, 20/11/2008, p. 7.

Castells, M., 1998, End of Millennium, Oxford and Malden, Mass., Blackwell Publishers.

“Cell phone demand to stay strong despite downturn: U.N”, 16/2/2009, Reuters.

Katz, J. E., ed., 2008, Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies, Cambridge, Mass, The Mit Press.