Jon with his dear friend Jacob. Note Jacob wears his cell phone on a cord around his neck.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating piece on the spread of cell phone technology throughout the world. I, of course, was most interested in its focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a story that has been told over and over in recent months: mobile phone use has spread rapidly throughout Africa and there are a thousand different ways that mobile phones can be used as a tool for development.

This article tells the story from the perspective of a guy with basically the most interesting job ever: traveling the world to observe how people use their cell phones and talking with them about design.  One of the things I really liked about this article was that it went beyond describing possible development projects based on mobile phone technology to highlighting the fundamental ways that cell phones change the way people live, which in turn impacts development.  For instance, the concept of “just in time,” which is the ability to make decisions with little advance planning.  A great quote:

Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars — can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

And of course, I loved this article for the descriptions of cell phone use in Africa I have come to know so well.  Sending money via text message (our friend Hellen would do this all the time). Cell phone entrepreneurs (kiosks are everywhere, selling time on a phone or selling an hour to charge the phone).  Small businesses transformed by immediate access to information, or immediate contact with their customers (we would call up our boda boda driver, John, all the time to see if he was available to drive us.  And we’d ask him to bring along however many bodas we needed to move whoever we were with).

Cell phones have become a mainstream part of the culture in a way other technologies haven’t yet, at least in Uganda.  Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that mobile phone technology will one day, in the future, encourage development in sub-Saharan Africa.  It already is.

Advertisements