The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication

The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication

The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication

The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication

Synopsis

The book traces the impact of the cell phone from personal issues of loneliness and depression to the global concerns of the modern economy and the trans-national family. As the technology of social networking, the cell phone has become central to establishing and maintaining relationships in areas from religion to love. The Cell Phone presents the first detailed ethnography of the impact of this new technology through the exploration of the cell phone's role in everyday lives.

Excerpt

On a Friday evening in November of 2004,1 an executive bus, travelling between Half-Way-Tree (the main bus terminus in central Kingston) and the suburb of Portmore, made its way down congested Hagley Park Road. As the bus stopped at a traffic light near Three Mile, an area surrounded by many of Jamaica's infamous garrison communities, four 'youths' shoved open the door. Brandishing an AK47, they boarded the bus and ordered every passenger to place their cell phone in a black scandal bag. The passengers on the full bus passed up their cell phones one by one. But when only twenty-six cell phones arrived the youths became angry and demanded that the remaining three phones be passed to the front of the bus, where it is clearly stated that the bus capacity is twenty-nine passengers. Eventually the youths were able to coerce the reluctant passengers into giving up the remaining phones and got off the bus without further incident.

Although we travelled this very same route to Kingston on a regular basis in order to interview government and company officials, this particular evening we had remained in Portmore. When we heard about the hijacking, its significance for our project was obvious, but became even more so over the course of the next month as it was transformed into urban legend. When we presented a workshop at the University of the West Indies less than two weeks later, a woman recounted the incident. By that time some of the details had changed; one account added some violence and some details about the age of the youths and another version included extra guns. The story continued to travel and capture the imaginations as well as the fears of residents across Portmore and Kingston, not only because it signalled what many predicted would be a bad season for crime in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, but because of what it said about the cell phone - whereas just a few years ago many low-income Jamaicans had little access to any kind of phone, now these youths could simply assume that twenty-nine passengers represented twenty-nine phones.

Our project, funded by the British Department for International Development (DFID), was one of four simultaneous ethnographies devoted to a general assessment of the relationship between new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and poverty alleviation in Ghana, India, Jamaica and South Africa. Our contribution involved research on the impact of ICTs among Jamaicans in two . . .

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