Ethan Zuckerman on “the only technology that compares to the mobile phone”

In a paper entitled “Mobile Phones and Social Activism: Why cell phones may be the most important technical innovation of the decade” originally published on his blog, Ethan Zuckerman argues that the cell phone may be “may be the most important technical innovation of the decade”. Zuckerman, a Fellow affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law Schools in the United States, traces some trends in the use of the phone around the world as an “activist technology”. His core thesis is that mobiles are powerful because they’re “pervasive, personal, and capable of authoring content.” Zuckerman’s article also addresses the issue of phones used in conjunction with broadcast radio:

The only technology that compares to the mobile phone in terms of pervasiveness and accessibility in the developing world is the radio. Indeed, considered together, radios and mobile phones can serve as a broad-distribution, participatory media network with some of the same citizen-media dynamics of the Internet, but accessible to a much wider, and non-literate audience.

Among the examples he cites are Interactive Radio for Justice / Radio Interactive Pour la Justice, a radio programme in Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that answers listeners’ questions about justice issues sent by . (The Christian Science Monitor also wrote about IRFJ here). Zuckerman points out that sending questions via SMS allows for anonymity, an important point when your question is: “Are soldiers allowed to stay at my house and eat my food without paying for it?”

He offers another anecdote about the use of mobiles and radio stations to monitor elections in Ghana:

A dispersed group with mobile phones — especially mobile phones equipped with cameras — becomes a powerful force for “sousveillance.” Coined by Dr. Steve Mann, “sousveillance” refers to the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance. The use of mobile phones to monitor the 2000 presidential election in Ghana is a good example of sousveillance — voters who were prevented from voting used mobile phones to report their experience to call-in shows on local radio stations. The stations broadcast the reports, prompting police to respond to the accusations of voter intimidation. Had voters called the police directly, it’s possible that authorities might not have responded — by making reports public through the radio, voters eliminated the possibility of police announcing that there had been no reports of voter intimidation. Similar techniques have been used in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and even in the United States — American voters used mobile phone cameras and Websites to record reports of voting irregularities during the 2006 congressional elections.

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