Against the myth of ubiquity: reflections on five years of mobile phone diffusion research

  • Marco J Haenssgen
Posted:
17 April, 2018

If you follow tech news and research in the field of ‘information and communication technologies for development’ (ICT4D), you will sooner or later come across the idea that mobile phones are ubiquitous. The last time I checked on Google (while preparing a recently published paper), variations on the phrase ‘mobile phones have become ubiquitous’ produced around 133,000 search results.

This viewpoint is not surprising, considering that we witnessed a trend where, within the span of just ten years, global mobile phone ‘teledensity’ rose by 50 percentage points to more than 100% in 2016 (based on recent data from the International Telecommunication Union). And with several million smartphone apps, how can we not assume that everyone can and should use these technologies?

This excitement around mobile technology has spread into international development practice, where mobile phones have become an increasingly attractive vehicle for interventions and service delivery. To give you a sense of the scale: on my last count in March 2016, the industry group Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) recorded worldwide 131 ongoing and planned mobile phone projects in the area of agriculture, 372 in finance, and 1,141 in health. Hopes about the transformative potential of this technology are also expressed in the opening lines of Tim Unwin’s popular book ICT4D: Information and Communication Technology for Development (at currently 432 citations according to Google Scholar), which state that, ‘This book is about how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used to help poor and marginalised people and communities make a difference to their lives’.

Perhaps the technological excitement is justified, but the anthropological and sociological literature suggests that the claim about mobile phone ubiquity is flawed. Other researchers have, for example, argued that access to and use of mobile phones in low- and middle-income countries reproduces existing social divisions and creates new frictions, and – perhaps most importantly for the ‘ubiquity narrative’ – the way in which people access mobile technology goes beyond 'having' and 'not having' mobile phones.

Yet, the notion of ubiquity persists, which may stem from an enthusiastic imagination of technology use that resembles our own urban lifestyles and aspirations, but which may also be rooted in how we conceptualise the process of technology adoption (on the individual level) and diffusion (on the population level). Implicit in the idea of ubiquity is often a binary notion of adoption (see eg Everett Rogers’ book Diffusion of Innovations). Romantic images of developing country ‘communities’ can further add to the view that sharing is widespread and undisputed, which can suppress questions about non-adoption and exclusion.

My latest research article contributes to the literature that challenges this position. I drew on data that I collected as part of my DPhil in International Development, which included interviews and surveys in rural parts of India and China. My research showed that mobile phones were common in my rural field sites and that indirect forms of access could extend nominal access to mobile phones beyond the owners (the ‘adopters’). This would resonate with the ‘ubiquity’ narrative, and indeed both areas feature in publications about the potential for mobile-phone-based development interventions. Yet, these patterns of mobile phone access did not mean that phone use was actually ubiquitous.

The degree of utilisation was very diverse, with many phone owners using hardly any functions on their phones, and only a few people coming close to what could be considered ‘full use’ of a mobile phone (eg daily use of the mobile internet). It appeared that some factors commonly influenced this degree of ‘utilisation’, like education and age, while other determinants like gender seemed to depend more on the specific socio-cultural context (eg in rural India). Subtle frictions in sharing complicated the picture yet further. For example, people would not easily ‘share’ mobile phones with others; older and technologically less confident people would often limit themselves to basic uses or depend on other people to operate the phone for them; and to ask somebody to ‘borrow’ a mobile phone would often require a good reason and entail social obligations to reciprocate the favour.

Overall, it rather seemed that people who were at the social and economic margins of rural ‘communities’ were also more likely to be excluded from utilising mobile phones. Such a regressive pattern can be problematic, as I showed in a recent article that highlighted how mobile phone users gradually crowd out poor non-users from health services. At the same time, we should also not quietly assume that digital inclusion is automatically beneficial. Another article based on my work on healthcare indicated that mobile technologies can complicate people’s behaviour with potentially adverse consequences for health service access. For example, people in rural India and rural China shifted to private (out-of-pocket) health services and waited longer to access medical treatment if they used a mobile phone during an illness. We can also argue that the systematic exclusion of groups with specific social and economic constraints can bias increasingly popular ‘big data’ analyses of ‘user-generated data’ towards more affluent male parts of the population with less constrained lifestyles.

This does not mean that we need to be cynical about mobile phones (it’s not an ‘if-you-aren’t-for-me-you’re-against-me’ situation). For example, if our objective was to deliver some services and information more efficiently to a wider population, then mobile phones could help achieve this objective (although we should be conservative about our expectations). Yet, if our objective is to ensure and promote equity, then we should consider the potentially regressive nature of the mobile phone platform. Savings generated by more efficient service delivery for a mobile-phone-using part of the population could for instance be used to expand service access to more marginalised groups, who are costlier to reach. However, if we continue to believe in mobile phone ubiquity, then the persistent reproduction of this myth in the global technology and development discourse will not only render it meaningless. It can also obscure potentially harmful development practices.

This blog post is based on my paper 'Manifestations, drivers, and frictions of mobile phone use in low- and middle-income settings: a mixed methods analysis of rural India and China', which is published in Journal of Development Studies 8 (55) https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2018.1453605. For a full list of publications related to this research project, please visit my web profile at http://warwick.ac.uk/mjhaenssgen.

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Phone user in Rajasthan. Photo: Marco J Haenssgen