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“je l’ai bipé, il m’a raplé”: appropriation by naming June 9, 2007

Posted by François in appropriation, creolization, language.

An important way in which people appropriate technology is by naming what they do with it. Take for example the well-established practice of communicating through “missed calls” –dialing and hanging-up right away before the correspondent picks up. This is free, since there is no actual call, and it leaves a trace in the form of a ‘missed call message’. Depending on the context, it can mean anything from “call me back” to “I’m thinking of you” or “pick me up at the train station.” In Africa’s English-speaking countries, this is usually called “beeping” or “flashing”, a practical verb: “I’ll beep you when I get there”, or “he keeps flashing me.”

In French, my nephews tell me that their friends use “biper” in the same way: “je l’ai bipé, il m’a raplé.” They also use “faire sonner” (“make ring”) as in “il m’a fait sonner une fois dans la galerie marchande“, or simply “sonner”: ” Il m’a sonné today pour le revoir, ça me fait ultra plaisir“. Others use the much more cumbersome “appel en absence” (that’s the way the phone company names these missed calls, litterally “call while absent”), as in “tu l’as relancé avec un appel en absence et il a pas répondu” or “je sentais bien à ses 7 appels en absence qu’elle commençait à s’impatienter!”

Spanish has a varied and creative vocabulary: people have contracted the “llamadas perdidas” (“lost calls”) into the noun “llamper” as in “hazme una llamper y hablamos un ratillo“, also sometimes spelled “jumper”; Pixel y Dixel collected the following: “la del gitano”, “la cobra”, “toque”, “una perdida”, “llamacuelga”, “manco” as in “hacerse el manco”, “la del manco” o “llamada manca”, “mansajitos misios.” In Chile, it is “pinchar” as in “No….no hay forma que este personaje me esté pinchando…no way” (“pinchar” means “to poke” or “to prick”, as well as “to click with a mouse”, as in “pinchar sobre File” – Wikipedia notes that in Chilean slang, “pinchar” also means “to make-out or hook-up sexually” I wonder if there is a connection…)

What do you call this in your neighborhood?


Vehicle/phone mash-ups (2): horse-phones? June 8, 2007

Posted by François in creolization, vehicles.
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Accra’s bike-phone and Lake Victoria’s boat-phone are only the latest illustrations of the natural fit between mobile phones and vehicles. In fact, the creolization practice of grafting communication devices onto means of transportation far predates the time when phones became truly mobile. Marconi is said to have created the first land-based wireless mobile device in 1901 when he installed a radio on a steam-powered truck (this was used for data, not voice.) Bell Labs claims credit for the first car-mounted radio telephone, in 1924. Apparently, Lars Magnus Ericsson operated the first car phone as early as 1910. This was not wireless: “there were two long sticks, like fishing rods, handled by [Lars’ wife] Hilda. She would hook them over a pair of telephone wires.”

One of my favorite early mash-ups is the “horse phone” deployed by the US cavalry in 1907, whose key innovation was that it used the body of the horse as part of the electrical circuit. In September 1907, Popular Mechanics reported:

“Like earlier horse-phones, it had a cord. Wire stored on a 5-mile reel played out as a scout rode. The improved model let a rider make calls without having to first dismount and then drive a spike into the ground to complete the electrical connection. Instead, the grounding wire was attached to the horse’s skin. The mild electrical current would pass through its body to its hoofs, one of which was almost always touching the ground.” (I first read about the horse phone 10 years ago on Bruce Sterling’s “dead-media” list and, like him, I was amazed that there had been “earlier horse-phones.”)

(click on pictures for credits and additional information)

Vehicle/phone mash-ups (1): bike-phones and boat-phones June 8, 2007

Posted by François in co-opt, creolization.
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Accounts of cell phone appropriation in developing countries are filled with tales of ingenious mash-ups combining public phones with a variety of vehicles. Here is a sample:

These are often told as user appropriation stories. But in fact (with the possible exception of the wheelchair phone) they are cases where suppliers re-claim earlier user innovation. In many African and Asian countries, when cell phones first appeared, enterprising individuals appropriated the new technology as “public phones,” reselling their minutes on the street. Mobile phone companies were quick to co-opt this innovative practice. They provided micro-loans to the public phone entrepreneurs and rolled-out accounting features that helped them manage their retail business. Some went further and came up with public payphones mounted on various kinds of vehicles.

These phone/transportation mash-ups make for striking pictures, underscoring the phone’s mobility. However, beyond this symbolic value, I wonder what real need they serve. Has anyone examined the details of the bike-phone business? The Rajasthan article cites a 75,000 rupee ($1,641) cost for the rickshaw set-up. This only works because Shyam Telecom gives the rickshaws away, as charity. And is the guy on the boat calling his family so they can pick him up as soon as the boat docks, just like impatient frequent-flyers do as soon as their plane has landed? These may well make sense as publicity stunts by phone operators, but it isn’t clear they constitute useful innovation.

(click on pictures for credits and additional information)

Wordsmithing “appropriation” May 31, 2007

Posted by François in theory, writing process.

In our draft paper (pp. 23-35), we locate appropriation practices within a 3-step technology cycle (adoption / appropriation / re-configuration), then distinguish three appropriation practices: baroque layering, creolization, and cannibalism. We are not completely happy with these labels, for two reasons. First, re-configuration is confusing because it could also describe practices like creolization and cannibalism. Second, the labels conceal who does what: in our model, users appropriate and suppliers re-configure, but that’s not directly obvious. So, we went back to the drawing board and came up with this new version of the 3-step cycle.

We hope to convey four key ideas:

1) This cycle describes the iterative evolution of a technology. Suppliers roll-out a technology and, once they adopt it, users quickly begin to appropriate it – they modify it to make it their own. Suppliers then strive to re-claim control, either to take advantage of the innovations users have come up with, or to stop them. In the process, they produce a new technology, which users can then further adopt (or reject), then appropriate, etc. Technology evolution is the cumulative outcome of successive cycles.

2) Technology always entails an implied power structure – a set of built-in assumptions about who can use it, at what cost, under what conditions, for what purpose, and with what consequences. At their core, appropriation practices are the strategies users pursue to re-negotiate this power structure.

3) We identify three appropriation practices that constitute three increasingly conflictive re-negotiation strategies. With baroque infiltration, users personalize technology along options set out by technology suppliers – their practice is congruent with the supplier’s intentions and business plan. By contrast, when users creolize technology, they venture beyond the supplier’s intentions to ‘re-mix’ technological components in unintended ways, with results that may or may not match the supplier’s interests. At the extreme, users who cannibalize technology intend to confront suppliers – their re-invention clashes with the supplier’s interests. All three strategies, we argue, are deeply creative practices that result in innovation.

4) In reaction to users’ appropriation practices, suppliers will attempt to re-claim control over their technology. Mirroring user appropriation strategies, we identify three reclamation practices that are increasingly conflictive. At their most conciliatory, suppliers co-opt user-generated innovation and modify their technology to embrace new users practices. Then again, they may chose instead to compromise and accommodate only some portion of user-generated innovations. At the extreme, they may decide to close the door and block the innovations users have produced.

A few problems remain with these new labels: “personalize” isn’t great (but unfortunately, “baroquize” is not a word…), and “compromise” isn’t that good either to describe the suppliers’ middle-ground approach to reclamation. Suggestions welcome.

Boost: cheap appropriable mobile internet May 23, 2007

Posted by François in boost, cannibalism.

Following up on a tip from Brett Stalbaum, I have been playing with a Boost mobile pre-paid phone. The two low-end models, Motorola i415 and i455 respectively sell for $30 and $50, including a $10 credit. Both have a built-in GPS. The interesting part is that Boost offers unlimited data for $0.35 per day. Combine that with the fact that Motorola recently opened the java interface to its iDen phones, and you have unlimited mobile internet access for about $10/month (I have yet to make a voice call. That would cost $0.20/min.) In addition to browsing the net with the phone, you can also use it as a tethered modem for a computer (instructions here; very slow — I’m only getting about 10kb/s… I need to figure out how to unlock Widen)

This Boost offer is being fully cannibalized by mologogo, the free social location service: they have appropriated it as a cheap networked GPS tool (they sell Boost phones, preloaded with their software, at a slight premium over the Boost price.) Mologogo’s web pages even include tips on “stopping unwanted calls”, to make sure nobody calls and eats up precious pre-paid time (receiving calls also disrupts the GPS application.) I wonder what Boost thinks about all this… A dynamic hacker community is emerging to do all kinds of interesting things with this. Mologogo has also used the twitter API to create a ‘molotwit’ mashup.

So far I have loaded up the opera mini browser, gmail, and mologogo (you can see where abaporu has been hanging out lately). One of the interesting features of the boost pre-paid plan is that it doesn’t charge users for incoming SMS. So, with the unlimited data plan, you can use m.twitter to send free SMS to a twitter feed, and boost phones that subscribe to that feed get free twitter updates. There has to be an interesting project that can take advantage of that… any brilliant ideas?

São Paulo’s motoboy ethnographers May 22, 2007

Posted by François in creolization.

Earlier this year, 12 motorcycle couriers in São Paulo started using camera-phones to chronicle their daily lives. They get together periodically to discuss each other’s finds and decide collectively what stories they want to cover. The result is Canal*MOTOBOY, a real-time account of life on the Paulista streets.

This is part of “Colectivos transmiten desde teléfonos moviles” at zexe.net, and the motoboys are simply the latest addition to a growing network of “citizen ethnographers”. They join 17 taxi drivers in Mexico City, 25 young gitanos in Lleida, and 16 in León, 10 prostitutes in Madrid, 40 people with disabilities in Barcelona, and 19 immigrants from Nicaragua in Costa Rica.

A fascinating collective appropriation of mobile phones to create a story-telling network. The resulting tales are well worth reading.

(photo: zexe.net/SAOPAULO)

Nokia’s handset re-configuration May 15, 2007

Posted by François in nokia, re-configuration.
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public phone operator, GhanaNokia has announced the launch of new handsets aimed at “entry markets” (a euphemism for poor countries.) These phones include several new features: “phone-sharing” lets up to five people keep separate phonebooks on the single phone they share, “cost monitoring” allows users to pre-set how much (time or money) they want to spend on a call, automatically cutting it off when that limit is reached. These should help: in her fieldwork on public phone operators in Ghana, Araba Sey observed countless arguments -and occasional fistfights- when operators and their customers can’t agree on how long a call really lasted.

It is particularly noteworthy that these new features result from Nokia’s careful observation of the innovative practices invented by phone users in developing countries, as they appropriated a technology initially designed for much richer customers. In re-configuring its phones to support these practices, Nokia creates a useful new technology platform, which we expect will be enthusiastically adopted. It will be interesting to see how this new platform gets further appropriated…

(picture by Araba Sey: public phone operator in Ghana)

Technology appropriation in a distant mirror May 14, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cannibalism, creolization, theory.

The ideas we plan to explore in this blog are laid out in “Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: baroque infiltration, creolization and cannibalism”, by François Bar, Francis Pisani and Matthew Weber (April 07) [PDF – draft]. The paper was presented on April 12th as part of the Annenberg Center’s DIY speaker series, and on April 20th in Buenos Aires at the Seminario sobre Desarrollo Económico, Desarrollo Social y Comunicaciones Móviles en América Latina hosted by Fundación Telefónica [PPT slides]. Howard Rheingold covered the Annenberg Center presentation in the DIY blog: part1 and part2.

We welcome comments on this draft.