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Horst, H. A., & Miller, D. (2006). The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. Berg Publishers. Chapters 7 and 8.

October 16, 2010

The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication is a richly nuanced and culturally informed exploration of the way the cellphone have impacted the lives of disadvantaged Jamaicans. It is a thoroughly engaging application of anthropological theory that reveals the transformatory potential of the cellphone and the reciprocal relationship between cellphones and Jamaican identity in less privileged communities.

Chapter 7: Pressure

For Jamaicans, pressure is both physical (blood pressure) and subjective (pressures of getting a job, keeping a job, fighting poverty, maintaining relationships and so on). As per Jamaican culture, pressure is felt by both men and women, albeit in different ways and is released via highly gendered means. For men, pressure arises from family obligations, having to make money, and being exploited by the social ‘system’. The male pressure is released by “cooling off” with other men in social spaces with alcohol, ganja, and cigarettes. But for women, pressure is to be alleviated through menstruation, sex, and worship! But the cellphone, as Horst and Miller found in their ethnography, is deployed by both men and women to relieve themselves of this ‘pressure’.

For men, the cellphone is instrumental in:

  • coping with boredom and isolation
  • acquiring and maintaining support systems (friends, colleagues, neighbors)
  • getting job opportunities and economic support
  • finding out information
  • organizing and mobilizing (limited) resources.

For women, the cellphone is instrumental in:

  • facilitating the prevention of living alone (considered a cultural taboo for women) and the resultant lack of privacy (considered a good thing!)
  • fostering intense social bonds and networks
  • letting the community take a great amount of interest in each individual
  • managing loneliness
  • coping with feelings of being overburdened and stressed
  • sharing their troubles and worries through counseling and communication

The cellphone in Jamaica therefore, is loaded with cultural meanings and its social uses are gendered. Overall, the authors found that “the phone has become readily accepted as a means to relieve ‘pressure’ simply by feeling connected to others and to feel part of that natural (i.e., social) state of being that defines Jamaicanness.”

Chapter 8: Welfare

This chapter offered a broader evaluation of the interactions between cellphones and Jamaican society. The following are some of the key points:

Health issues

  • Cellphone technology is not being used in Jamaica to disseminate health related information or for scheduling medical appointments.
  • Jamaicans use cellphones instead, to find alternative medical options, minimizing healthcare costs, comparing medical conditions and cost of medication with friends, and receiving emergency assistance.
  • Cellphones have not had much direct impact on formal health standards in Jamaica but have contributed significantly to the personal management of health and welfare.

Crime and security

  • Jamaicans feel less isolated and vulnerable to crime knowing that they can call for help.
  • Parents feel more reassured knowing that they can reach their children at all times.
  • Cellphones help in neighborhood vigilance.
  • Although there is a popular perception that cellphones have reduced the prevalence of crime in Jamaica, theft of phones has become a problem in recent years. Ironic. J

Education

  • School administration can now contact parents if they need to, in order to update parents and also to check on truancy.
  • Double standards have emerged as students aren’t allowed to use cellphones in classrooms, but teachers do so with impunity.
  • For students, the cellphone has become indispensable. (Somethings seem universal!!!)
  • Students are doing more research on Internet-enabled phones about sex than homework.
  • School authorities report that overall, cellphones have had a negative impact on students’ academic performances, concentration, and quality of work.

Religion

  • The cellphone is considered a form of blessing and good fortune.
  • Clergy see the cellphone as a medium of God since it lets them reach and help many people at once. But they also resent cellphones because they disrupt service.
  • Cellphones are used by Jamaicans to help each other thorough spiritual crises and to organize church events.

My thoughts

The cellphone evidently means different things in Jamaica for different people and this metamorphosis is fascinating. In Horst and Miller’s analysis, cellphone have had a definite impact on the way the Jamaican economy functions today. This is no surprise, considering the extremely rapid pace at which cellphones have penetrated the developing world, where people have suddenly gone from owning no phones at all to owning wireless phones.

Based on their interviews, the authors argue that cellphones have had a deep and lasting effect on complex issues such as social connectivity, relationships, crime, health, poverty, and religion. However, I think it’s sad that the cellphone seems to have accomplished very little in terms of formal medical care or even in generating real employment. Instead, Jamaicans use the cellphone for betting on lotteries and organizing social events. So while cellphones have changed Jamaicans’ experience of communication and have given people an overall sense of wellbeing, it all remains at a vague and diffuse level. This makes me question if they have afforded any ‘real’ advantages to low-income Jamaicans. If not, then the transformatory potential of the cellphone is being deployed toward superficial purposes only.

Questions for class discussion

  1. We talked about technological determinism in class a few weeks ago while discussing Lister et al.’s New Media: A Critical Introduction (2009). The foundational belief of technological determinism is that technology causes cultural changes. I believe the authors do a good job of avoiding deterministic conclusions – they clearly acknowledge the contradictions inherent to the use of cellphones in Jamaica. But even so, I am curious as to how Horst and Miller’s analysis speaks to technological determinism. It is obvious that technology is revolutionizing the way of life for low-income Jamaicans. Isn’t this a manifestation of technological determinism? Was McLuhan partly right? Or am I just confused?
  2. In talking about the ways in which cellphones help release cultural “pressure”, Horst and Miller argue that actions such as abuse, addiction, and overuse of cellphones can ironically lead to even more pressure. How might we think of this dilemma? For example, Jamaicans are spending a lot of money on acquiring and keeping cellphones, when ironically, they claim that cellphones help them make and save money. Can this be seen as a form of vicious cycle of economic exploitation disguised as the emancipatory power of the cellphone?
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