IN THE SPOTLIGHT, Part 2:

Mobile Phones as Amplifiers of Social Inequality among Rural Kenyan Women

This short but extremely incisive article offers a remarkable shot across the bow of (at times overly) optimistic technologists, such as myself, who typically operate under the worldview—(which if we are being charitable amounts to an unquestioned assumption; or if less so, then nothing but an unsupportable myth)—that the technologies we work so hard to create are always positive forces for change in the world.

Yet in this case, as the authors of this article so meticulously document, the mobile phone itself can in fact serve as a massive amplifier of injustice, and impoverishment, and other social inequalities that are prevalent in many (and especially in the more rural) corners of the globe.

Aspects of this perspective will perhaps come as no surprise to those working in the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD) sub-discipline of our field. Such insights are presaged by some of Toyama’s work, for example, who pointedly noted that technology “tends to amplify existing social inequalities”—a law of amplification driven by the unequal motivations and capabilities (as forms the focus in this particular article) between rural Kenyan women and the powerful corporations that control the mobile networks in the country, and design the services (often in ways that glaringly elevate their own interests above those of their impoverished customers).

And it is in the unpacking, and illustration, and spelling-out of the insidious technological challenge of addressing these differential motivations and capabilities that this TOCHI paper shines.

The authors report in considerable depth on a series of field studies which were undertaken in rural Kenya—challenging studies which, by their very nature, are not ‘controlled’ or ‘repeatable’—yet are rich with ethnographic detail and design insights nonetheless.

This, in my view, is a must-read TOCHI article that can, and should, give us all pause as to the advisability of some (or perhaps many, or even most) of the interventions that our technological fancies would lead us to undertake.

What exactly to do about this is a very difficult problem, but without first surfacing such challenges and making them apparent, we cannot even take the first steps towards designing a better world for all persons—and particularly for the under-represented and the marginalized among us, as opposed to the highly profitable (and at times seemingly unscrupulous) corporations that would so readily take advantage of people through carrier lock-in and other such questionable practices.

 

Susan Wyche, Nightingale Simiyu, and Martha Othieno. 2016. Mobile Phones as Amplifiers of Social Inequality among Rural Kenyan Women. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 23, 3, Article 14  (June 2016), 19 pages.

DOI= http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2911982