Computers, guns, factories, and democracy are powerful tools, but the forces that determine how they’re used ultimately are human.
This point seems obvious but is forgotten in the rush to scale. Currently the international-development community is having a love affair with the mobile phone. Rigorously executed research by Jensen and by fellow economist Jenny C. Aker demonstrates that cell phones can eliminate certain kinds of information inefficiencies in developing-world markets. Encouraged by such findings and by the sheer depth of mobile-phone penetration, foundations and multilateral agencies have formed task forces and entire departments devoted to mobile phones for international development. In these circles, it is not possible to discuss microfinance without “mobile money,” or health care without “mHealth” (short for “mobile health”).
The magnification thesis, however, suggests that this is a one-sided view of mobile phones. Certainly talking is something that all human beings, as social animals, not only want to do, but are well equipped for. Phones multiply that intent and capacity, and some of the resulting value is positive—no point in being an indiscriminate Luddite.
But, it’s not just productive intentions that are magnified by technology. When a dollar-a-day rickshaw puller pays a large corporation for the privilege of changing his ring tone, does he generate a net benefit to himself or society? Companies pump out such questionable, “value-added” services, and millions of impoverished consumers readily pay for them. Kathleen Diga of the University of KwaZulu Natal observed that some households in Uganda prioritize talk time over family nutrition and clean water. Sociologist Jenna Burrell found that destructive patterns of gender politics are exacerbated by mobile phones, as men wield phones as tools of sexual exchange. Meanwhile, in the developed world, there is mounting evidence that mobile phones contribute to distracted driving, fractured attention, and reduced cognitive ability.
We are in the midst of the largest ICT4D experiment ever. In 2009 there were over 4.5 billion active mobile phone accounts, more than the entire population of the world older than twenty years of age. The cell phone is overtaking both television and radio as the most popular consumer electronic device in history. Some 80 percent of the global population is within range of a cell tower, and mobile phones are increasingly seen in the poorest, remotest communities.