The mobile as printing press, but disrupting what?

In a stimulating lunch with Jon Gosier (dont believe his claims to be merely a techie – he’s a true social entrepeneur and a seeder of thoughts) I said it seemed like the mobile phone was the printing press of our time, disrupting existing systems. He said he saw the biggest disruption taking place in the banking sector (his eloquent post on that’s here).

The question that really stayed with me is what that means for people making that shift. What does it mean to choose a technology based financial system, as opposed to traditional, social based systems? What impact does it have on families, communities where financial transaction have been informal, and often ‘public’? Consider the following:

Migrant workers send $414 billion annually (with an additional 30-40% through informal channels) to their families every year. A common form is the hawalla system, an informal network of brokers who transfer money based on trust, the promise of reimbursement and direct to recipient transactions.

The interesting point for me is that the final receipt of cash is a fairly public transaction – the family and often community would know when the money had arrived, and often how much. And with that knowledge comes expectations about how that money is spent, expectations that must be met to retain ones social position.

Now if the remittance takes place through a mobile phone – either through transfer of mobile credit, through bank linked transfers or Western Union – the cash arrives on your phone. Only the recipient (and sender) knows, and suddenly there are a new set of choices about what to do with the money, choices that were previously unavailable.

What does that mean for communities defined by informal links? Do savings increase? Do relationships to other powerholders (landowners, rent-seekers and other forms of corruption) change?

Do mobile phone based financial transactions strengthen individual choice making? What might costs of that increased choice be? What value do those same informal networks hold that might make that choice to send money through a phone less appealing?

What was the cost to communities of giving up the Church as the gatekeeper of knowledge?


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