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Mobile vs. Internet: what transcends what?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd July 2008


I have always felt uncomfortable with arguments like those of the Communities Dominate Brands blog, that argue that mobile is to the internet, as TV is to radio.

I intuitively feel this is a wrong approach, without being able to argue it coherently so far. My first arguments would be that yes, mobiles are a good thing for the connectivity they bring, but compared to the usages of the internet through a computer, it is a lot less rich, dominated still by closed standards and walled gardens, etc.. At best, the glass is half full. The second argument would have been to argue that a binary distinction is wrong, that peer to peer is not about just computers, but about a full spectrum of enabling technologies, which includes both the computer-based internet AND mobiles.

I’m very happy therefore to have discovered the work of Japanese researcher Mito Akiyoshi, who is being interviewed at Putting People First.

She clearly shows that using only mobile is also a handicap, which in many ways perpetuates forms of the digital divide.

Excerpts:

Japan is indeed a global leader in mobile telephony: the mobile phone has brought ICT to those who would otherwise not have used technology. Yet the mobile phone has not eliminated the digital divide at all. My research shows that existing patterns of inequality strongly influence the type of technology and technology use certain kinds of people exhibit. Generally speaking, there are three types of ICT users in terms of access to hardware: “Literati” are those people who use both computers and mobile phones. A second group consists of a fairly large number of people who use mobile phones but rarely use PC’s. The third group are those who use neither. The last group is obviously decreasing now because of the pervasiveness of the internet, but even the second group could be considered on the wrong side of the digital divide — unable to make the most of ICT.

All of that would be OK if the choice was just that: a matter of choice. But often it isn’t. Web contents accessed on a computer are quite different from those accessed on a mobile device. For example, my research shows that respondents use a PC for professional reasons and to access government services. The use of a mobile phone however is mainly limited to entertainment related activities. Those who use mobile phones and not the PC tend to be less educated, less wealthy, and/or female. So, their reliance on their mobile phone and their non-use of the PC could also be interpreted as perpetuating a less privileged status.

I am still looking for good labels to identify these different types of users, and in particular those who use the mobile but not the PC. The distinction between “univore” and “omnivore” as used in cultural sociology could be useful. The “univores” refer to people with limited cultural resources who consume just one type of genre, e.g. hip-hop. The “omnivores” on the other hand are endowed with rich resources: they enjoy multiple genres. According to this view, the distinction between middle class and working class is not based on their preference for particular genres, but rather on their ability to consume a wide range of cultural products. So based on this logic, I could probably use the term “mobile univore”.

InternetActu.net: What does the mobile phone prevent that the combination of internet and mobile enables?

Mito Akiyoshi: Studies have shown that PC Internet users acquire new ICT skills as they become more familiar with the web. It is a virtuous circle. Initially you go online to address a particular need, but then you discover other services and applications and you do a lot of “learning by doing”. The PC Internet encourages people to explore. The mobile Internet on the other hand provides only basic internet related services, which are often limited to entertainment and leisure activities. The mobile internet is rarely a channel for serious, productive activities. Even the content and service quality differs. Although you can read news on both the computer and the mobile phone, news items on the mobile tend to be brief and sketchy, because of space limitations. If you read news and opinion stories in the newspaper or on a PC, you can learn a lot. But if you read news summaries on the mobile phone, you miss out on this learning opportunity.”

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