Connectivity: harbinger of a Tech-enabled Utopia? Pain in the ass?
A connected world, the thinking goes, is an empowered, informed and an enlightened one.
Of course, we've had a few World Wars since the telegraph and telephones were invented, so jury's out.
But fine, if connectivity is good, well then, mobile connectivity, is, well...it's like Utopia plus.
Because while connectivity gives us show times on Fandango, mobile connectivity will both save the world and level it.
"The World is Flat"-ter Thomas Friedman's OpEd piece "The Land of No Service" in the 16 August 09 NYT describes a trip to the Okavango Delta in Africa, where there is little wireless connectivity. He writes:
"like it or not, coming here forces you to think about the blessings and curses of “connectivity.” “No Service” is something travelers from the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, “No Service” is a curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape poverty."
And he may be right.
Because if you want to get out of poverty, you need to be able to save money. And on a continent (!) where less than 20% of the aggregate population even has access to a bank account, that's a challenge.
According to the World Bank, 90% of Kenyans, 85% of Liberians and 95% of Tanzanians operate without access to banking services. Enter services like M-PESA and Wizzit, providing the ability to "bank" and micro-transact remotely.
Each market is unique - M-PESA started in Kenya, Wizzit is operating in South Africa - and M-PESA Kenya has seen substantially higher adoption than Tanzania's M-PESA (read here for a CGAP paper on just this topic).
But despite scale, replicability and market variations including "country demographics and cultures, market structures, business models, and strategic implementations", these experiments are being carefully monitored. Mary Kimani, in "A Bank in Every African Pocket" writes about Wizzit’s South African mobile banking pilot operation, and quotes Mohsen Khalil, the World Bank’s director of global ICT:
"If this model works in South Africa...the World Bank will help the company expand coverage within and beyond the country. We may be looking here at . . . the most effective way to provide social and economic services to the poor.”
Hopalong Selebalo - an intern for ISS in the Organized Crime and Money Laundering Programme - quotes Brian Richardson, Wizzit's CEO and MD, on the advantages of mobile banking in an ISS paper entitled 7 May 2009: Mobile Phone Banking in the South African Economy. The key positives:
- the safety of not having to carry cash around
- the absence of risk of account closure for inactivity, which enables people that do not have a regular income to do banking
- lower costs, partly because there are no transaction-by-transaction fees
- saving of time by avoiding long distance travel for banking
- flexibility, in that users can change markets by making small business-to-business transactions immediately and reliably, and
- facilitating popular participation in the economy, which ultimately is positive for the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
Selebalo, despite the risk of abuse and money laundering via mobile, posits that "mobile banking could increase national rates of saving, increase incomes and boost the resilience of the economy. At a broader level, it could improve taxation, and encourage reinvestment of money that is currently not in effective circulation."
But can it help us win the "information war" going on in Afghanistan right now?
Maybe. Thom Shanker, in his 08.16.09 NYT piece "U.S. Plans a Mission against Taliban Propaganda", begins with a note that the Obama adminsitration acknowledges that they are "engaging more fully than ever in a war of words and ideas" in rural Afghanistan.
And the proposed solution involves both (a) FM stations to combat pirate stations the Taliban has been operating - in some cases off the back of roving donkey carts - and importantly, (b) providing cellphone service.
How can cell coverage turn the tide?
“The ability to communicate empowers a population,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, NATO’s director of communication in Kabul. “That is a very important principle of counterinsurgency and counterpropaganda.”
Giving folks cellphone coverage gives them access to independent (read: non-Taliban) information sources.
"In southern Afghanistan, insurgents threaten commercial cellphone providers with attack if they do not switch off service early each night.
That prevents villagers from calling security forces if they see militants on the move or planting roadside bombs; the lack of cellphone service at night also hobbles the police and nongovernmental development agencies.
And the kicker? Despite the fact that mobile-enabled transaction will inevitably help finance terrorism (and probably already have), according to Shanker:
"Expanding and securing cellphone service has the additional benefit of assisting economic development, officials said, as it could provide wireless access to banking systems for those who now must travel long distances for financial services."
But back to Utopia. Or at least Wikipedia's definition of Utopia:
"a compound of the syllable ou-, meaning "no", and topos, meaning place. But the homonymous prefix eu-, meaning "good," also resonates in the word, with the implication that the perfectly "good place" is really "no place."
Hmmm. Given how effectively mobility has enabled us to "be" anyplace and noplace, connected to the big world and disconnected from the immediate, maybe Utopia IS the right analogy.
Weapon and Savior?
A "good place" that's "no place"?
Mobility is transforming both society and culture.
And...oh wait - hold on. I need to talk this call.