Mobile phones don’t replace telecenters

I would wager that most of us assume that the widespread adoption of mobile phones would have practically replaced the “old school” (i.e., 1990s) view of telecenters.  Sharing a computer in a village or neighborhood (or using a local cybercafé) would provide people, who otherwise couldn’t afford it, with access to the internet.  But, of course, with mobile phones we now have the internet in our pockets.

Turns out this hasn’t happened. What has happened tells us something interesting about communication.

An interesting report comes from Chris Coward, Principal Research Scientist and Director of the Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School.  The group conducted surveyed 7,000 people across 5 low- and middle-income countries.  One of the findings of the report is that “public access venue” computer use generally has not declined.  Instead, the particular uses of each type of medium has organized into patterns.

Coward provides a list of the various purposes that a user might have for using either a computer or a mobile phone.  And although he doesn’t comment on the way these different uses cluster, I hope this is something the research group explores further.  What I see when I look at the results is that overwhelmingly, when people use the internet to seek out information–particularly authoritative and reliable information–the computer is part of the mix.  In doing “research for school or work”, for example, the computer is used nearly 100 percent of the time, and solely used over 50% of the time. The results are similar for “research health issues.” In contrast, when the use is relational and ephemeral, the mobile phone is the dominant mode.  For example, for “keep in touch with friends,” the phone is used 80-90% of the time. And nearly as much for “meet new people.”

Perhaps this is due to obvious affordances; for example, information is difficult to read on the small screens of cell phones. But perhaps there is more going on here, that has to do with the functions of differing processes of communication. It will be interesting to see this research unfold in the future.

Coward, Chris. 2014. “Global Computing: Private then Shared?”. Communications of the ACM, 57(8), p29-30

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