Anthropology's technology-driven renaissance

Anthropologists are a vital tool in developing mobile phones for the third world.

The explosive growth of mobile-phone ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the arrival of cheap US$20 phones, but is also down, in part, to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile-phone manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the so-called "bottom of the pyramid" might want from a phone. Mobile phones with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobile phones with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone, a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets.

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University's policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their development studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one that looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there's anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree, I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

It was not until three or four years later that the importance - and relevance - of anthropology became apparent to me. It has emerged as a central pillar in my work and is interestingly the area that raises the most eyebrows among delegates at conferences. But it's not just about the degree. Many ideas, values and opinions were cemented during numerous spells living and working in developing countries over a 15-year period. Hospital and school building projects in Uganda and Zambia, biodiversity survey work in Uganda, primate conservation in Nigeria and Cameroon, civil society work in Zimbabwe, and spells of ICT-related research in South Africa and Mozambique have all combined to give me a real sense of the reality on the ground for many people living in the developing world. This insight, I believe, is crucial, even if it has taken 15 years to gain.

Today, handset giants such as Nokia and Motorola believe that mobile devices will "close the digital divide in a way the PC never could." Industry bodies such as the GSM Association run their own "Bridging the Digital Divide" initiatives, and international development agencies pump hundreds of millions of dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives based around mobile phones and mobile technology.

In order for the mobile phone to reach its full potential, we're going to need to understand what people in developing countries need from their mobile devices and how they can be applied in a way that positively impacts their lives. Sounds like the perfect job for an anthropologist to me.

Ken Banks devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa.

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