Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Harvard Forum: Mobiles, Markets and making culture

Canada’s International Development Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center are convening a conversation today and tomorrow at Harvard on the future of information and communication technology and development (ICT4D). Global Voices will be participating in the event as a media partner, and I and Jen Brea will be twittering and live-blogging the event. You can find out far more about who’s around the table and what we’re planning on talking about on the Global Voices special coverage page, which includes links to the background papers prepared by participants.

We’re here in part so that you can have a voice in the discussions. Please feel free to post questions on Twitter, using the #idrc09 tag, or as comments on Global Voices posts – we’ll try hard to work those questions into the coversation here at Harvard. You may also want to use Berkman’s “question tool“, which will be used to put questions to the panelists at a public event this evening.


The primary format at the Harvard Forum is short presentations by invited participants. We’ve all submitted two-page papers (a very few of which actually occupied only two pages) and speakers are taking turns amplifying and expanding these papers, and receiving feedback from the room.

Ronaldo Lemos, the director of the Center for Technology & Society at the Fundao Getulio Vargas Law School in Rio de Janeiro, is a leading advocate for Creative Commons and open access to knowledge. His paper focuses on LAN-houses, a unique, local form of cybercafe. Lemos notes a comment from Professor Sen, that “ICTs are important because unpredictable things happen.” These LAN-houses are a good example of this unpredictability.

The Brazilian government subsidized the purchase price of home computers. Adopters of this program used the subsidy to buy computers to build gaming labs and cybercafes – LAN-houses. 49% of people in 2007 in Brazil were accessing the internet through one or more of 90,000 LAN houses. That compares with 2,000 movie theatres or 2,600 bookstores – the LAN houses span the country from extremely poor neighborhoods through the middle of the Amazon.

These LAN houses, Lemos argues, are changing the Brazilian public sphere. The forthcoming elections will be the first where a majority of Brazilians are online. In the previous election, the government simply banned the use of online technologies for campaigning. There’s been a lively debate, and now there’s somewhat restricted access to the Internet for campaigning and political discussion.

The media landscape in Brazil has, traditionally, focused on “classes A&B”, elite classes. The potential of digital media is to expose the culture of lower classes. He points out that YouTube videos for widely known Brazilian artists like Jobim have perhaps a million views, while “underground” artists are getting tens of millions of views. This represents a democratizing of the media landscape.

Lemos suggests we look at Orkut – a social network on Yahoo used mainly by Brazilians – reflects Brazilian society as a whole. Upper-class Brazilians, he suggests, are fleeing to Facebook, aided by a media narrative that condems Orkut. But the Orkut community is 30 million, while there are only 4 million on Facebook. There’s a new word – “orkutized” – to describe a place too popular to be useful anymore.


Anita Gurumurthy, the founder and director of IT for Change, asks us to imagine people independent of the gadgets that connect them. There’s tremendous range for women to be involved with community IT efforts, but we also need to concentrate on their needs independent of this technical context. (Her paper is here.)

She reminds us that previous focuses on ICT4D have promoted a social enterprise model, led by private sector interests. This, she argues, means that arguing for women’s empowerment required demonstrating why this is good for the economy. When development strategy focused on eGovernment, it looked strictly at engaging the private sector in building egovernment solutions.

There’s been little critique of market-based development, Gurumurthy argues. While some alternative public-finance models did show a way to design telecentres useful to the poor, these models were completely eclipsed by the market-based discourse. When market-based telecentres collapsed, the blame was put on the poor, arguing that there was no demand for services.

Gurumurthy sees this mistake being repeated in the world of mobile phones. We’ve adopted a proprietary network model where individuals are locked into network providers. She wonders who is to produce services to the poor that market may have no incentive to build, ad argues that the failure of market-led social enterprise models are now being used to prop up the mobile telephony model.

We need to avoid a network society in which participation could be no more than owning a gadget. She suggests there’s an overemphasis on privacy, security, individual rights and an underemphasis on institutional tranparency, community computing and informatics, all of which she sees as necessary for an information society that benefits the poor. The questions are more political, not just about practical, palliative solutions to connect individuals with gadgets.


Ophelia Mascarenhas focuses her remarks on PICTURE, a four-country research project she’s coordinated from Tanzania. She notes that in the past several years, mobile phone penetration has increased from 1.2% to 25%. The people she surveys say that the biggest change in their lives is the ability to communicate quickly via mobile phone. Countering expectations, these technologies are more used by women than men, more used by people below the poverty line than the rich. The radio is still the most important information technology for receiving information in poor populations, but that function’s been displaced by the mobile phone in richer communities.

There’s no training in the use of these mobile phones, she tells us, but people discover extremely creative ways of using these tools – sending simple messages by “flashing” or “beeping” while avoiding the cost of completing a call. These costs are extremely high, and there are real disparities in access between rural and urban areas. Notably, financial transfer systems like M-PESA don’t work in very rural areas – instead, there’s only the ability to transfer airtime, which is only useful for much smaller sums.

She warns that ICT can be a way of siphoning money out of a country. “In East Africa, we’re receivers of the technology. Money flows out when we bring the tech in.” There’s no local R&D and production of technology. She wonders how African countries can build local capacity, and wonders whether we shouldn’t be seizing some of this capital outflow to fight poverty.

At the end of her remarks, Mascarenhas notes that she hadn’t discussed the internet at all. Simply put, access to the Internet is so limited in Tanzania, she doesn’t consider it nearly as important to discuss as mobile phones.


Lawrence Liang, the founder of the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, offered an especially provocative and creative paper to the Harvard Forum. The paper refers to a visit by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere to a set of cybermohallahs, “cyber-neighborhoods” create in Indian cities to provide opportunity and access to the poor.

Ranciere has written about the fascination French intellectuals of the 19th century had with laborers. Intellectuals praised the life of the laborer to the extent that Ranciere refers to Victor Hugo’s praise for the “words of a worker” as “exclusion by homage”, a celebration that separates rather than treating laborers as co-equals.

At the same time, when looking at the actual intellectual life of these laborers, many of the laborers sought to write literature and poetry, seeking the bourgeois pursuits that the intellectuals sought to transcend. Liang argues that “we all need intellectual lives” and that the conditions to lead those intellectual lives are unequally distributed.

The most radical possibilities of ICT suggest a redistribution about who’s entitled to participate in shaping a community’s sensibilities. Liang sees piracy as the battlefield on which this reshaping is taking place. Ultimately, he argues, we need to move to a dialog that matches equality to equality, not inequality to equality – the very paradigm of providing access to balance inequality can make the playing field unlevel for these interactions.


Alison Gillwald focuses on Gurumurthy’s presentation, which she saw as making the case that market models had failed to end poverty. What alternatives was she suggesting? Are those alternatives supply driven, not demand driven?

Gurumurthy explains that she wants to see markets embedded in society, not society embedded in markets. She focuses remarks on eChoupal, a project of an Indian transnational which attempted to both enable poor farmers to sell to larger markets. She sees the project as being more about constructing a market in poor communities for the company’s products. The problem, she argues, with the Bottom of the Pyramid model is that it turns the poor into consumers capable of paying for essential social services, like water, education and communication. Is this an inversion of social responsibility that we’re really comfortable with instituting?

Yochai Benkler notes that Lemos and Gurumurthy are telling stories that illustrate different complications in the relationship between markets and governments. Lemos’s story is a classic example of a government subsidy turning into entrepreneurial growth. It’s possible that the government might respond by saying, “Wait, we wanted to you to stay poor, just with a computer, not to build your own businesses!” E-Choupal, as described by Gurumurthy, is a project designed to cut out local middlemen, and its failure focuses on consolidation and elimination of existing market actors. He wonders what dialog there is between Gurumurthy’s identification of people’s desire to provision and contro their own food, and Liang’s observation about the need to control one’s own intellectual life.

Rohan Samarajiva offers some data to add to our conversation. He talks about surveys he’s helped run in Sri Lanka which ask whether people are using ICT “for the right reasons”. The surveys asked what people used their mobile phones for. “Entertainment and family connection always lead in volume,” but this doesn’t mean these tools don’t have instrumental – “proper” – uses, like calling the doctor while you’re having a heart attack.

Provocatively, he argues that “if we’re not using government money, what’s the problem?” We’re not using government money in the mobile space – “we’re freeing up government money” to educate, provision water or buy armaments. So what’s our problem with these networks, as they’re freeing government to use more of their own funds?

Clotilde Fonseca is struck by Lawrence Liang’s talk, which she sees as addressing the importance of the poor being empowered by intellectual development. She cites a recent book by Robert Reich, which talks about the “weakening of the routinary workers and the
power of the symbolic analysts.” Those most empowered are those who have the intellectual power to be creative, to develop their minds. She warns of an “epistomelogical fallacy – equating information and knowledge” – we need to focus less on provisioning information and more on creating the capacity to build knowledge.

Mascarenhas argues that what’s being promoted on mobile networks is simply communication and entertainment – if information that could make people more successful and more economically productive, there would be demand for this information and a radically different usage pattern.

Lemos closes the discussion addressing informality. The success of the Brazilian government’s subsidy program was its informality – it allowed anyone to go to a store and buy a computer. Had it been significantly more careful, it just wouldn’t have worked. The businesses he’s celebrating are, for the most part, informal and unregulated. Regulations can be a massive problem – he tells us that a regulation which characterized LAN-houses as gambling establishments meant they could only be opened 2km from schools… which meant there were only two legal locations in Rio, one of them in state forest. Needless to say, without legislative change, these businesses have stayed informal. The question, Lemos suggests, is how to institute necessary formal structures without eliminating the magic of innovation.

One Response to “Harvard Forum: Mobiles, Markets and making culture”

  1. Drew Cogbill says:

    Ethan,

    Just catching up on your great coverage.

    One thing: isn’t Orkut owned by Google?

    Drew

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