Whose “revolution” is it anyway?

Revolution (rĕv’ə-lū’shən)
A drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving

One thing that’s particularly struck me over the past couple of years – in addition to the onward march of the mobile phone – has been the way its impact has been described by the press, academia and the blogosphere. Although some people take objection to the term mobile revolution, it’s probably the best we’ve got, particularly if we’re describing the impact from a developing country user perspective.

For reasons I’ll describe later, I’m quite happy calling it a mobile revolution. Not everyone agrees. In a recent id21 insights paper, Richard Heeks and Abi Jagun specifically warn us that “tempting though it may be, we should avoid talk of a mobile revolution”, and in a Boston Review paper this very month, Edward Miguel asserts that, on a macro level at least, the impact of mobile telephony is “hardly revolutionary”. Taken from a ‘developed world’ standpoint they’re all correct. But this isn’t a standpoint I share.

Phonetically, the words ‘mobile’ and ‘revolution’ seem to fit together so well we’ve been unable to avoid the temptation, and in a frenzy of over-use maybe we’ve stopped questioning whether or not there really is one to speak of. Suddenly, almost everything is a revolution.

“Youth drives India’s mobile revolution” (BBC News, April 2004)
“Television’s mobile revolution” (The Guardian, December 2005)
Mobile Linux revolution on the way” (Silicon.com, June 2006)
Mobile VoIP revolution” (CNET.co.uk, September 2006)
“Free mobile call revolution” (Evening Standard, October 2006)
“Leading the mobile revolution” (Growing Business, October 2007)
“Microsoft will power mobile revolution” (Register, October, 2007)

Take the iPhone as a more recent example. Sure, its introduction was a significant event, but did it truly represent a revolution as many people assert? The continued misuse of the term leads us to question true revolution, such as that which is happening as we speak in much of the developing world.

For the majority of us in the ‘developed world’ with access to high-speed broadband internet connections, landline phones, public payphones, computers and laptops, televisions, city-wide wi-fi networks, and public transport and mains electricity, mobile phones are certainly a useful complimentary technology in our lives, but it would be hard to argue that, for many of us, they’re revolutionary. Okay, so we don’t have to wait until we get to the office to take that call, or read that email, and being ‘always-on’ makes business more efficient and nights out easier to organise. Mobiles, in this context, have done just what they say on the tin – taken our already available communications tools and made them mobile.

But if you’ve never had high-speed broadband, or a home phone, access to a landline, a computer, laptop, television or reliable mains power, and aren’t likely to get them for some time, then I’d argue that a mobile phone does have the potential to be revolutionary. And I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world would agree.

One thought on “Whose “revolution” is it anyway?

  1. HASH says:

    Right on Ken. I think so many people in the West don’t appreciate the incredible change in a person, and society, when mobile phones hit. I remember it used to take 3 years for someone with money to get a land line phone in Nairobi. Almost overnight, the ability to go out and buy a phone was possible.

    That definitely changes family/friend interactions, but it absolutely revolutionizes business. Increased business efficiencies, bypassing of entrenched bureaucracies, and new markets are suddenly accessible.

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