Ethan Zuckerman

Rip Van Winkle's Surprise: Critical Perspectives on Mobiles in Development and Social Change

Posted by admin on Sep 28, 2009

Essay by in response to A Dialogue on ICTs, Human Development, Growth, and Poverty Reduction, first published on

If we imagine Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle falling asleep in a developing nation in 1998 and awaking today, it's likely that he'd be fascinated and surprised by mobile phones. When Rip went to sleep, only a few hundred million people had access to mobile phones, and most lived in wealthy nations. A decade later, the ITU sees 4.1 billion mobile phone accounts, two-thirds of them in the developing world. The changes brought by mobile phones are both subtle and omnipresent - mobile phone numbers painted above shop doors allow merchants to untether from their stalls; carpentry ads scrawled on road signs turn a craftsman with a phone into an independent, mobile business; secure money transfers from abroad pay the village school fees that grant a child an education.

The rise of the mobile phone has challenged many of the predictions about information in the developing world offered by information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) specialists. Instead of embracing community solutions that offered shared access to information, many poor people have been willing to pay large sums (as Steve Song and others have documented, sometimes more than 50% of their disposable income) for personal access to communication tools. Presented with a model that extends connectivity into some poor communities without government subsidy, often turning a profit, the development community is rightly looking for ways to build tools for economic and community development on top of these platforms.

While we are wise to embrace the successes of the mobile phone platform, we need to think carefully about the implications of a mobile-based communications future in the developing world. Much of the thinking about ICT4D has focused on the benefits of the internet, an open, decentralized platform that's different from mobile phone networks in critical ways. It's unclear that some of the emergent behaviors we've celebrated on the Internet can be easily replicated in a mobile-centric world.