In the developed world mobile devices have become our addiction, for most it is almost unfathomable to even consider the thought of spending a day without their mobile phone. In fact mobile technologies are such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it is almost comical when we encounter someone who can’t use them. The issue of accessibility is not that comical when mobile technologies have many economic and social advantages in developing countries. Mobile phones allow many countries to bypass infrastructural deficiencies in the ways of creating a communication network.
In the mid 19th century the advent of the telegraph brought with it an era of communication that had never been seen before (Farman 2012). At the same time in the United States the transcontinental railroad made it possible to translate a message from the east coast to the west coast very quickly. The industrial age also demanded that the telegraph network to be built spanning great geographic distances. As the United States and other developed countries developed so did our communication networks and proportionally our cultural understanding of the technologies that make up those networks.
Today in developing countries it is very difficult to build a network connecting towns and villages because of limited resources, money, and manpower. Mobile Technologies make it possible to skip the step of setting up a cabled infrastructure in these countries. This is great because communication can now be improved in these countries cheaply and effectively, however there is also a negative side to this. While mobile technologies allow the developing world “skip a step” in building the infrastructure they are also skipping the step of cultural understanding. In this way literacy becomes a huge hurdle for companies that are attempting to bring these technologies into under developed areas.
Jan Chipchase writes extensively on the kind of difficulties nonliterate people face when using mobile phones. In his study Chipchase explores some of the ways mobile phone companies need to adapt for nonliterate people. He mentions iconography being one of the most suggested forms of leaping the literacy hurdle. The concept basically is using icons or pictures to represent the different functions of the phone (Chipchase 2008). For instance, a person may not be able to read or understand the word phonebook so instead of writing that into the interface they replace it with a picture of a handset phone. This raises a number of issues. First of which is not all icons are recognizable to different cultures, and it would be incredibly costly for phone manufacturers to develop an icon based interface tailored to different regions of the globe.
Take for instance the save icon on almost any word processing program. It is a picture of a floppy disk, which by anybody’s definition extremely outdated yet still recognizable. In 10 years younger generations would very likely not have a clue what a floppy disk is or how it works, much as the majority of generation X may not know what a vacuum tube is or how it worked. Iconography is heavily seated in social and cultural archetypes, which makes it a really inefficient means of giving access to those who are textually illiterate.
Some other solutions that Chipchase posed would tailor the technology to those who were textually illiterate in many ways. One way was elimination soft keys and rocker buttons, which serve really no inherent purpose other than the functions that they are assigned to by the user (which is nearly impossible for nonliterate people to do on their own). In the place of these keys would be hard buttons with universally recognized functions that would make the process of using the device easier and more intuitive (Chipchase 2008). Another suggestion was to standardize settings like time and date and the more intricate settings of the phone, which are complex and difficult to understand. In doing so Chipchase suggested a phone menu with very few functions such as phonebook, calling, and texting (Chipchase 2008).
This begs the question of why the solution of dumbing down the device is the best solution? The answer is that it isn’t or shouldn’t be the ultimate solution, for phone companies would only serve to benefit from this in the short term. The inferred goal of doing this would be to market and sell an easier more simplistic phone to those areas that are not literate and slowly phase in more features that would be learned by those who use the phone. Implementing training and classes for phones could also increase the understanding of the technology, its functions, and uses in the long term. So while mobile technologies in developing areas may be hindered by illiteracy, they may in fact serve as a solution to it in the long run.
Farman, J. (2012). Historicizing Mobile Media: Locating the Transformations of Embodied Space. The Mobile Media Reader
Chipchase, Jan. (2008). “Reducing Illiteracy as a Barrier to Mobile Communication.” In Katz, J. E. (Ed.). Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. P. 79-89
History Channel. “An Early Morse Telegraph Machine” JPEG. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/HITH-MORSE1.jpg
Ruby Software. “Save Icon” PNG. Retrieved from http://www.veryicon.com/icon/png/Application/Toolbar%20Icons/Save.png
Judge, M. (Director) (2006). Idiocracy [Web]. Retrieved from http://podblanc.mobi/videos/9228/idiocracy-hospital-scene