Do new media technologies, including mobile phones, facilitate political participation and create social change? Why is there renewed optimism in the potential for mobile phones to facilitate change when the sector is typified by inequalities? This paper explores the analytical frameworks for understanding the relationship between mobile phones and participatory democracy. It argues that mobile phones can ease communication by facilitating information transmission. Their greater potential, however, lies in their capacity to transgress cultural and social borders by refashioning identities and creating informal economies and communicative networks.
The figures regarding mobile phone uptake in Africa are astounding: 350 million users, representing a 550 percent increase in user numbers in just 5 years. Mobiles are used to text, transfer money (such as in Kenya’s trailblazing M-Pesa project), check market prices, monitor elections, communicate public health messages and access emergency services. The popular Mxit boasts more messages than twitter every day. Further, mobile phones are widely adapted and adopted – for example, handsets are shared, street vendors sell mobile usage on a per call basis, and mobiles are charged from car batteries.
However, mobile phones are not socially neutral. They reinforce unequal power relations: handsets and pay as you go tariffs are prohibitively expensive. This means that money set aside for food can be spent on communications instead, adversely affecting women, carers and children.
Most theoretical frameworks continue to rely on outmoded linear assumptions of development where technologies leapfrog development stages, such as mobile phones bypassing the need for landline technology. Further, they propose that the information communicated will lead to development impact. A more nuanced understanding is required to fully understand the positive and negative potential of mobile phones for long-term social and political change in Africa.
Bringing together technology-centred approaches with ethnographic approaches can help explain what happens to technology when it is appropriated by people. People use new media technologies to go beyond the existing boundaries of the state to create new public spheres. These changes are not necessarily progressive. For example, considering some key areas of supposed influence:
- In the context of state and the media, mobile phones have been successful in amplifying brief political campaigns but less so in stimulating ongoing accountability; they create alternative spaces outside tightly controlled state media for rumour, gossip and jokes amidst increasing political satire.
- In the context of local politics, mobile phones allow information about politics or service delivery to be sent or received; they allow the bypassing of formal channels for mobilising change.
- Within formal economies, mobile phones have eased communications, such as by linking farmers to markets and sending remittances. They also facilitate entrepreneurship and a large informal economy built on selling airtime, unlocking phones, finding free minutes and fixing mobiles.
Identifying the links between everyday practice and broader discourse will improve understanding of the transformative potential of mobile phones in Africa. One should consider:
- How mobile phones are appropriated in everyday life, how they are incorporated and converted by their users
- How these everyday practices relate to discourse, notions of cultural and social identity and broader issues of democratisation and development
- How they allow people to go beyond hitherto fixed boundaries to create new ideas of citizenship and political participation.