Out of Africa: light and dark visions of text-messaging

An article of mine in The New York Times last Sunday on the emergence of underground computer geeks in Nairobi, Kenya, flushed out -- for me at least -- a neglected movement of scholars studying the effect of the mobile on African societies in particular and developing countries in general.

Of the varied research that's been brought to my attention, probably the most striking are a series of studies by two researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Human-Centered Computing Program in Atlanta. The study, comparing how folks in Nairobi and Atlanta use information technology, are funded by Intel Corp. and supported by one of the company's researchers in Berkeley, Calif. Rather surprisingly, the trio of researchers is examining how religious behavior is influenced by new information technologies -- and influences them.

The big idea in the paper, published this spring in an ACM publication, is that in Nairobi, where evalengical Christianity has made deep inroads with middle-class and educated people, the mobile phone and the Internet are viewed as tools that improve the quality of one's religious experience. As the authors write of their Nairobi subjects, "When asked if they used technology to stay focused on their faith, participants answered with stories about using computers, software and mobile phones to do so."

One especially notable finding: text messaging is being used "to send and receive prayer requests."

Who knew that the devout can text message for Jesus or praise the Almighty by tapping on a tiny Nokia keyboard.

The authors -- Susan Wyche and Rebecca Grinter of GIT and Paul Aoki of Intel -- stick too closely to the technological experience in my view. They don't examine the role of Safaricom, the biggest mobile supplier in Kenya, In explaining the attraction of prayer through text messaging, they don't examine the role of Safaricom, Kenya's leading cell provider, in promoting the mobile phone as the ultimate expression of urban sophistication.

And then there's the profit motive. Text messages, after all, aren't free, so that the explanation for their use by evangelicals might instead be found in the rampant commercialism in some tendencies of African Christianity.

The very same practice of text-message by Nairobi denizens -- four times more of which have a mobile phone than a bank account -- is the subject of another recent paper, this forwarded to me only this morning by Oxford University's David Anderson, a leading historian of Africa who also directs the British university's African studies center. Written by Oxford student Michelle Osborn, the paper -- published in June in the Journal of Eastern African Studies -- documents the role that text messaging played in the recent post-election protests in Kenya earlier this year.

Many scholars have found that the mobile phone has contributed to democratization in African countries (and elsewhere in the developing world), by helping protesters evade government repression, organize protests and broadcast their message internationally. In the Kenya case, however, Osborn found some negative fallout from rampant text messaging during the disturbances, some of which were violent and result in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Test messaging, Osborn writes, "brought a new, unpredicted dimension" to the conflict between supporters of rival political parties, both of whom wanted their man to be elected president. "Politicians utilized rumors and SMS texts to galvanize supporters into collective action," some of which was ugly.

The mobile phone and the Internet are undeniable positive forces for good. But less positive outcomes are co-evolving alongside the welcome ones. As scholars apply more effort to studying these new technologies, their social effects -- and perhaps even how to design devices more effectively -- should become better understood.

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