Giving meaning to technology

This blog was first published on March 24, 2010. It is edited and revised on its 7th anniversary. 


Do you remember your parents or grandparents shouting into a telephone, forcing their voice to reach the other end? The voice was the loudest if the call was intercontinental. My dad is much better these days, but several years ago I could tell by the volume of his voice which country was on the phone. Australia was definitely the loudest. The perception of distance. Australia is still perceived to be farther than the United States.

Technology and mobile

In 2008, I was in a rural area in Afghanistan interviewing villagers for a report for Der Spiegel Magazine.  During a group interview, an Indian song was automatically played from the side pocket of a villager. He took out the cell phone, pressed a button, and started speaking. All the villagers were staring at him until he finished his phone conversation. After he hung up, he reported, “everything is fine in the market, he wants the donkey cart to bring the stuff home.” The owner jumped on the only donkey cart and left.

Around noon, a call for prayers was automatically played from another pocket. An old man brought out his phone from his pocket and let the audio finish on its own while everyone started moving towards the mosque. It was time for noon prayers.

You see how they appropriated cell phones into their lives, eh?

A communication scholar, Tenhunen studied the interaction between technology and culture in rural India. Tenhunen (2008) attempted to uncover how the cultural norms of a village in West Bengal, India had effects in the process of representation of mobile telephony technology.

Tenhunen carried out an ethnographic study in Junta village in Bankura district of West Bengal. She interviewed cell phone owners, filmed cell phone conversations, lived in the village, and gathered other data through observation, participant-observation and chatting (1).

Tenhunen had a number of interesting findings. First that mobile technology had grown in India dramatically. Villages that lacked electricity or landline phones adopted cell phone. “When I went to the village in 2005, there were ten phones purchased by large landowners and small-scale businessmen”, writes Tenhunen (1), “By 2007, the number of phones had risen to 100 …” (p.519).

At times when only a few villagers had cell phones, the owners would become a hub of communication for the rest of the village, passing on messages to third and fourth parties, enhancing the village social network, and also helping villagers with their economic activities.

When cell phones became ubiquitous, most calls – 81 per cent – were made to relatives, boasting the kinship network in the village (1). Mobile phones also helped women expand their space and contacts in the village.

At times that people were afraid that technology might change their culture and their social norms, Tenhunen found that the  technology might change culture in the long-term but initially people appropriate technology according to their culture and social norms.

She concluded that technologies are just tools in the hands of people, it is the people that give meaning to the technology, and the changing attitude of people that might change the use of technology in the long run.



  1. Tenhunen, S. (2008). Mobile technology in the village: ICTs, culture, and social logistics in India. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14(3), 515-534. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2008.00515.x. 

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