Mobile phone access for Cubans: the ‘mobile’ as rhetorical force

Another interesting item:

The BBC reports that Cubans get access to mobile phones, as Raul Castro lifts the ban on possessing them:

Cubans are to be allowed unrestricted access to mobile phones for the first time, in the latest reform announced under new President Raul Castro.

Some Cubans already own mobile phones, but they have had to acquire them via a third party, often foreigners.

Cuba’s rate of cell phone usage remains among the lowest in Latin America.

Now Cubans will be able to subscribe to pre-paid mobile services under their own names, instead of going through foreigners or in some cases their work places.

However, the new service must be paid for in foreign currency, which will restrict access to wealthier Cubans.

3-13-08-cuba-flag.jpg What strikes me is not only that one of the countries with the most restrictive political regimes and lowest mobile phone penetration percentages is lifting the ban. More interesting even is the way this is presented in various media as almost inevitably leading to huge social change. This news item is phrased in terms like reform (BBC), technological catch-up (Engadget), the new Cuba; Raul Castro is revolutionizing his brother’s island; change (Wired) [my emphasis]. Perhaps the strongest phrase I found on MobileCrunch: “The communist dominos are falling as the dictatorship of the proletariat realizes it can’t stand up against the relentless momentum of the mobile phone.” Here, the mobile phone is imagined almost as a natural force, logically leading to political reform, freedom and democracy.

This reminds me of Tim Cresswell’s keynote speech in which he showed how the term ‘mobility’ is always infused with meanings and values. In this case it seems the mobile phone becomes a symbol for reform, social change, modernity, political opening and transparency. I really feel his point about the value-laden aspects of ‘mobility’ (and consequently also ‘mobile technologies’) is extremely important for all working in the field of mobile technologies. The apprehension Tim voiced in workshop 2 towards the term “mobility paradigm” perhaps also stems from the realization that a paradigm – with enough people ‘in’ it – inevitably means basic concepts (like ‘mobile’) are accepted as validation and legitimization in themselves for working on them. And yes, we too realize that “The Mobile City” has exactly this rhetorical power: a whole new view on, and approach to the city, paradoxically both inevitable as a future image and simply here & now as an empirical fact.

Michiel de Lange

Michiel de Lange (1976) is an Assistant Professor in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, researching mobile media and urban culture and identity. He is the co-founder of The Mobile City, an independent research group founded in 2007 that investigates the influence of digital media technologies on urban life and the implications for urban design and policy. Michiel is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project ( He worked for  Kennisland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds.
Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.