"Interoperability is a Social Fact: Extraction and Reimportation in Experiments with Mobile Money"

Location: Wiesner Room, MIT Media Lab (2nd Floor), Cambridge, MA

ABSTRACT: A new "payments space" has emerged in the past five to ten years that promises to bring access to funds transfer, banking and financial services to millions of "unbanked" people in developing countries and in the diasporas that remit funds to them. This payments space is characterized by the innovative use of new information and communications technologies. Payment and communication technologies from the developed world are merging with the informally developed systems of migrants and the poor around the world. At the same time, the economic crisis in the industrialized North is now leading engineers, designers, financial service companies and nonprofits to explore the possibilities of "reimporting" new payment systems from the Third World to the First, as more and more citizens of developed countries become unbanked themselves. In listening to people involved in creating new mobile payment systems, I am struck by how much their activity is about “finding ways of doing things” (as Jan Chipchase of Nokia puts it) with devices that were not built into the design of the object. I am also struck by how much this activity of “finding ways of doing things” explicitly mirrors practices that designers are observing out in the world, through their own forms of participant observation. Finally, I am interested in how “finding ways of doing things” is itself a way of doing things for those charged by their employers with creating such new systems in situations where they are bound by non-disclosure agreements not to talk to their colleagues working for other companies. When you can’t talk, you find other ways of doing things, often with material objects. After providing an orientation to the payments space, this talk asks after the affordances in objects that are not built into them by design. It also begs the question of other modalities of instituting markets or market devices besides the performative modality emphasized by social studies of finance.


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