Are Mobile Solutions Overhyped?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

There are now over 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union, with global mobile penetration at 87 percent. In the developing world, where landlines are especially scarce in rural areas, mobiles have been used for governance, banking, agriculture, education, health, commerce, reporting news, political participation, and reducing corruption.

But the ubiquity of the mobile phone – and its application to a diverse and growing set of development goals – doesn’t guarantee economic or social progress.

Are mobiles just another high-tech solution to what are essentially systemic and deeply rooted problems? Are mobile solutions for combating global poverty overhyped?

Kentaro Toyama, (@Kentarotoyama), Researcher at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley

Yes, mobile solutions are overhyped. At the moment, there is tremendous excitement around using mobile phones to address illness, ignorance, oppression, and other socio-economic challenges of the developing world. Within a decade, though, I expect that we’ll look back and see mobile development just as we view 1960s attempts to tackle the same problems with television – the technology has great potential, but overall it’s just an unproductive diversion.

Cheerleaders for mobile development point out that there are nearly six billion active mobile accounts in the world, and that mobile phones are increasingly used by the remotest rural villagers. It’s hard, indeed, to overhype the business success or the consumer appeal of mobile phones.

Market penetration, however, is not the same as meaningful impact.

Technology amplifies human intent and capacity, but technology by itself doesn’t fix challenges of intent or capacity. What’s overhyped is a belief that mobile-centric programs are a cost-effective means to combat disease, improve education, or alleviate poverty, as if mobile or not were the essential question. What’s overhyped is technological innovation as a primary solution to complex social problems, at the expense of tested-and-true interventions that nurture people and institutions.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine that you were chair of the board of a failing organization. Which of the following actions would most help turn it around?

1. Replace the chief executive with someone smarter and wiser.

2. Consult with clients, and address organizational blind spots.

3. Provide relevant, high-quality training for the employees.

4. Buy every employee a fancy smartphone with specially designed productivity software.

I’ve asked this question of many audiences, and everyone always laughs at (d). Yet, (d) in one form or another is the rationale behind most mobile development.

The real question is one of priority: Why allocate resources for technology-centric projects, when they could be better spent on people-centric ones? To paraphrase an old adage (with a deep apology to poets), “If you give a person a turbo-charged, heat-seeking, robotic fishing pole, they might eat until the technology becomes obsolete, which in our age is a couple of years at best; if, however, you teach them how to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Source: CNN (link opens in a new window)

mobile applications, mobile phones, poverty alleviation