This weekend I'll be at the University of Maryland in College Park presenting my work on mobile phones in Ghana. This is an amazing conference hosted by the Cyborgology editors Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey. I'll be joined on the "Theorizing the Mobile Web" panel by Jason Farman, Katy Pearce, and Jim Thatcher. Cyborgology has a full write-up with our abstracts. Mine is reproduced below.
“Finding it ‘Otherwise’: Culturally and Geographically Situating The Practice of Texting”
Social constructionists and actor network theorists consistently claim that assemblages of technosocial systems are historically contingent or otherwise –to varying degrees- arbitrary. In other words, things could have been another way. The main criticisms of this these programs have been a lack of critical focus on power distribution and the influence of institutions. Rebuttals focus on the “seamless web” of social action that provides no clear beginning or referent for analysis. We must be satisfied with identifying the salient characteristics of relevant actants and working outward analytically, and forward historically. I contend that the statement “it could have been otherwise” belies a lack of sufficient comparative analysis. There are cases where it was, in fact, otherwise and from this comparative analysis we can find a basis for talking about power.
Over the course of two weeks I conducted over two-dozen interviews with patients, caretakers, administrators, and pharmacists in and around a government hospital in the city of Kumasi in central Ghana. My goal was to set up a text messaging system that helped Ghanaians find pharmacies that sold condoms. In the course of asking questions about privacy, frequency of phone use, navigating urban environments, and contraception, I also learned something about the culturally situated nature of large sociotechnical systems.
Mobile phone technology plays a much different role in Ghanaians lives than in Americans. Investigating these differences tell us something about the power relations embedded in western and non-western cell networks. The cell phone plays a much different role in Ghanaians lives than in Americans. In Ghana, the cell phone takes the place of the home phone and internet-enabled computer. (A tendency that we are only just now seeing in America.) In this comparative analysis, we can parse out meaningful relationships between sociotechnical networks and draw conclusions about what makes networks useful and powerful