Jenna Burrell, UC Berkeley
Resources that accrue to one person may become shared with others. This is true of money and its true of material goods. How this is accomplished has something to do with the material form of the thing shared. Money can be subdivided and redistributed. Much has been written of money as a force for abstraction and of its capacity for measurement. In rural Uganda mobile phones have been successfully repurposed to facilitate money transfers. This is accomplished by sending air-time codes via text message. In this way, users have extended and improved the utility of the mobile phone in keeping with local needs and practices. The informality of the current approach is especially notable, a compelling new materialization and extension of an important social practice. While in Kenya and South Africa formalized systems exist (the m-Pesa and Wizzit systems respectively) this is not yet the case in Uganda. The local logic of money transfer is part of efforts to cope with resource-constraints and reflects low-cost, lightweight solutions for daily living, insurance, survival, and risk management.
It is interesting to contrast the transfer of money with the ways in which the mobile phone itself is transferred and circulates in rural Uganda. Unlike money the mobile phone cannot be subdivided and distributed. Alternate ways of sharing are employed. The phone is given as a gift where the whole object is transferred permanently into the possession of another. Time-sharing and simultaneous use are other ways of sharing material goods like mobile phones that cannot be subdivided. There are some notable patterns of gifting and sharing that have emerged with mobile phone appropriation in rural Uganda. Mobile phone owners may formally or informally provide access to their phones to neighbors who load up their own air-time credit to pay for calls. Owners sometimes generate a small commission in the form of leftover air-time credit. Another observed pattern of mobile phone circulation is illustrated by public service announcements on billboards along the main roads in Uganda that warn young women against the dangers of ‘Sugar Daddys.’ These older men entice young women into sexual relationships with the gift of luxurious non-essentials like nice clothes and perfume. The mobile phone is depicted as one of these gifts on the billboard. “You might *want *these material things…but do you *need HIV?*” it warns suggesting the dramatic risks that may be involved in acquiring such gifts. In exploring practices of sharing money and mobile phones my presentation will address questions of equity in the way the benefits of the mobile phone are distributed and what is exchanged for such access. In particular, my larger purpose is to work towards refining a model of the ‘shared use’ of technologies that will be useful to other researchers. While ‘shared use’ is already identified as the most economically viable option in developing regions of the world the dimensions of shared use practices and variety of ways of configuring this have not been fully explored.
About the author
Jenna Burrell is an assistant professor in the School of Information, University of California-Berkeley. She is currently studying patterns of mobile phone appropriation in rural Uganda. For her PhD thesis she conducted an ethnographic examination of internet cafe use in Accra. Previously she worked with a group of engineers, anthropologists, psychologists and designers in the People and Practices Research group, Intel Corporation.