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Nate Barksdale

The Cell Phone Gospel

What changes—and what doesn't.

The most touching moment in Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey's book on the mind-boggling spread of mobile phone technology in India comes in a quote from an email by one of the authors' Delhi-based Australian informants, describing an impoverished laborer he'd encountered at the edge of an urban construction zone:

He had one of those large Samsung smart phones; it was so uncanny and out of place. There amongst the dust, pillars and rubble of a building site was this person, dressed very poorly, holding and obviously enjoying his smart phone. He was using one of its applications, but I'm not sure which.

Whenever a modern technology leaps the barriers and takes root in places that had never been kind to its precursors, things can seem uncanny indeed, at least to those on the outside. That's part of why I've spent much of the decade enamored with news reports that fit into what I call "the gospel of cell phones in the developing world."

And a lovely gospel it is, populated with characters ranging from Ghanaian election observers to Kenyan money-changers, from fisherfolk off the coast of India to Nigerian electronics traders in the back-alleys of Shenzhen, not to mention euphoniously named men and organizations like Mo Ibrahim, Carlos Slim, Ushahidi, and Hutchison Whampoa.

The story of the worker with his smartphone calls to mind Andy Warhol's description of the populist possibilities of consumer culture: "A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking." Indeed, my own cell phone, top-of-the-line as it is, is not that different from the device used by the laborer in Delhi or the cab driver in Kigali. And there's a decent chance that the network my counterparts connect to is in some ways superior—likely cheaper and more flexible, possibly faster too—than my U.S. carrier. So advances the cell phone gospel—a tale of equalization and advancement, of the little parts of what one World Bank report describes ...

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