My PhD-ethnography “The mobile phone in urban Kenyan everyday life” is published as a book with Springer VS

Das Mobiltelefon im Alltagsleben des urbanen Kenia_books

After years of fieldwork and writing, I am proud to announce that my PhD-media ethnography has recently been published as a monograph with Springer VS:

Waltinger, Michael (2018): Das Mobiltelefon im Alltagsleben des urbanen Kenia. Eine medienethnografische Studie zur Mobiltelefonaneignung. [The mobile phone in urban Kenyan everyday-life. A media ethnography on mobile phone appropriation.] Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 435 pages. Book details and table of contents [in German] available via Springer VS. ISBN: 978-3-658-25220-5. 49,99 € [Softcover] / 39,99 € [eBook].

In this media ethnography, Michael Waltinger describes the appropriation of mobile phones in the everyday life of an urban community in Eastlands Nairobi (Kenya).
As its vantage point, the fieldwork studies people’s socio-structural living conditions in order to see how these are a pre-condition for and intertwined with everyday media appropriation. This is to contextualize social action on the micro-level of the subject with the larger societal macro-structure in which media action is embedded.
Everyday phone usage in the urban community of the ethnography spans different spheres of life in multifaceted ways. While the mobile phone is perceived as an ambivalent artifact that interacts with peoples life-worlds in both positive and negative ways, it undeniably is an integrative part of the ‘way of life’ in contemporary urban Nairobi: among others, the mobile phone is a symbol for being part of the ‘global village’, it is a culturally codified and polysemic sign of social distinction, and it is a significate of a locally defined afro-modernity.

Preview on Google Books

Talk on “Interrogating M4D-tales: some sociostructural aspects of ICTs and social change in everyday-life” at the Nordic Africa Days 2016 (Uppsala University)


Photograph of the conference-bag (© Michael Waltinger, 2016)

Having been able to contribute to the Nordic Africa Institutes (NAI) Nordic Africa Days 2016 at Uppsala University was a great pleasure as well as a fruitful and stimulating experience.

It is not often that one has the opportunity to meet over 200 researchers from more than 36 countries, of which a vast part were African nations. Not only was it very exciting from an academic point of view, but also culturally enriching and great to make new friends and deepen existing relationships.

Personally, I have mostly attended panels around the broader areas of “ICT and Mobile Media”“Feminism” and “Urbanity and Urban Infrastructure”, which again, was a very enriching experience.

I have contributed to the first area myself with a talk in Panel 10: Gender at the cutting edge: ICTs, social media and social change in East Africa. The panel was organized by Ylva Ekström (Uppsala University, Sweden) and Hilda Arntsen ( Oslo and Akershus College, Norway), who have done a stellar job in putting the panel together in such a thoughtful way.

My contribution was a talk titled
Interrogating M4D-tales: some sociostructural aspects of ICTs and social change in everyday-life. 

Here is an abstract of the talk:

Author: Michael Waltinger (University of Education, Ludwigsburg Germany)

The integration of new media into the everyday and different dimensions of social life are deeply intertwined. Life structures are reflected by the way how media are embedded and given meaning to. The mobile phone in that regard allows, for instance, to examine aspects of the social structures (e.g. roles and mutual expectations) of men and women in society.

While the agency of the subject and increasing availability of media devices need to be stressed in media participation and social change, the importance of structural challenges must not be overlooked. As issues of media access diminish, issues of knowledge, skills and resources gain importance – especially in lower-income urban settings and among women.

Media participation is no sure-fire success initiated by media availability – techno-euphoria needs to be ‘handled with care’. While people certainly bring media competencies with them and also appropriate new competencies in their daily media usage, structural constraints are real and self-socialisation in media usage has its boundaries – these are marked by the life conditions of and (educational) resources available to people.

Women in urban Kenya often are part of the informal economy, do not advance much beyond primary education, and there often is a lack in public media education. At the same time, women do often voice need and interest in maximizing their knowledge in order to fully utilize mobile media to their needs. Structural constraints, however, keep them from attending workshops, skill trainings, and the like. The daily hustle and struggle as well as the social responsibility of woman for caring (and often providing) for their families make it difficult to attend trainings or workshops. Hence, while it is often the less-educated and socio-economically disadvantaged that would want assistance the most, these are exactly the people for whom it is most difficult to benefit from respective opportunities.


A short remark on (the type of) mobile phones in urban Kenya

When being asked about my PhD-research (which is on the meaning of mobile phones in urban Kenya), I all too often hear the question: “Do ‘they’ have phones there?”

The short answer is: Yes.

A slightly longer answer, with a bit more of an interpretive touch, may well be given by a participant of my field research – the person here talks about what happens if you get robbed (which might happen in Nairobi), and a robber ‘catches’ you with a cheap mobile phone (referred to as a kabambe in Nairobi):

Nowadays, if you walk with a kabambe, they [the thieves] even beat you up. Coz it can´t be that nowadays in Nairobi someone can walk without or doesn´t have a smartphone. field research participant (2014)

The word kabambe in Kiswahili refers to a very basic mobile phone, often not even a feature phone. A kabambe is typically locked to be used with one specific provider only. Its main functions usually are calling and texting – maybe also a calender, calculator and FM radio.

Example of a "kabambe" (© Michael Waltinger, 2013)

Example of a “kabambe” (© Michael Waltinger, 2013)

Talk on fostering Digital Literacy @ Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) 2015


The Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) 2015 with more than 400 participants from over 90 countries –  hosted by The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) – is in full swing and the first day of the main conference just came to an end. There was plenty of lively and fruitful debate on issues of internet access from a multi-dimensional perspective with a strong emphasis on social and structural inequalities.

I was pleased to be chosen to give a talk on “Promoting Digital Literacy in Developing Regions: Business Goals and Media Education in unison”, where I shifted the emphasis slightly from issues of physical access (i.e. the digital divide) to a more skill- or digital/media literacy-based approach to viewing barriers in access to the (mobile) internet – the so called “2nd-level digital divide”. My talk was inspired from and drew on my field research experiences from my ongoing PhD-research on the meanings of mobile phones in everyday life of urban Kenya (Nairobi).

SIF Unconference programme

While I was stressing the possibility of the corporate sector to bridge those gaps in media education that are not covered by public education curricula, I also pointed out the need of teaming up with professional (media) educators in order to carry out such trainings in a sensitive manner and not make them serve business interests alone. Here is the abstract of the talk I gave:

Physical access to the internet is still an issue in many sub-Saharan nations. What matters equally, however, are the still low levels of digital literacy among users. This is to say that the availability of digital media does not really help, if people have problems in using these services.
This is not only a problem because it means that people who can not fully use digital tools will suffer from further societal exclusion and economic disadvantages. The other problem is that media literacy training is often not part of public education and, if private lessons are taken, mostly expensive.
Since the digitally semi-literate represent a vast clientele of sub-Saharan media markets, I suggest that the mobile industry sets up training camps to bridge that gap in media education. This is not only to serve the public good (CSR) but also to develop businesses, because customers will be able to use the future services/devices. Users would benefit from media skills-development that leads to improved usage scenarios, while at the same time being part of the product design process and not having to appropriate technologies that were originally designed for other times and places (i.e. the west).

There was a short interview conducted with me just before the talk, which can be viewed below:

I am already looking forward to the second part of the conference tomorrow!

Swedish mobile service operator Tre (3) lets go of charging for data generated by music streaming services

What is great for consumers might have some serious political and economic consequences, though.

Tre, Swedens third largest mobile service provider, now “sets music free” (loosely translated from the Swedish strapline “Nu släpper vi musiken fri!”).

What this means is that the cell phone carrier will no longer charge for any data (i.e. up to 70GB/month) that is being consumed through the usage of streaming music services – and, thus, not deduct such data from a customers monthly data plan. That is, as long as the music service being used is either Spotify, Deezer or Tidal (the latter also offers music videos – video data, however, is not included in the offer). For some reason, Apple Music is not (yet?) included. The offer applies to all forms of subscription and to existing as well as to new customers.

According to an article in the Swedish daily newspaper METRO (September 1st, 2015), industry observers expect Tre‘s competitors (which are basically Telenor, Tele2 and Telia Soneraplus some smaller ones) to follow that move sooner or later in order not to experience competitive disadvantages.

The very same article, based on data from The Internet Foundation in Sweden (IIS), also mentions that:

  • 3 out of 4 Swedes listen to music on their mobile phone
  • 1 in 3 does so every day, and
  • 3 out of 4 pay for a music service.

That means an already existing pretty large customer base that might, all of a sudden, start generating massive amounts of data traffic. I am curious to see how that will work out.

I am also curious to see if there will be any public debate revolving around the principle of network neutrality[ref]Net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.[/ref], which I would certainly expect to happen.

Additionally, this move of Tre might also bring along some serious economic consequences and/or options: Obviously, the company has the power to exclude certain streaming providers (such as Apple Music and others in that case) from that offer, which, of course, causes a serious competitive disadvantage for those (see the cross-reference to “net neutrality” above!), because consumers in turn might not want to choose a music streaming provider that is not eligible for unlimited streaming on their respective carrier. Cell phone carriers might start teaming up with music streaming providers along some negotiated lines in order to achieve some kind of strategic objective. In that instance here, Spotify might benefit by stabilizing the market position in Sweden, which has become seriously threatened by the market entry of Apple Music some months back.

Let’s see what happens. There will be some interesting developments in any case, I guess.


Alternative Mobile Phone Design Ideas

Mobiles for Development (M4D)? Er, nah. Mobiles for Fun (M4F)!

Ory Okolloh, Google’s policy manager for Africa and a Kenyan lawyer and activist, tells the Guardian’s Activate summit in London that Africans don’t view technology simply as a tool of development.The Guardian

Guess what. Africans, just as Westerners, simply want to have fun with technology. Grande surprise. People in Africa do not want to transfer money via mobile banking services the entire day. Just imagine. People do not want to check for fair market prices or the next purified water dealer all the time. Crazy, eh? People are not using their phones only when pregnant and in need for maternity programs.

Not to me mistaken: all those are valuable uses. They indeed are. But what I find rather disturbing is that literature and news coverage on mobile phones in ‘Africa’ often focus on the so called M4D- or ICT4D-narrative (i.e. mobile phones/information and communication technology for development). But, truth to be told, what people really love doing is to just enjoy themselves with their technology by using Facebook, WhatsApp, buy and sell stuff on OLX, share and listen to the latest DJ sets, take and share pictures, discuss technical features of their phones against each other, and so forth.

And if there really is a crisis or whatever incident, then it is good people used their phones for fun, because that is how they got used to using them – also in case of an emergency like election monitoring (e.g. Ushahidi) or public outrage against unacceptable social action (e.g. #mydressmychoice in Kenya). More or less just like here, in the West, huh?!


Google’s Africa policy manager: ‘Africans enjoy technology’ – video

“HAMSTER-HIPSTER-MOBILE” – an exhibition on cell phones at the Museum for Applied Arts in Frankfurt

For many people, life without a mobile phone is inconceivable. For the cell phone provides more than the opportunity merely to telephone: it is also a camera, a computer, a calendar, a flashlight and more. It shapes communication, influences consumer behaviour and makes transparent our preferences. The exhibition Hamster-Hipster-Handy (i.e. Hamster-Hipster-Mobile) focuses on these aspects and shows that the mobile phone is an object which shapes our cultural understanding of ourselves.

The hamster and the hipster function thereby as two opposing central figures. Around the turn of the millennium Cell Phone Radiation Tests, with whose help possible injuries to people can be detected, were conducted on rodents. The hamster therefore stands symbolically for the negative effects of mobile phones on human life. The hipster, on the other hand, represents the consumer of the twenty-first century and a new culture of mobile users which avails itself of the seemingly limitless possibilities of the device and the narcissistic self-presentation associated with it.

The exhibition broaches the issues of the use of mobile phones, the wasteful use of resources demanded by their production and the possibilities of global positioning and monitoring.

On display are photographs, interactive installations, video art, painting, Street Art and a collection of various mobile phone models.

24.04.2015 to 05.07.2015 
Museum of Applied Arts, Frankfurt (Germany)
Schaumainkai 17
60594 Frankfurt am Main

Art Calendar – Goethe-Institut

“The Ambiguity of (Media-)Technology – and how to deal with it”: Expert-table @ the “Datafication of the Public Sphere”-Symposium (AIL, Vienna)

I have recently been invited to participate in an expert-table format at the symposium “The datafication of the public sphere”, which was held from May 7th – 10th, @ Angewandte Innovation Lab (AIL), The University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Essentially, the symposium – which was an inspiring and exciting event – was generally elaborating on the everyday use of smartphones from a rather artistic-scientific angle, I would say. It was great having been together in a panel with Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber and my college Leonida Mutuku from iHub Nairobi.

The expert-table starts with an introduction of all three speakers. Leonida Mutuku opens the round with a talk on the ICT-scene in Kenya (00:05:50 – 00:23:00) followed by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber with insights into the latest (mobile)media-devleopments in China (00:24:00 – 00:59:00). Is is then my turn to speak about the ambiguities that are inherent in (media-)technology and how to deal with those from a perspective of media pedagogy and media ethics (00:59:15 – 01:14:30). The session is followed by a discussion of about half an hour.

You may download the paper of my talk here


Bastard CROWD [mobile] Expert-talks: Leonida Mutuku, Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Michael Waltinger from Angewandte Innovation Lab on Vimeo.


Leonida Mutuku,
Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber,
Michael Waltinger.

Bastard CROWD [mobile]
The performative installation bastardCROWD[mobile] of choreographer and performer Daniel Aschwanden and media artist Conny Zenk, uses the text “Bastard Culture” by media theorist Mirko Schäfer as a starting point for investigating and questioning the everyday use of smartphones.

The “Selfie”-culture is only one phenomenon in the context of virally spreading digital communication devices. Aschwanden/Zenk, having performed artistic interventions in Beijing, Accra, Addis Ababa and Vienna, emphasize the global phenomenon of superposition of traditional forms of communication through new interface cultures.

The symposium “The datafication of the public sphere” examines the implications of a rapidly increasing digitalization of society and questions the limits of participation. It also asks for options how to embrace and learn about technologies when it comes to monitoring, controlling and exploiting.

Video: Edward Chapon

10 Things Europe can learn from Kenya in Media and Innovation

1. Social Community Management
E.g. rural politics and governance via Twitter

2. Maximizing the Utility of Simple Technology (e.g. Feature Phones) that almost everyone has access to
Dating services, fan culture, market price-information, mobile healthcare, job listing-services, and many more

3. Political and Social Activism
Using widely available mobile media technology such as WhatsApp and Twitter to mobilize society e.g. against gender violence (here: #mydressmychoice)

4. Social Media for Formal Functions
Applying for a passport, locking a SIM-card, complaining about power cuts, applying for higher education college loans  – all via Twitter and SMS. And get sorted out!

5. Mobile Banking (m-Pesa)
Workforce from the cities can send money to rural relatives; pay for airtime, bills and taxes; allow for ‚online banking‘ without having access to the internet; micro-credits without complicated bureaucracy; withdraw money from mobile money agents; substitute for credit cards and formal banking while ‚banking the unbanked‘ – all via SMS and even with a simple ‚brick phone‘

6. Mobile Learning and Education
Allowing for exam preparation and revision with other students; substitute for expensive text-books in certain income levels (not a perfect substitute, though – but better than no text-book at all); child development information for young mothers for early disorder/disease prevention and support-information for raising and educating kids

7. Keeping up and Simplifying Diaspora-Home-Relations
Sending gifts, school fees or money for projects from the diaspora back home

8. Chamas (engl.: Merry-go-Round)
I.e. saving groups and small-scale bureaucracy-circumnavigating ‚community banking‘ (via mobile phones)

9. Accounting
‚Mama Mbogas‘ (grocery selling women in estates’ streets) use phone apps to track stocks, income and expenses and do some business analytics

10. Crowdsourcing
Extending the longstanding harmabee-culture and taking it ‘online’, e.g. a child from a certain village shall go to university and the whole community contributes to the admission/tuition-fees // crowdsourcing traffic information for circumnavigating massive traffic jams, e.g. // crowdsourcing information for conflict, crises or hate speech mapping, e.g.

Many thanks to the colleagues from iHub, Nairobi!