Friday, April 18, 2008

Kula ringtones

An article in the NYT this past week describes the life of the Jan Chipchase, an anthropologist working for Nokia who researches how a cell phone can be most useful to people in growing cities of the "developing" world.

Corporate jobs are a swelling pool of opportunity for anthropologists, who can provide valuable insight on untapped markets. These opportunities lead us to question whether or not we are compromising those values that originally brought [most of] us to the field. To some the corporate job is the selling of self and culture for profit. In the harm-reduction camp, the insight that anthropology provides can help companies approach these markets in ways that can suit both parties more appropriately.

The end of the applied anthropologist, which [I think] ought to be defined primarily by an understanding of a culture, is compromised by that uncompromisable end of the corporation's, which is profit, whose only interest in culture is that which is relevant to it. There is no going back to the boss here to say "I think these people are just fine without cell phones." And true, that would be a tough pitch to make anyway because what quality of life could not benefit from the immediate access to information given by the cell phone? In case you had any doubts, allow them to rub the softest spot in the debate on the graces of technology, which is health and medicine. The article lists some convincing examples, although in a country where maybe 10 people might exist without a cell phone, I still can't text message any doctor for medical advice.

Not long after comes the Wishmaster mechanism, which in this case, couldn't be more blatant. Researchers ask inhabitants of a city in Ghana to sketch their dream phone which, as the author realizes, reveals dreams themselves. Dreams that a mobile phone corporation would love to sell back. In the meantime, nightmares ravage the Democratic Republic of the Congo where rebel groups, committing some of the most gruesome acts on the planet, are funded by the mining of coltan, a mineral used to build computer chips such as those used in cell phones.

On one side we have the corporate machine, which has left the anthropologist with not a single way of life to study that has been untouched by its hegemony. On the other we have anthropology, which [we hope] champions an understanding of other cultures for more than just how they can increase profits. The best hope for these corporate anthropology departments is that they will advise companies on more sensitive approaches to those cultures that they will penetrate anyway, one way or another. I don't think there is much getting around that these cultures stand to lose as much as they stand to gain, if at least the sight of its own sacrifice. I wonder if the corporate ethnographer can relate.