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Culture and Technology: The Unintended Use of Mobile Phones

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"How many uses can you think of for a brick?" This question is often asked by recruiters trying to gauge a person's creativity. Most people come up with common uses such as:

• Build a building
• Door stop
• Paper weight

But some truly creative types go farther. They think of uses that relate to their particular culture, or circumstance. Uses that are not remotely related to the original use, intended by the brick's creator.

• Murder weapon
• Fish tank ornamentation
• Primitive measuring device

Researchers have shown that technology is frequently adapted to local circumstances. Tools created in one place for one reason bring unintended consequences and unintended use.

A comical example is text messaging. Engineers originally imbued phones with the ability to send texts only so they could test whether the phone in fact worked. They never thought in a million years that users would choose to send short messages to each other when they could call instead. But, it turns out, mobile services are priced in a way that encourages consumers to text. For many, sending a quick "where r u" is much cheaper and easier than placing a call. Moreover, as we eventually discovered, certain situations arise where text messaging is the far superior method of communication. Text messaging has evolved from a geeky diagnostic tool to a multi-billion dollar business.

The world is full of examples like this and mobile phones are a rich source for stories of unintended use. In the 1980s, most telecom executives could not envision a world where mobile phones would be anything more than gadgets for the super-rich, or super-self-important. In fact, they have grown to become the ultimate consumer good for the twenty-first century.

But the way mobile phones are used differs dramatically from community to community. Unique circumstances in Kenya have given rise to the most innovative mobile banking system in the world. Political instability and corrupt banks, combined with deregulated mobile phone markets, have led to an environment where people prefer to deposit their money into their pay-as-you-go cell phone account, rather than their bank account. Many Kenyans feel better about their money being held by a European phone provider rather than a Kenyan bank; not only because of security but also flexibility.

Through the revolutionary M-PESA program, Kenyans can pay for groceries and taxi rides via text messages. They pay bills and send money to family members in a way not possible in the Europe or North America.

The designers of mobile phones could not envision a world where phones would be more accessible than clean toilets. They could not envision a world where text messaging would be anything more than a useless add-on. But unique circumstances in Kenya have given rise to the most innovative mobile banking network in the world.

I'm delighted to present this new blog on The Huffington Post. Follow this space for weekly stories on humorous and adaptive uses of technology from around the globe.

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