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Jonathan Donner on the mobile internet and its limitations

May 26, 2013

I’m on the train back from an excellent doctoral workshop and conference on mobile telephony in the developing world organised by Laura Stark and colleagues at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) this 23-25 May 2013.

My own contribution was a keynote titled “Mobile phones and actual changes (big and small) in the global South: a preliminary exploration“.

I’ll try to post some brief reflections on my take on the topic as well as on the conference as a whole in the near future, but meanwhile here are some notes from Jonathan Donner‘s (Microsoft Research) closing keynote, titled “Everybody’s Internet: Mobile data in the developing world“.

1.   Great presentation, combining in-depth knowledge of mobiles in global South with theoretical and practical sophistication; the idea of mobile data as potential research area (“mobile data is coming”) was new to me, and I suspect to others in the audience. Looks very promising.

2.   Also found intriguing Donner’s point about mobile-only internet access comparing unfavourably with PC-and-mobile access. In other words, there is a lot of rhetoric out there about how mobiles have bridged the digital divide in Africa and other developing regions, but the truth is that mobiles are good for access, but bad for data manipulation. To go beyond simplistic binaries of internet access vs. non-access he introduced the notion of ‘spectrum of digital affordances’.

3.   Got me thinking about the epistemic divide between internet studies (or internet research) and mobile studies, and their focus on the network vs. the device respectively. Why don’t we hear of PC studies or mobile network studies? Which relates to Donner’s point about the importance of not getting too fixated on the devices at the expense of the infrastructure.

4.  Donner also pointed out that when you look at how people use the internet in poor countries, you realise that there are not one but many internets (which is not something internet freedom fighters in the global North usually take into account, in my experience). We need to disaggregate in our research the artefact, not treat the mobile as a monolith (Donner 2008), ie what do we mean by ‘mobile phone’ when we present our research? Do we mean voice calls, P2P, SMS, apps?

5. This got me thinking about Miller and Slater’s (2000) The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach, in which they describe the internet as a symbolic unity but practical multiplicity, or words to that effect. Could we say that they are also right, in that there is only one internet (on one level) but at the same time there are many internets (on another, e.g.. when it comes to the limited data manipulation options for mobile-only users in poor countries)? Incidentally, where does the internet killer app known as the Web fit into all of this?

6.  On the other hand, let’s not forget the marked differences within and among rich countries either, e.g. rural vs. urban dwellers in many rich countries, or frustrated South Koreans living in Australia who complain that what the Australians have isn’t really the internet! (they should try North Korea sometime for a real shocker).

7. It’s all very well, adds Donner, to celebrate how micro-entrepreneurs in the developing world benefit from mobile phones but they are still hampered by the technical and organisational limitations that go with their line of work, not least their relative data poverty: “Walmart don’t run their business on mobiles”. Yet I’m wondering whether compering micro-businesses with Walmart is a fair comparison.

8.  Methodologically, the strategy of revisiting three recent-past case studies armed with a new conceptual repertoire was music to my ears — see notes on my keynote in a future blog post in which I urge mobile and other digital media researchers not to conflate the past, the present and the future in their efforts to theorise their findings, and to spend more time studying actual mobile-related changes (big and small, positive and negative), that have already taken place in the recent past.

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