Cellphones Save The World

“Can The Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” A provocative title to Sara Corbett’s New York Times Magazine article, which focuses on the work done by Jan Chipchase. And who is Jan Chipchase? Besides being a Brit and working for Nokia, he is a combo “human-behavior researcher” and “user-anthropologist.” Sounds almost as bad as neuroanthropology.

But what does he actually do? “His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company — to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia.”

Corbett’s article impressed me, so I am going to provide an annotated version below, coupled with some of my own interpretations and then sent out to all of you. But to basically summarize everything, our world is going to see a transformation through the convergence of four factors: people-driven processes, change for the rest of us, human-centered science, and emerging methods.

All four of these are age-old, but now, reformed and resurgent, they will help shape our world in years to come. Welcome to the new globalization. It lurks behind the bright lights, big city view peddled in academia and media alike.

People-Driven Processes

Chipchase engages in “on-the-ground intelligence-gathering” to help promote “human-centered design.” This “business-world niche that has become especially important to ultracompetitive high-tech companies trying to figure out how to write software, design laptops or build cellphones that people find useful and unintimidating and will thus spend money on.”

The crucial change is the move away from top-down design: “Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company — loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be — the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop owner’s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they’re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.”

A wonderful example is Chipchase setting up an Open Design Studio in Ghana with the logo “Your Dream Phone. Share it with the world.” Corbett writes how “the community was invited to come share ideas and drawings for the ideal mobile phone. Prizes were offered. So far, 140 people had shown up to sketch their dream phone.”

Later in the article, she writes, “[W]hen I paged through the fat three-ring binders where the Nokia team was storing those sketches, it was evident that the future, or at least some vision of it, had already arrived. Some of the drawings were basic pencil sketches; others were strikingly elaborate, with arrows pointing to different dream features, which were really just a way of pointing — I realized then — to the dreams themselves.”

Change for the Rest of Us

Corbett’s article is rare because it brings us face-to-face with the change happening outside the major economies. And that change is happening fast.

Just like Toyota brought “just in time” manufacturing to the automobile world, so cell phones are driving “just in time” coordination among people. “Jan Chipchase and his user-research colleagues at Nokia can rattle off example upon example of the cellphone’s ability to increase people’s productivity and well-being, mostly because of the simple fact that they can be reached. There’s the live-in housekeeper in China who was more or less an indentured servant until she got a cellphone so that new customers could call and book her services. Or the porter who spent his days hanging around outside of department stores and construction sites hoping to be hired to carry other people’s loads but now, with a cellphone, can go only where the jobs are.”

More than that, this bottom-up economic development is becoming an increasingly major player. The king of microfinance, Mohammed Yanus, has certainly embraced it. “Quadir posed a simple question to Yunus — If a woman can invest in a cow, why can’t she invest in a phone? — that led to the 1996 creation of Grameen Phone Ltd. and has since started the careers of more than 250,000 ‘phone ladies’ in Bangladesh, which is considered one of the world’s poorest countries. Women use microcredit to buy specially designed cellphone kits costing about $150, each equipped with a long-lasting battery. They then set up shop as their village phone operator, charging a small commission for people to make and receive calls. The endeavor has not only revolutionized communications in Bangladesh but also has proved to be wildly profitable: Grameen Phone is now Bangladesh’s largest telecom provider, with annual revenues of about $1 billion.”

Cellphones are even decentralizing banking. “Already companies like Wizzit, in South Africa, and GCash, in the Philippines, have started programs that allow customers to use their phones to store cash credits transferred from another phone or purchased through a post office, phone-kiosk operator or other licensed operator. With their phones, they can then make purchases and payments or withdraw cash as needed. Hammond of the World Resources Institute predicts that mobile banking will bring huge numbers of previously excluded people into the formal economy quickly, simply because the latent demand for such services is so great, especially among the rural poor.”

As Allen Hammond at the World Resources Institute says, “I’m predicting that mobile-phone banking will add a billion banking customers to the system in five years. That’s how big it is.”

This combination of technology and people leads to inevitable change in our own lives. “As cellphone technology grows increasingly sophisticated, it has cannibalized — for better or worse — the technologies that have come before it. Carrying a full-featured cellphone lessens your needs for other things, including a watch, an alarm clock, a camera, video camera, home stereo, television, computer or, for that matter, a newspaper. With the advent of mobile banking, cellphones have begun to replace wallets as well.”

Human-Centered Science

Human-centered science is marked by both what it is and what it is not. It is: problem centered, people oriented, and ethically engaged. In other words, it looks more like our everyday lives, an interdisciplinary mish-mash that makes sense most of the time. It is not: disciplinary specific, overly reductive, or based on cause-effect explanation.

Jan Chipchase demonstrates both of these characteristics in action. He is focused on a very specific problem, the use and design of cellphones in emerging economies, and he draws on photography, interviews, observation, participant feedback, design experimentation, and many other approaches to analyze his problem. He is not caught up in a debate over what culture causes or rationality causes. Those are the old debates, and they don’t help with his problem.

What does help is being people oriented, rather than conforming to the constraints of a particular theoretical area in one discipline. For example, he does not just bring photos back to show the Nokia designers back in Finland. “Almost always, some explanation is necessary. A Mississippi bowling alley, he will say, is a social hub, a place rife with nuggets of information about how people communicate. A photograph of the contents of a woman’s handbag is more than that; it’s a window on her identity, what she considers essential, the weight she is willing to bear.”

Those explanations come from people, and they rely on context. Chipchase makes this argument through his use of “identity,” which is not set by personality, nor determined by culture. “Having a call-back number, Chipchase likes to say, is having a fixed identity point, which, inside of populations that are constantly on the move — displaced by war, floods, drought or faltering economies — can be immensely valuable both as a means of keeping in touch with home communities and as a business tool.

Chipchase provides one example of prostitute ads in a Brazilian phone booth. “Those are just names, probably fake names, coupled with real cellphone numbers — lending to Chipchase’s theory that in an increasingly transitory world, the cellphone is becoming the one fixed piece of our identity.”

In this world of human-centered science, ethics matters. They are brought up for debate, positions are explained, implications considered. “I voiced a careless thought about whether there might be something negative about the lightning spread of technology, whether its convenience was somehow supplanting traditional values or practices. Chipchase raised his eyebrows and laid down his spoon. He sighed, making it clear that responding to me was going to require patience. ‘People can think, yeah, monks with cellphones, and tsk, tsk, and what is the world coming to?’ he said. ‘But if you wanted to take phones away from anybody in this world who has them, they’d probably say: ‘You’re going to have to fight me for it. Are you going to take my sewer and water away too?’ And maybe you can’t put communication on the same level as running water, but some people would. And I think in some contexts, it’s quite viable as a fundamental right.’ He paused a beat to let this sink in, then added, with just a touch of edge, ‘People once believed that people in other cultures might not benefit from having books either’.”

Emerging Methods

Experimental methods and statistical analyses are at core of most human sciences. But didn’t you see a wealth of other methods in what you just read? These emerging methods are based on two basic premises: good description and getting human feedback. Qualitative approaches based on these two premises can be as rigorous and scholarly as experiments and statistical science. And they connect to the real world a lot better, because that is where they are located.

Emerging methods aim at the two main problems that old-school science has not tackled very effectively: coordinated behavior and interpretation. Humans do things together, and we interpret what we do, what others do, and what the world means. Together, coordination and interpretation make the world a very different place than most academics, politicians, and plenty of other super-smart people generally assume. (There’s a reason we hole up in places like an ivory tower or a congress, where the real world is safely kept at bay…)

So let’s take interpretation first. Neuromarketing is getting some hot press recently. Sure, we can present people with brands and then link that to pretty images of the brain, as if that causes brand loyalty alone. But Chipchase did something quite different with the photographs he took. He brought human explanations with them.

And coordinated behavior? That’s the magic of participatory design, harnessing coordinated feedback by people to work for you. No reason to roll out a million copies of a magic wand cellphone and see how that sells. In open design, the answers emerge from the feedback itself.

These qualitative methods can be linked to other ways of doing research, such as the consideration of process (Chipchase is focused on cellphones and communication, I am interested in brains and experience and behavior in context), network analysis, and agent-based modeling. These will play similar roles as experimentation and statistics, allowing us to test and refine our ideas.

One other element is also needed, which I will call expertise rather than knowledge or theory. Even interpretation and feedback can lead to dumb answers, a tyranny of blindness. But expertise can help us cut to the chase, past bewilderment and unease. For Chipchase, it even works in the quick of the moment and through interpreters. He asks the right questions, listens well, and builds off of that: “ ‘How would you use that?’ Chipchase asked through the interpreter, using a dialect called Twi and pointing to the wand phone. The bean seller tentatively lifted it to his ear. ‘Where would you keep it?’ The young man gestured to his neck. ‘On a rope?’ Chipchase said. The man, still looking bewildered, nodded yes.”

Oftentimes power is confused with expertise, and people in power look simply for that yes/no answer and nothing more. But that is why interpretation, coordinated feedback, and expertise together can work magic for human-centered design and innovation.

However, we still live in a world largely set by yes/no. Yes/no hypotheses. Yes/no votes. It gave us a powerful start, I know, over the past couple centuries. But damn, I wish our politicians today would approach problems the way Chipchase does. Not top-down, policy-driven, and ideologically-determined. Imagine the torrent of creativity that could create.

11 thoughts on “Cellphones Save The World


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