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 dreamed 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…