On this World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (May 17), I have a confession to make. I carry a murder weapon on my person every day and night, and I go to bed with it next to me within easy reach. I rely on it for my work, my leisure and my pleasure. And I won’t part with it under any circumstances.
Neither would more than 3.3 billion people worldwide — or half of humanity.
I’m talking about the humble and increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone, now the world’s most widely used and fastest spreading consumer technology item.
And if any paranoid law enforcement agency worries about its murder potential…relax, people – we are talking figuratively here!
How come it’s a murder weapon when it has no sharp edges and is too light weight to do much damage?
What the mobile has already stabbed, and is in the process of effectively finishing off, is the development sector’s over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon called the ‘telecentre’.
For those outside the charmed development circles (which is most of humanity), the Wikipedia describes telecentre as “a public place where people can access computers, the Internet and other digital technologies that enable people to gather information, create, learn and communicate with others while they develop essential 21st century digital skills.”
So how is the mobile phone slowly killing the telecentres, into which governments, the United Nations agencies and other development organisations have pumped tens of millions of dollars of development aid money in the past decade?
Well, it’s rapidly making telecentres redundant by putting most or all of their services into literally pocket-sized units. If everyone could carry around a miniaturised, personalised gadget that has the added privacy value, why visit a community access point?
She argued that, although telecentres, which have become the bright “stars” in many e-development programs in Asian countries, do have a role to play in providing ‘higher’-end citizen services to people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand, telephones are the cheaper, immediate and ubiquitous tool for Asian governments to inform, transact and interact with almost 400 million of their most needy citizens.
And in these emerging Asian economies, when we talk of telephones it’s predominantly mobiles. In my native Sri Lanka, for example, there were 10.7 million phone subscribers by end 2007 – of them, almost 8 million were mobile users. Mobiles outnumber fixed phones by 3 to 1, and the disparity continues to widen.
‘Mobile kills the telecentre star‘ was the title of Helani’s presentation – it’s a play on a 1979 song celebrating the golden era of radio, “Video killed the radio star.” For the trivia buffs, it was the first music video shown on MTV.
The song has been the subject of various parodies, and Helani’s isn’t the first or last. But in this instance, I would heartily cheer the rapid demise of the telecentre, which is both conceptually and operationally flawed in many developing countries where it has been tried out. (While at it, let me repeat something that baffles me: how is it that not a single development donor or UN agency foresaw the phenomenal rise of mobile phones in the majority world, and instead bet all their ICT money on computers and internet? And why can’t some of them still appreciate the potential of mobiles, keep harping on obsolete telecentres and other troubled initiatives like One Laptop Per Child?).
It’s also worth noting that hard core development activists were initially against mobile phones, arguing instead for more public payphones, especially in rural areas. Only very recently have they started acknowledging that, just maybe, mobile phone can create or improve jobs, generate incomes and move millions out of poverty. In the humanitarian sector, as I wrote in October 2007, aid workers are still uncertain how to make best use of mobiles in their relief work.
Why are mobile phones somehow not ‘sexy enough’ for these men and women in suits who typically look at our real world problems from 33,000 feet above the ground?
But hey, why bother with doomed concepts like telecentres, when we can instead discuss about the lively and vibrant mobiles? (When the telecentres finally die after being kept on life support by gullible aid donors for a few more years, I hope to write a suitable obituary.)
Meanwhile, who’s afraid of mobile phones except the failed prophets of development and unimaginative humanitarian workers? There’s a handful of crusty, old fashioned people, usually those who can’t figure out just how to use the new fangled devices that do a lot more than just talk. Then there are tyrannical governments who fear the power of instant communication being in the hands of their own people.
The rest of us have now adjusted to Life After the Mobile Arrived. We may love it, or love to hate it — but can we imagine life without it?
And since we’re a blog about moving images, here’s a short film that I wrote and TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007. It was filmed in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and was based on
LIRNEasia’s path-breaking 2006 survey on telephone use at the bottom of the pyramid in emerging Asia. We
premiered at the 3rd Global Knowledge conference in Kuala Lumpur in December 2007.
The film’s synopsis reads:
With the next billion telecom users expected mainly from the emerging markets, we urgently need to understand telecom use, especially at the bottom of the pyramid. Who is using what devices for which purposes — and how much are they willing or able to pay? Capturing highlights of LIRNEasia’s 2006 survey in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, this film shows that when it comes to phone use, the poor are not very different from anyone else.
Teleuse@BOP Part 1 of 2
Teleuse@BOP Part 2 of 2
And now, just when you think I’m a harmless mobile junkie, here’s my real confession:
I own more than one mobile phone (hey, doesn’t everybody?) and stashed away in my travel bag I have a collection of SIM cards with active mobile accounts in half a dozen Asian countries that I visit regularly.
One day soon, when there are enough people like myself moving across jealously guarded political borders, those ITU statistics on ICTs would become seriously skewed….
TVE Asia Pacific News: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets
Teleuse@BOP Film screened at GK3
LIRNEasia 2006 survey on telephone use at the bottom of the pyramid in emerging Asia