Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Live Networks, Dead Zones, and the Transnational Deceased

In "A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace," John Perry Barlow declares the independence of netizens from state power but also of the constraints of "flesh and steel" that the governance of the material world represents. Often the ads of telecommunications companies depict transactions automagically as unfettered contacts between disembodied minds free of geography, landscape, labor, and existing structures of power. Or, in the case of this Citibank ad, embodiment is unobstructed by blockages: the young, affluent traveler uses mobile money in a fantasy unconstrained by the family that pays him; no reciprocity is expected, and the transaction happens instantly.

The panel at the conference for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion about "The Circulation of People and Commodities," moderated by my Sixth College colleague anthropologist David Pedersen, focused on how existing circuits of exchange complicated the notion that a globalized economy could effect all its transactions instantaneously with handy ubiquitous computing devices as though traditional practices around money never existed.

From the standpoint of a would-be designer of mobile money technologies, Melissa Cliver of Sustainable Seattle offered a strategy that she called "Follow the Bean," which focused on ICTs or information and communication technologies that were oriented around what was "useful, usable, and desirable" for people in the developing world. (Learn more about Cliver's team here.)

Her group had begun the project with a series of elegant visual protoypes, which included an aggregation of colorful pie charts representing debt in a scheme of visual-based management in which categories like "clothes," "food," "music," "bills," and "going out." As they moved toward working with cooperative farmers in a potentially sustainable fair trade industry like coffee, they refocused their efforts on a method of co-design involving stakeholders.

To demonstrate her point Cliver showed coffee farmers holding up pages of paper with their own diagrams and written explanations. She asserted that in addition to observing people in the coffee industry on a day-to-day basis -- and capturing the difference between what they do and what they say they do that such observation entails -- it was important for her project to be engaged in "sharing intention" when it came to their research on designing financial services that made sense for them. She described them as a group who were "experts of their own experience."

From her group's fieldwork Cliver described how they discovered that there were cash stream “personalities” among the population that they were studying. For example, according to a principle of analogous labor, extra money earned selling flowers should be spent on similarly enjoyable things. In this way money from welfare or social programs was for school; crops provided money for day-t0-day needs; remittances were for building; and loans were for equipment and supplies.

In visualizing a transition from terms and images associated with the current state to those associated with the desired state, Cliver explained that the co-op served as the intermediary between the financier and the day worker. She characterized her design work as being intended to make a "tool for translating behavior" that followed a journey model that encompassed the day laborer, the farmer, the consumer, and the financier. To do so, she chose three impact areas: savings, communication, and community. To begin the process, her team generated blue-sky concepts with titles like "farmshares," "m-sharing," "round-up for livelihood," "skype sisters," and "food friends" working together in an interlocking system.

Then Cliver's team developed more pragmatic working prototypes. In "Send the Change" the co-op receives a partnered cash stream for savings via text, the corporation who finances the coffee trade gets a tax deduction, and the consumer becomes more connected to point of origin information. Cliver insisted that "consumers want to participate" and not to be left out of the financier-importer loop. Other concepts had titles like "work ready," "community builder," and "visual summary."

Cliver talked about the value of data visualization oriented around "data linking" based on suitable cooperatives. She explained how she had used Microsoft Pivot, which supported both mobile and web-based interactions, to show day laborers when and where they need to be, which farmers need help, and how monetization and service providers could work more effectively, although she also used non-digital storyboards to generate visualization. Like others on the panel, she thought that much of this activity was about learning. Now Cliver is moving toward "concept validation" by testing her design work with Starbucks, TransFair USA, and Root Capital.

Heather Horst opened her presentation on "Mobiles, Migrants and Money: A Study of Mobility at the Haitian-Dominican Republic Border" by reminding the audience about the trauma of the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the importance of money in efforts both to respond to the disaster and to support the process of eventual rebuilding. When banks were closed for weeks after the earthquake, the failures in the financial infrastructure were particularly marked. (Horst is also part of the Digital Media and Learning Central research hub, where I am a blogger.)

Espelencia Baptiste provided some of the most memorable details about the life of money in Haiti. She described how she interviewed moneychangers, who characterized themselves as "semi-broken eggs" that were vulnerable because they had to deal with the travails of moving, storing, and dealing with money. Specifically, this involved negotiating visibility and invisibility, since they had to sit in clusters for protection in public places. Baptiste also explained how women carried money in a girdle, and even showed a slide of the kind of garment that she described. Among her female informants, currency might be divided between a bag, a bra, and underwear to keep money safe.

Photo credit: Espelencia Baptiste, 2010

Baptiste also did undercover work that examined what it would take to deposit $20. After joining one of three huge lines early in the morning, she waited out the trip to the teller that entailed three hours for a single three-minute transaction. A combination of time spent, bribery faced, alienation endured, and teller micromanagement aimed at illiterate customers undergone apparently kept many potential bank customers away, according to Baptiste.

The final panelist in the Haiti group, Erin Taylor, mapped the movements of commodities and people round the island. Electronics, coconuts, plantains, and money were all part of this economy, but there were also many forms of interference in these circuits of exchange, given the difficulties of sending money and role of boats, buses, and traditional modes of transportation in the lives of Haitians. As Taylor explained, many Haitians travel into the Dominican Republic on a daily basis, but language difficulties, racism, and the exchange rates charged by transfer offices discouraged these Haitians from using e-money. Instead, as Taylor explained it, these people preferred "to take long way around." Furthermore, most did not own a cell phone, and those who had them might have to walk miles to get a decent signal. Thus, even the Haitians in borders actively engaged in transborder trade might be disconnected from emergent money practices.

Horst concluded by emphasizing the importance of social networks and social support, even as mobile financial service providers emphasized their promotions and potential reach. In Haiti intermediaries with longstanding social connections were responsible for carrying deposits, entering in phone numbers, or helping people buy airtime minutes on the street. Those who push for new technological solutions should not focus on "replacing middleman or middlewoman," according to Horst, because "we need to see these individuals as central to success." As she put it, "people in social networks are the infrastructure," even in a time of what she called "dynamic" change, as the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative moves forward.

The last panelist, AKM Ahsan Ullah of the University of Cairo, began his presentation by explaining his own woes with the financial transactions of the IMTFI grant, which prevented starting his research any sooner than the very recent date of July 1st. In "Unknown remittances of the migrants died abroad: A study on the recovery and dynamics of usage of remittances," Ullah painted a grim picture of the thousands of migrants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia who perish every year and their unaccounted for earnings that seem to perish with them. Ullah had planned to interview the familes of two hundred migrants from Bangladesh to understand the 14,000 migrants from that country who die abroad every year. The families find themselves bearing the costs of transporting the body home, after they sent a family member to a foreign country, often after that person had borrowed money from multiple sources to finance their migration. His preliminary research showed that most families disagreed with the listed cause of death, there was no assistance from the government, and loved ones were unable to recover money earned by the deceased.

In transitioning to a conversation with the audience, Pedersen reminisced about his own experiences with the informality of life in El Salvador decades ago and reminded those in attendance that the circulation of people and products was actually more like waves in the ocean not marbles in a box. In describing what they were aiming to do collectively in thinking about the design problems of money, Cliver said that this was not just about alleviating poverty. She described her goals as aiding knowledge, improving transparency, providing access to power, and interrogating the very meaning of financial inclusion.

Although, this advertisement depicts the financial transaction itself as effortless, the difficult problems of the purchase of material goods, of the emotional attachments between people and between people and objects, and of the disappointments of commodity capitalism more generally come into focus.

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