Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Middle-Aged Technology

As someone now directing a series of courses on Culture, Art, and Technology, including a first-quarter sequence on material culture and artifacts, money is a subject about which I feel considerable pedagogical investment. After all, we are teaching a lot about money this quarter in all our CAT courses: cowry shells, ancient coins, bank notes, and e-barter are all subjects discussed from the podium by our faculty team.

So I was delighted to be asked to be the official blogger for the annual research conference of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion. (I wrote about their Bottom of the Pyramid conference last year too.)

My former UCI colleague Bill Maurer leads the institute and gave the welcome address at the conference. In his opening remarks, Maurer reviewed "what I bought yesterday and how I paid for it." Maurer's repertoire of monetary transactions from a single day began with a breakfast with cash, moved on to lunch with a swiped credit card, continued with a free coffee acquired with loyalty card, was temporarily stalled when an attempt to pay for a Coke for another conference participant with coupon failed before the problem was resolved by charging the hotel room for the drink, resumed again smoothly with a text message that a cell phone bill had been automatically paid with a deduction from Maurer's bank account, and concluded with a dinner charged to UC Irvine corporate card. Maurer pointed out that this process of self-maintenance largely devoted to keeping himself "caffeinated and awake" entailed engagement with "six different payment methods and technologies."

As Maurer put it, in the affluent contemporary culture of the United States "we generally have a choice of payment," but our range of ways to imagine money in the developed world actually could be seen as impoverished compared to the developing world where creative monetary improvisation, informal monetary schemes, and highly formalized non-Western cultural practices that could include credit or merit with a religious figure, which was a real value that could be cashed, could be instructive as money is reimagined worldwide. Maurer also noted the importance of paying attention to the sometimes invisible monetary practices associated with payment methods among the U.S. poor, including EBT food stamps systems, rather than only focusing on the practices of an exoticized other.

He also admitted that his previous optimism about starting the IMFTI with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had been modulated by a worldwide financial crisis in which "the unbanked might have made do better." However, since its launch, the IMFTI generally has become known for countering the romance with purely technological solutions that appears on magazine cover stories about e-money or mobile money, because in the "new world of financial inclusion," people often used a mixed approach that keeps old practices and emphasizes supplementation rather than replacement of a supposedly outmoded monetary technology.

His think-tank also addresses the fact that "surprisingly little data on people’s existing practices having to do with money" exists, despite the long history in academic of disciplines like economics and economic anthropology. This "surprisingly thin" record might seem unlikely, given the obviously symbolic characteristics of money. Maurer cited the fact that we retain coupons that are never redeemed and receipts that are never reimbursed as evidence of our own systems of belief at work. Although there is "quite a lot of data on the diverse use cases of the mobile phone," even social practices involving the material equipment and swapping out SIM cards and sharing phones is often less documented.

Maurer explained that his group is "mainly supporting researchers from the developing world," and he acknowledge that he "had no idea of how things would go" beyond "interesting little case studies." However, he was pleased to report a real "hunger" for IMTFI research that "drilled down" into daily practices. In particular he said that the IMTFI's document on "design principles," which he described as partly serious and tongue in cheek, was nonetheless getting a lot of attention from different sectors in academia, industry, and the NGO sector.

In thinking about how this research could be disseminated, Maurer praised the "virtues of the public university system" that could spread the research of those like Melissa Cliver from the EPIC conference in Tokyo on Open Source Financial Services Research.

Often when I personally think about money as a technology, I think about it as a middle-aged technology, and one for which its temporality is often poorly understood. Money is an old technology, but not one of the oldest, so I often prefer to think of it as middle-aged.

For example, during the screening of the blockbuster misadaptation of Homer's Iliad, the Brad Pitt-vehicle Troy, I had to be sharply elbowed in order to stop loudly expressing my irritation in the movie theater at the constant presence of currency in this supposedly period piece. Somehow all of the other anachronisms bothered me less than the coins dramatically placed on the eyes of departed heroes at key moments. "They didn't have money!" I would exclaim. "Why can't they imagine a world without money and what it means!" After all, I had taught enough Homeric literature to know how central elaborate systems of hospitality were to the plot lines of epics and how these systems were necessary to manage cultural contact in the pre-monetary age.

As my new colleague, Guillermo Algaze teaches, it is important to think about technology very broadly and to include organizational systems that have nothing to do with machines or digital inventions when thinking about technology, an argument that Jared Diamond also makes in the text that Algaze teaches.

Organizational systems were central in the first set of papers about "Money and Life Course" at the conference, which was moderated by Intel's Scott Mainwaring, who frequently appears in research circles about infrastructure and exchange associated with the Intel People and Practices research group and its successor Interaction and Experience research lab led by Genevieve Bell.

The first paper of the day by Robert Tembo on "Money, Conflict, and Reciprocity in Rural Families in Zambia: The Case of Female University Students" focused on "money as experience" despite the fact that it was "mostly considered in an economic sense" that ignored deeper social and cultural meanings. By looking at money and conflict in rural families and the relationships between family members around how they organize money and the nature of conflict around money that his group of fifty college student described, Tembo hoped to address four research questions: 1) "What were some of the characteristic practices and attitudes about money?" 2) "Are family members designated particular rights, roles, and responsibilities?", 3) "To what extend does money emerge as a source of conflict?" and 4) "Does gender play a role?"

By focusing on qualitative research that centers on the “sense of reality that individuals have about their own world," Tembo hoped that his semi-structured individual interviews and the exploratory descriptive summary that he derived from it would continue to produce interesting results. His thematic content analysis emphasized the family's understanding of the hierarchy of priorities, the system of earmarking money itself, and the presence of the generalized norm of reciprocity. As he described it, this reciprocity was both horizontal and vertical, and assistance occurred both within generations and across generations.

Tembo noted that money is often set aside for particular uses in his Zambia case studies, because "money is practical way to accomplish reciprocity." Given his informants and their role as undergraduate students, the concepts of cooperation, education, and the importance of the family were central. Tembo explained that "breadwinners" and "money managers" might not be embodied in the same individuals, although "money is the domain of adults," and parents could be described as “executive directors.” Although outsiders might see a family environment that is hierarchical, with an authoritarian parenting structure, Tembo observed that the lack of conflict around money in such families did not necessarily disadvantage women, and there was also no gender based favoritism when it came to allocating resources for tertiary education, although "incidental money" might be more likely to go to male children.

Tembo was followed by a team from Chile looking at "Consumption smoothening, financial literacy and old age vulnerability: Experiences of success and failure with a private pension system in Chile," which focused on how private social security and its associated ideology of individual responsibility didn't always serve the poorest citizens asked to adapt to cultural change when a pay-as-you-go system was replaced with the individual retirement accounts of the AFP system. Suddenly Chilean workers were confronted with a choice of four different systems with varying risk factors that effectively asked them to invest money in China or India. The resulting social, economic, and institutional problems were the focus of the group. The Chilean researchers detailed the differences between "systematic perspectives" that govern the relationship between pension funds and financial markets, "institutional perspectives" that address how to enforce market-driven governance mechanisms), and "rational choice perspectives" that deal with how rational agents make decisions with the available information.

Missing in all these perspectives, according to the Chilean group, was answers to questions about why people have difficulties, how are differences in relation explained, what is the role of individual life cycle trajectories and social constraints in these processes, and what is the role played by information, learning and interpretation. (This last category has also been of interest to the group looking at new learning ecologies with Trebor Scholz, because financial literacy and improvisation provides an interesting model for informal learning more generally and digital learning in particular in which social media play a key role.)

The Chilean researchers presented data from group interviews and individual in-depth interviews and mapped out a constellation of key factors that included the "life cycle" of work trajectories added to institutional/societal events, "subjective processes," and "cognitive processes" when considering a population of low-income economic participants who do not "believe in economic security" but rather focus on "living for today" in a view of the world in which retirement issues are evaded, the future is seen as prolongation of the present, and in the current system for social pensions savings is desirable but not possible.

In the question-and-answer session Mainwaring opened by observing that "technology can hide things and also make visible certain things." Thus these seemingly non-technological opening presentations still might say something about neoliberalism that bears on designing e-money and its gadgets and platforms. Although Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was raised by the audience, the presenters were much more interested in conventions around decision-making driven by class and gender on the panel.

The panel that followed was moderated by Mark Pickens, who also blogs at the CGap technology blog. (See his introduction to the conference here.)

Research from the University of Ado-Ekiti on "Small Ruminants as a Source of Financial Security: a Case Study of Women in Rural Southwest Nigeria" was presented by Maurer, because the authors of the case study, Isaac Oluwatayo and Titilayo Busayo Oluwatayo were unable to attend the conference because of a visa snafu. The study described how money could literally be animate, given that animals were often the most immediately accessible sources of credit and were very cost-effective because they could be fed kitchen waste and graze on shrubs. In analyzing such animals as a guarantor of financial security, the Oluwatayos also examined other accessible assets and constraints to move toward policy recommendations in their research that legitimated support for traditional forms of animal husbandry involving goats.

The Oluwatayos looked at women involved in other enterprises and activities for which the goat served not just as food security but as financial security. The women were categorized using the Coping Strategies Index and and the FGT poverty index. Their informants were mostly married, from households averaging seven people. These fifty-two-year-old averaged women were relatively economically active. For them, the goat was the preferred ruminant asset, since the goat has no special religious or cultural restrictions, and everyone can eat it and store it in Nigeria. (Maurer at this point reminded audience members that the IMTFI also was interested in the study of religious and ritual uses of currency and cash.)

Farming was the main source of employment for these women's families, and over two-thirds of them were living on less than a dollar a day. The Oluwatayos discovered that the years of formal education that these women possessed proved to be a key factor, because they were better able to work the system of "livestock currency interface." In other words, as Maurer put it, "math matters."

(Having purchased a goat for an Indian village from after seeing this YouTube video, I was particularly sorry that the Oluwatayos could not attend. My family was apparently horrified by the non-traditional nature of this virtual gift, although they could have just as easily have been horrified by the explicit language and cultural ventriloquism of the video.)

Lakshmi Kumar was the next speaker with her work on the "Evaluation of Money Management Strategies between the Urban and Rural Ultra Poor," which was based on her fieldwork in Tamil Nadu and was intended to enrich current work on microfinance in rural areas. In comparing the experiences of the urban ultra poor, she noted a number of areas of interest: 1) "mobility," 2) "urban heterogeneity" in their range of trades, 3) the "lack of government support," because aid efforts tends to be aimed at rural populations, 4) the "replication of Grameen Model that is aimed at rural areas that are less heterogeneous, and 5) "habitat" because they are different in that the urban ultra poor live and work on unauthorized land. Thus their money-management strategies are different, both in how the groups smooth consumption and in how they seek technology help.

Kumar explained how a government program from the Indian government, NREGS, which offered to set up accounts for workers who would be offered 100 days of work per year at the rate of $2 per day. (In the question-and-answer session, Kumar referred the audience to the work Jean Dreze of the Delhi School of Economics on NREGS.) She also described the cultural importance of the cell phone to the urban poor population. Both systems had the potential to mitigate theft and fraud, but Kumar suggested that the practices might tell a different story. Kumar had these practices documented in the financial diaries of her informants and then analyzed them with Q-squared research that employed a mix of qualitative and quantitative tools. Mark Shreiner’s poverty scorecard was used. (One thing that repeatedly came up during the morning session was the fact that there were many ways to measure poverty.)

Kumar's urban dwellers had many occupations (saree/cloth sales, milk, flower, or vegetable fruit selling, etc.) and were mostly literate, earning about $90 per month. Kumar found evidence of "low frequency" saving, because her research subject might be able to save two dollars per month through a microfinance institutions and two to four dollars a month more at home. Residents also invested $15 per annum in accident insurance, and were even willing to invest in health coverage to plan for "health shocks," although Kumar was still trying to capture how effective this financial services was. She also argued for a need for "high frequency savings" to adapt to the volatility in the wages of people earning $1.25 to $2.25 a day.

Some of the people she studied had access to mechanisms for "smoothing consumption" with government food subsidies, free television, and access to unauthorized accommodation, She discovered that even the very poor tended to have cell phones that cost them $2-3 per month, ironically mostly from missed calls.

She also said that these people had needs related to borrowing, since they might borrow $100-200 at 3% interest per month for festivals or marriage, ceremonies, health crises, and other needs that microfinance institutions didn’t support, although MFIs would finance educational expenses if the borrower had good credit.

The final paper on the panel,"Post Redenomination and Money Management among Ghana’s Urban Poor," was presented by Edwin Clifford Mensah and Vivian Afi Dzokoto. It emphasized how low-income Ghanaians were responding to the introduction on new forms of currency in the country. The Ghanaian researchers showed slides of the hawkers, "Kayaye" or people who offered to carry loads, street beggars, and shoe shine boys who were among their informants for their thematic analysis of the transcribed interviews.

Their research emphasized both creative solutions and strange phenomena around so-called "money illusion" that was caused by the drop of four zeroes from the currency of Ghana. For example, this redenomination affected those who traditionally showered a bride with money, since the substitution of coins for paper money could harm the newly married woman. Ghanains responded by changing the practice to use Nigerian currency or by gifting soap or tinned milk. This population was also faced with a problem of storage in the move from paper to paper and coins, since the older money could be easily stuffed in a bra. Finally, visually impaired people needed an extra step in making the changeover to the new currency, since the medium and material of the money itself had changed with the introduction of coins.

Mensah and Dzokoto described a number of gaps that had resulted from redenomination. These gaps included an "access gap" because people lacked ID cards, lacked utility bills, might not be literate, might be wary of the alien atmosphere of a bank, and might not have enough money to open accounts. Thus they were left with a "love-hate relationship" with "susu dealers," the non-bank moneylenders who go from door-to-door. These susu dealers could dupe trusting people, but they might also prove to be a gateway to formal baking system. The researchers also observed a "saving gap" that occurred because of a tendency to spend coins and save notes. More significantly, the Ghanaian researchers found a "knowledge gap," since people were unaware of the reasons that the redenomination happened, overestimated the minimum amounts required by financial institutions to have an account by four to ten times, and assumed that the one pesewa coin was out of circulation.

In the discussion afterward about "branchless banking," Pickens opened by noting the risk in many of these schemes, the ways that people might decide to switch from one instrument to another, and the ways that social value played into the acceptability of a given currency. Many of these talks were about the emotional connection to objects, since the Ghana case was about not being emotionally attached to coins, while the Indian case was about being emotionally attached to cell phones. (There were also practical factors: coins made money, and there were no vending machines to remind inhabitants of the potential value of coins.)

Toward the end of the discussion, Mainwaring tried to move the discussion to emphasize financial inclusion rather than poverty. He argued that the success of the M-PESA mobile money system could be traced to the fact that this financial service was used by both rich and poor. Mainwaring questioned the vocabulary around poverty itself. As he asked, "Do we want to saw 'low-income' or 'unbanked' rather than 'poor'?"

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