After the twenty-hour three-leg flight from Monrovia to Accra to Nairobi to Johannesburg, I arrived smelling like an aborted hippo fetus and with a healthy serving of skepticism about the conference format for Mobile Active 08, the third annual international gathering put on by the good folks behind MobileActive.org.

I realize that when you have three hundred people at a conference you need to split them up into smaller groups, but nine parallel sessions at the same time seemed like exaggeration. Turns out I was completely wrong – the mixture of mini-talks, longer talks, hands-on workshops, and rotating product demonstrations was a natural fit. Much like bananas, peanut butter, and raisons. (Don’t hate.)

The afternoon of the first day I gave a presentation with Juliana Rotich about best practices, tools, and case studies related to mobile phones and citizen media. I was a bit worried that no one would show up with all the other sessions going on at the same time, but I hadn’t given enough weight to the fact that my co-presenter is a blogging star, enviro geek, and super model. We all very quickly came to the conclusion that there are many many tools for mobile reporting and relatively few case studies of individuals or groups using mobile phones to do reporting. Teddy asked if the super abundance of tools available to do something as simple as publishing an SMS message on the internet isn’t actually hampering it from taking place because your average Joe (or Mahmoud for that matter) doesn’t know where to start and is intimidated by the torrent of options. Good question Teddy.

Welcome to the Next Paradigm Shift

The lack of case studies and the infinity of possibilities when it comes to mobile phones makes a lot of sense. After all, compared to personal computers, we are just entering the analogous Windows 95 era of mobile computing. The iPhone is only a year old, Google just launched Android a few weeks ago, and both Symbian and Windows Mobile still receive many complaints from their users.

When the iPhone launched it was so revolutionary that it was basically like jumping from DOS to Windows 3.0. (And if you, kind reader, don’t remember that change, then you have given me one more reminder this week that I am not as young as I still consider myself.) But we are still several years away from the mobile operating system that does everything we need/want it to do. And if you don’t believe me, just get five geeks in a room and ask them what features they’d want if there were no CPU or memory limits.

There is one big difference between the mobile phone today and the transition from DOS to Windows. In 1990 no one had any idea what today’s world of social media would look like. No one predicted the blogosphere, and certainly no one predicted Wikipedia. Today, on the other hand, we have a very good idea of what mobile phones and mobile software will be like in ten years. We even know how to get there. It’s just a matter of doing it. (Of course, computer experts in 1990 also said they knew what would happen 10 years down the road, but they didn’t take social software into consideration.)

Texting 911 and Tower Dependence

Perhaps the most interesting session I participated in was a self-organized discussion proposed by Patrick Meier (who has some very cool data related to Global Voices which will hopefully be published soon) on ‘crisis mapping’. I remember that in the months following the Tsunami in South East Asia there was a long thread on the Digital Divide Network mailing list about how to most effectively use text messages during crises. Nearly four years later and the right tools are finally being developed – thanks largely to extensive conversations which took place on blogs.

NetworkTopology-Mesh.pngThe first impediment to effective use of mobile phones during crises is that they are all connected to each other (and to others) through one very central bottleneck: the cell phone tower. So when those towers go down or when the networks become saturated, voice calls are no longer an option and text messages are delayed if they get delivered at all. This is why some researchers at MIT’s Media Lab are working on developing cell phones which work on a mesh network so that phone calls and data transfer (the same thing really) can be routed through a chain of cell phones rather than via the cell towers of major wireless providers. As you can imagine, companies like AT&T and T-Mobile would not be happy if the technology were widely adopted because it would put an end to their monopoly over how we communicate with one another.

Cheaper, Stronger, Faster

But it would also completely open the doors to the mobile computing revolution. Already the number of mobile subscriptions is greater than half of the world’s population. (Around 3.5 billion mobile phone subscribers.) The cheapest phone is currently around $30 and is limited to voice calls and text messages. In the next year or two that price will fall to around $10 and a $30 phone will be internet-enabled. Then and only then will the real magic happen. Only so much can be done with a text message. 160 characters doesn’t allow for much information to be written or read. But once a phone is connected to the internet, it is capable of just about anything. Access to all the world’s knowledge.

The question then becomes who is able to pay for access to all that information (as well as contribute to it) and who isn’t? The United States is rare in that you can get unlimited data plans for relatively cheap. In most of the world you pay per 100 megabyte packages and only the middle and upper classes can afford it. We’re not just talking about telecom policy anymore; we’re talking about access to educational resources, health information, and government services.

I’m Insecure

My cell phone is now my address book, my diary, my to-do list, my correspondence, and my camera. I try to back it up as often as possible, but still, if I lose it then someone has access to all of that information.

Which turns out to be not such a big deal in my case since I’m not a very private person, but in the case of activists working in Afghanistan it’s a different story. One presenter said he knows of Afghan activists who work for Western NGOs. When they are stopped at Taliban checkpoints the first thing that is checked is their mobile phone. If Western names are among the contacts then the activist is beaten up and all of the names and numbers are taken down and the other Afghans listed on the cell phone are also beaten up.

What is amazing – and I hadn’t thought about this before – is that there is no way of encrypting your contact list on any of the major cell phone operating systems. (An email requesting exactly that has probably arrived in the inboxes of the Google Android developers already. For those of you who say the activist will show the list anyway if he’s being threatened, the solution is to install two different contact lists on a phone – one that is encrypted and hard to find, and one that is not.)

The Bad

One very important discussion was mostly absent from MobileActive 08 and that’s all the bad that the mobile phone revolution carries with it. Most obvious and most ignored is the fact that each and every mobile phone requires a small amount of coltan, which is mostly mined in Africa by young men working in dangerous conditions for incredibly low wages. Now, I’m not anti-mining, but the industry needs much better regulation and we should all be aware that we are contributing to the labor and environmental exploitation every time we buy a cell phone.

coltan mining

Coltan Mining in Congo

Constant communication also means less time for reflection and silence. I frequently turn my phone off and leave it at home to the constant frustration of my friends (“you never pick up your phone” “why don’t you answer” blah, blah, blah) because otherwise I feel like I’m constantly talking without anything to really say.

Which is related to the next point: the more we correspond, the less we value correspondence. Clay Shirky discusses this in Here Comes Everybody when explaining why MoveOn lost its movement. When our grandparents took the time to write letters to their councilmen and women, representatives, and senators those letters mattered because they sat down and invested the time to convey their message. When emails replaced letters, however, it became so easy to copy and paste text and spam the politician of your choice that, according to Shirky, every 200 emails were given the comparable weight of a single letter. (Now it’s probably every 2,000.)

photo.jpgThis year the United Nations organized the text for peace campaign. That’s right: send a text message saying you support peace. And then what? Lord knows. 3.5 billion people could easily text for peace, but that doesn’t mean anything because it’s so damn easy to press five buttons and press send. I can guarantee you that not even 6.5 billion text messages will ever change anything. (6.5 billion messages times 160 characters equals a whole lot of nothing.) However, if people use text messages to encourage their friends to vote or to join a street protest or to volunteer at a health clinic or beach cleanup, then that is an effective use of the medium.

Like any other piece of technology, mobile phones are neither good nor bad; it all depends on how you use them.

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