Questioning the global mobile Apparatgeist (timely, from the archives 2010)

The Economist recently put forth an argument strongly reminiscent of Theodore Levitt’s 1983 HBR classic “The globalization of markets” (PDF) where he first framed the concept that global consumer preferences were converging, thus companies could develop, launch and market the same product across the globe – “Different cultural preferences, national tastes and standards, and business institutions are vestiges of the past.” We know where that argument went however, so lets take a closer look at the venerable Economist’s thesis. A few key snippets,

A few years ago such questions provoked academic controversy. Not everybody agrees with Ms Ito’s argument that technology is always socially constructed. James Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Jersey, argues that there is an Apparatgeist (German for “spirit of the machine”). For personal communication technologies, he argues, people react in pretty much the same way, a few national variations notwithstanding. “Regardless of culture,” he suggests, “when people interact with personal communication technologies, they tend to standardise infrastructure and gravitate towards consistent tastes and universal features.”

and even more reminiscent of Levitt’s words,

In the long run most national differences will disappear, predicts Scott Campbell of the University of Michigan, author of several papers on mobile-phone usage. But he expects some persistence of variations that go back to economics. In poorer countries subscribers will handle their mobile phones differently simply because they lack money. Nearly all airtime in Africa is pre-paid. Practices such as “beeping” are likely to continue for quite a while: when callers lack credit, they hang up after just one ring, a signal that they want to be called back.

Curiosity made me seek out Campbell’s studies, one of which (PDF) looked at cross cultural usage patterns – from its abstract, we learn these cultures are “A sample of participants from the U.S. Mainland, Hawaii, Japan, Taiwan, and Sweden was surveyed for social acceptability assessments of talking on a mobile phone in each of these locations.” Quite.

One fears The Economist has been a tad slapdash in constructing their thesis of an emerging global mobile Apparatgeist for their own data chart above shows that we are now close to 4 and half billion mobile phone users in the world. Even a cursory glance at the numbers would inform us that not more than the first billion and a half were members of such well off and well connected nations such as those studied above or the OECD.

Can the converging practices and habits of a quarter of the total user base influence the rest strongly enough to give rise to such a singular global mobile culture or will the other 75% of mobile phone users continue on with their workarounds and innovations, overlooked and unnoticed by the “world” until their influence bursts forth as a “surprise”? Or will the global media’s apparatchiks finally unblinker their vision to consider the mobile majority and its own growing influence? These differences posed by the mobile majority  are those that stand poised to influence global convergence in their own particular way. (as has been discussed in previous posts on the BoPNet and the DevNet)

Certainly, it can be said that Levitt’s prediction of a global marketplace ruled by standardized products sold at low prices (1) has come true for the global mobile phone market, but it is one thing to build standard hardware for the world and entirely another to minimize the immense challenges posed by economics, not to mention culture and language, literacy and contextual knowledge as The Economist does,

Only a few countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, still need special cultural attention when designing a phone (which is why some models in India double as torches).

That’s right, only a few countries that happen to constitute a market of  2 or 3 billion people btw, a fact that neither manufacturers nor service providers overlook as they consider how best to serve these markets.

It is this article’s implication that only the converging social or cultural behaviour of the first world masses constitute any kind of global trend – future or otherwise – that diminishes the importance of the wireless platform, its impact and influence on the daily lives, the wellbeing and the income of the rest. It also underlines the blinkered perspective of the (not even mainstream anymore really) media and analysis that tends to skew perception of the global mobile market and its attendant potential, challenges and opportunities for innovation.

December 2013 Update note: Has this worldview begun to change?

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