Thanks to Jenna Burrell of UC Berkeley for putting together a great panel “On the Ground Accounts of the Mobile Phone Revolution in Africa” at the 4S/ESST meeting in Rotterdam last week.  

Jenna spoke about her current fieldwork (with an emphasis on mobile phone sharing) in Rural Uganda. Wesley Shrum of LSU shared some initial findings about increased sociability among mobile users in Nairobi.  Tom Molony of the University of Edinburgh spoke about mobile use on the streets of Dar es Salaam, with an emphasis on how some small enterprises took advantage of the ‘mobility’ as opposed to simply the connectivity functions of the device.

I did a bit of a re-synthesis of my Africa studies, combining the small enterprises surveys with the open-ended interviews to illustrate how varied (and incomplete) our understanding of mobile’s role in development remains.   I contrasted the kinds of high-clarity results available from narrowly focused papers like Jenson’s Digital Provide (which focuses narrowly but so effectively on one independent variable (mobile Use) and one depended variable (price of fish) with broader explorations. These broader approaches so far either place mobile use in context of other communication behaviors like face to face interactions and internet use,  or expand the range of behaviors under examination to include both instrumental (enterprise/developmental) uses and intrinsic and/or social uses.  This broadening comes with a cost, of course, as the ‘impact’ of mobile use is harder to isolate.  Initial slides are here.

Unfortunately, a few others Mohammed Mohammed from Intel, Hsain Ilahiane from  Iowa State University and our discussant Don Slater were unable to attend the panel and were each missed, both during the session and during the lively chats occurring afterward, over coffee.

Congrats to Jenna, by the way, for winning the Nicholas C. Mullins Award,  given by the Society for the Social Studies of Science for “an outstanding piece of scholarship by a graduate student in the field of Science and Technology Studies.”  Her paper explored “West African Internet Scams as Grassroots Media Production