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May 30, 2004

Ethnographic Disruptions

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Posted by Ross Mayfield

An interesting interview with Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell challenges assumptions of technology in disparate cultures. "My hypothesis was that there was no variation, that there was a global middle class engaged in the same kinds of relationships with technology. It was a hypothesis that was rapidly disproved." We have highlighted the use of social software to support third places, between work and home, by early adopters in the West, however:
One of the things that became clear in Asia, and is becoming true in the West, but we're not really good at seeing it, is that people are using these technologies for those third activities. In Asia, it's visible in the way people use mobile devices to support religious activities. The nicest example is people using their mobile phones to find Mecca. LGE, a Korean handset company, has produced a Mecca-finding handset with GPS technology in it. So it's a tool of religious devotion. They anticipated selling 300 million units in the first couple years.
AJ Kim also highlighted the people-centric (instead of topic-centric) nature of social networking has an intrinsic fit with mobile devices. But what happens when not everyone can afford one so they are shared? Or when cost and skills require intermediation with devices?
In the U.S., we imagine that mobile phones are linked to individuals, and it's a mode of individual communication. In fact, the model of privatized ownership is one of our foundational social notions, even within the family. We have one of everything -- our own cars our own TV, PC . . . But people believe in different ways of ownership . . . There's a bunch of working classes and ethnic groups that own phones in common. The model is not individual-to-individual communications, but node to node, or social network to social network, and that model is proliferating, particularly as devices move out of middle classes and into a wider spectrum in society where people are never going to own them individually.
Its interesting to consider tools that support individuals who are a proxy for an offline social network. Groups become more than first class objects, the proxy represents the multitude of interests and combinations to other groups. Mobile devices that support transitive ownership may be more server-centric and counter the models of device manufacturers (intelligent edges) and service providers (variable billing). What happens when there is no end to end-to-end?

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