Mobile consumerism: Pixel by pixel

Despite the many incredible things happening around the world with mobile phones, one thing continues to trouble me – the sheer numbers of these things being manufactured, consumed and, in some cases, spat out (dumped, stuffed in drawers, or whatever). Okay, many are finding their way into new homes and markets – developing world or otherwise – which is a good thing all round. But we’ve been fed news for so long about “several million new subscribers here” and “another few million there” that we’ve almost become numb to the massive scale of the whole thing. What on earth do several million handsets look like?

I never really thought about it until now. The photo above is from “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait“, a series of prints by photographer Chris Jordan that aims to examine modern American culture through the “austere lens of statistics”. What you’re seeing up there is a photograph of 500,000 mobile phones all piled up. This represents the number of mobiles ditched daily in the United States.

In India alone over 5 million new connections – ten times this number – are made every month. Now, maybe not all come with a new handset, but the manufacturers are doing their utmost to make sure they do. That’s where the battle is right now, and it’s only going to hot up. After all, on a global level more people still don’t have phones than do.

The sheer environmental cost of producing such a massive number of devices can’t be underestimated. Quite frankly, it’s huge. I don’t have any answers right now – I wish I did – and sometimes during my various talks I get asked about this. But despite that, I think it’s important that we are at least aware of the issues and don’t just stick our heads in the sand. Our love affair with the mobile phone is just one of many ‘consumptions’ taking hold in the world, as Chris Jordan’s exhibition so vividly shows. Curbing our demand for newer and newer handsets is just a small part of a much wider problem.

And, right now, no-one has any answers to that either.

From 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0: The new web?

I don’t spend a huge amount of time searching Facebook groups, but when I saw this one it looked pretty interesting. It quite neatly captures what’s ‘happening’ with the web, and what the little number at the end means to people ‘browser-side’. Is this what’s happening?

Web1.0: Brain & Eyes – Information

Web2.0: Brain, Eyes, Ears, Voice & Heart – Passion

Web3.0: Brain, Eyes, Ears, Voice, Heart, Arms & Legs – Freedom

Is this tongue-in-cheek, or reality?

Waking up in unexpected places

If you’d have sat me down ten years ago and asked me what my ideal job would be, I’d probably have described something that didn’t exist. It would have been a strange mixture of conservation, people, Africa and technology – maybe an extra one or two for luck – all spiced up with a touch of positive change and a dash of stubborn determination. The chances of finding something like that were remote, if not impossible. But there’s a saying: “If you can’t predict the future, invent it”. And, it would seem, I have managed to do just that.

Along the way I’ve probably taken the term ‘multidisciplinary’ to a new level, but what do you do when you can’t decide, well, what to do? If you’re passionate about a number of things it seems unfair to be forced to make a choice, so I didn’t. My revised strap line, which came out of an early meeting at Stanford with my old friend, Erik Sundelof, describes quite perfectly what I now do. And it has all the right ingredients – conservation, people, Africa and technology. I was told many-a-time along the way that I should concentrate on one thing, that my message was unclear, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

Eight months have passed since I arrived at Stanford to take up a Fellowship on the Reuters Digital Vision Program. It has been an incredibly positive experience, and interest in my work is at an all-time high. This has come at a time when interest in the interface between people and technology in developing countries – and mobile in particular – is about to hit a steep upward curve. It might sound odd, but I feel like I’ve suddenly woken up in this strange place.

The place I dreamt of all those years ago…

One of our continents is missing

I’ve just returned from the 16th International World Wide Web Conference in Banff, Canada. As you’d expect from such a prestigious annual event, no expense was spared in making the experience as productive and pleasurable as possible for the thousands of delegates who attended. With the beautiful Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, what better place to network, make new friends and talk about the future of the web? Life can be hard…

The 16th International World Wide Web Conference was interesting for a number of reasons. For a start, the world wide web isn’t really world-wide quite yet, and this was one of the reasons I was invited to attend. On Tuesday I presented a paper on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries, and the day after sat on a panel discussing Web Delivery Models for Developing Regions. I enjoy attending these kinds of events – not only does it give me a chance to see what other people are doing in this emerging ’emerging market’ area, but I also get to profile my own work to a wider audience. After many years working alone in darkened rooms, this is new and refreshing. Fortunately my message is always well received, and seems to strike a chord with most people. It still makes me smile seeing (“Who?”, I hear all the delegates asking!) muscle in on the big guys – Microsoft, MIT, IIT, IBM and so on. Power to the people!

On the downside, the notable lack of African presenters and delegates at the event – the “missing continent” – was rather disappointing (if not unexpected), particularly considering the amount of interest in emerging markets right now, and the drive to connect the last couple of billion people at the bottom of that pyramid. The reasons for this? Well, I doubt that it’s down to a lack of interest from African developers. No doubt they’d jump at the chance to attend something like this. I’d put it down to issues of cost and lack of funding, lack of awareness in both camps, a general lack of focus on the African continent (and why should there be, I guess?) and the fact that not many Africans got invited to this thing. There was, as you’d expect, a strong North American and European contingent, along with plenty of others from Asia. We seem to be creating a continental divide to add to our already well-established digital one.

On a more positive note, over the past few months I’ve come into contact with many people with professional and personal interest in the uses of technology in Africa for positive social and environmental change. Many have been from Africa. Change is in the air…

“Opinions, news and inter-views”

Over the past few weeks things have been pretty busy on the interview front. There have also been a number of news articles reporting the use of FrontlineSMS in the Nigerian elections, and a couple of podcasts on kiwanja’s work. I regularly post details on the News section of the site, but thought it would be worth bringing them all together in a blog entry. So, if you’re interested in what’s been going on recently feel free to browse through the following links:

Nokia New Horizons Magazine: Article on kiwanja’s appropriate technology focus
African Signals: A podcasted interview with the man behind the “White African” blog
Pambazuka News: The story behind FrontlineSMS and the Nigerian elections
WSIS: FrontlineSMS featured as “ICT Success Story of the Month”
BBC News: FrontlineSMS used to monitor the Nigerian elections
BBC Digital Planet: Podcast of a radio interview on the BBC World Service Interview about technology use in conservation and development
Net Tuesday: Podcasted interview at this San Francisco technology event

Why I’m not a social entrepreneur

A few years ago, back during my university days, I was asked to write an essay on ‘sustainable development‘ and what the term actually meant. The general consensus seemed to be that it meant very little, not because the rationale behind the term wasn’t a compelling one, but because it was being so widely misused that it had become pretty-much meaningless.

I feel the same might be happening today with the term ‘social entrepreneur‘. So many people claim to be one, and so many universities are ‘teaching’ people how to become one, the term is becoming blurred, almost fashion-statement-like.

For a start, I don’t think anyone can just become a social entrepreneur by simply going through a process. Sure, people can learn the mechanics of social entrepreneurship – business models, sustainability, global (and local) social issues, fundraising and so on – but that’s it. You have to earn the title, not learn it. Having an honours degree in social entrepreneurship – or whatever it might be – doesn’t automatically make you one.

Personally I have never considered myself a social entrepreneur, even though my poster at Stanford says that I am. To make things worse, I’m not much of a ‘title’ person, either. I don’t find it helpful putting people into neat little boxes, but that seems to be how things work these days. If other people want to put me into the ‘social entrepreneur’ box then they’re free to do so, but I won’t be doing it myself.

There are many reasons why I don’t think I belong there – too many to list in a blog entry without it becoming long and tedious. But perhaps the main one is this: I don’t believe that I, Ken Banks, am an agent for social change. I am comfortable taking a support role, helping empower other people to become agents of social change.

And if that means I’m not a social entrepreneur then I, for one, have no problem with that.