Democratic cell phones & third world generalizations

April 21, 2010 at 5:17 am 4 comments

[Image source] It is not rare that we are all placed in the same “bag”. That we are called “the developing world”, or other names like that, not recalling on the enormous differences within this categories. Countries with the highest inequality rates are all located either in Africa or South America , which can be seen at a first glance. Using the UN Gini coefficient [Human Development Report in 2009] we can see that the Top 15 ranking for the most unequal countries is the following:

01. Namibia [AF]
02. Lesotho [AF]
03. Sierra Leone [AF]
04. Central African Republic [AF]
05. Botswana [AF]
06. Bolivia [SA]
07. Haiti [CAR]
08. Colombia [SA]
09. Paraguay [SA]
10. South Africa [AF]
11. Brazil [SA]
12. Panama [CA]
13. Guatemala [CA]
14. Chile [SA]
15. Ecuador [SA]

Nearly half of the most unequal countries are American, either South or Central. The other 6 are African. Dr. Hans Rosling is the creator of the fantastic “Gapminder” , a visualizing tool for statistical interpretation and meaning creation. The actual concentration of his work is on “dispelling common myths about the so-called developing world”, which is not “longer worlds away from the west”.

His data [factual] shows that our “third world countries” are “catching up” faster compared to the progress that the first world countries had in years. Even Chile, my own country, seems like a prosperous nation getting into a high-speed progress [Check out the video, he even does something incredible at the end]. This seems like a favorable panorama, yet it seems that inequality is our biggest problem. How can we leave inequality behind when access is limited to some individuals? To understand how to solve these issues, we need to “be with the people”, feel our people. Take an empathic standpoint, something of what design-anthropology does. Understand people in order to provide pertinent and suitable solutions.

Are cell phones the answer for everyone?
Not long ago, in a blog talking about Africa and the use of cell phones an African claimed that there was a full range of ignorance of these particular Western individuals while referring to a “non-techno” Africa: “… I live in Kenya and almost every one has a cell phone. I go to a public university and almost every student there (+ 80%) has a laptop and we are all supposed to be living in the big slum you created in your head.” It’s not rare that the approach on working with poverty tends to fall in crazy generalizations. And this is not right. To this type of assumptions, Gosling asserts in his TED lecture:

-. “ I have a neighbor that knows 200 types of wines, I only know two types, red and white. But my neighbor only knows two types of countries developed and underdeveloped… but I know 200!” .- Rosling

We can’t generalize! We can’t misread communities. That can be one of the biggest pitfalls that social innovation projects undertaken in academic contexts may face. We can’t talk about Ghana the same way we do with Kenya or in the same way we read Ecuador. We have to be particularly careful when designing for communities that are not our own. One thing is true though, a lot of us carry cell phones. But can they be a platform for everybody? Maybe they can, cell phones are democratic. They have permeated all the tiers of the economic pyramid. And even though we behave differently with them [we might have prepaid cards, year plans, smart phones or very simple phones] almost every one of us have one. Our purposes might change, yet, in an interconnected world, we all have become to need it. For some might mean a way to find work, for others a mean for trade or business, to many a better trait against paying a land-line that either: is not there [rural areas] or it is unaffordable to pay monthly. Either by these or other reasons,

-. “In 1999 less than 10 percent of rural Africans lived in areas with mobile phone coverage. Today, that number is more than 60 percent” .- Africa Calling, Boston Review

Gosling mentions that one of the ways to bridge the way out of poverty is technology. Cell phones provide the platform to help this happen. They can help provide remote access to information that in other ways people won’t have, etc. People already have them, and they are getting used to their interfaces [learning curve], so half of the work is done. Maybe we have to think in cell phones not as the product they are today, but as a node in the interconnected network for community building. It is the moment to think in mobile-based services, remote education, health prevention systems and even public services.

It is not rare to see the most fierce approaches taken in Africa as it has the highest rate on mobile penetration growth. Mobile devices seem to be a platform that can help to decrease the relation between access and income. Should policy makers think about it? Are they? This entry is not willing to provide any solutions, at least not now. But I would like to place these facts in consideration: First, Cell phones are democratic and second, communities, and the “developing world” are micro-segmented, so they can’t be treated as a whole when trying to forge solutions.

Visit some useful applications or ways to use the cell phones like Google SMS , Google: Designing mobile APPS for Africa


Entry filed under: Design Research, Social Design.

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contact + citing (CC license)

Constanza Miranda PhD(c) design.anthro
* Currently @ DILAB
* Ex.VR @ Stanford's Center for Design Research [DesignXLab]
* Ex.Instructor @ PUC Chile [Design+Engineering]
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Design for Social Innovation initiative by Constanza Miranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at

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