Small Change: Mobile Money as Media Experience

by Elizabeth Losh

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Although money is less frequently treated as an object of analysis in media studies, monetary currencies – in metal, paper, and digital forms – have been extremely important in defining the field as one sanctioned for a broad range of inquiry. Marshall McLuhan once famously devoted an entire chapter to the subject in Understanding Media, and his classic text contains a number of other references to money as both a means of stored value and as a medium of exchange.[1] All media experiences structure relations of production and consumption and extend forms of longing and belonging that are familiar to those who study networked publics and digital media and learning today. According to McLuhan, money demonstrates how “seeing one set of relations through another set” facilitates how “we store and amplify experience.”[2]

How the advent of digital money changes those overlapping relations, of course, is up for debate. N. Katherine Hayles has described money as “increasingly experienced as informational patterns stored in computer banks,”[3] just as literary works and biological identities appear to have become dematerialized as data. Nonetheless, Hayles argues that information can never really lose its “body,” as much as technocrats and transhumanists would like to wish away all material substrates of expression. In his defense of the value of game currencies, Espen Aarseth asserts that “the Platinum or Plat, is a real currency, just like the Brazilian Real, the Korean Won, or the European Euro.”[4] For Aarseth, money functions as simulation not as fiction in both online worlds and face-to-face environments.

Nonetheless, users remain suspicious of money without the imprimatur of the state, such as Bitcoins, which gain their value from prime number encryption and peer-to-peer convenience, or Time Dollars, which depend upon mutual trust in very large radically egalitarian barter systems. As conventional currency continues to move from the mass production model of ink stamped on paper to cashless wireless delivery that is legible only on electronic screens, it is worth revisiting money as a media experience, particularly in the larger ecology of media experiences for contemporary users of IT systems.[5] For example, conducting financial transactions on a mobile phone seems to differ from other interactions defined by software culture, such as viewing a video clip or playing a game.[6] Furthermore, some policy issues—particularly those around privacy, security, inclusion, property, and labor—are understood by the general public as being fundamentally different in the case of financial instruments from the standard entertainment or information paradigms, as though the computer had ceased to be a communication device[7] and had been relegated to the realm of mere calculation again.

Digital money in mobile phone transactions is often celebrated as a means for economic democratization and entrepreneurial microfinance for the developing world, although mobile money still exists in the local context of social practices and material culture.[8] Critical readings of narratives about technomobility tend to emphasize developing an anthropological understanding of these cultural practices, as in the case of Genevieve Bell’s work on how “people were appropriating cell phones, inscribing local cultural practices, solving local problems, and re-charting social relationships fractured by colonial and postcolonial geographic separations.”[9] Relatively few media scholars think about these workarounds with questions of audience, composition, format, and genre in mind. Of course, many of these mobile money transactions, particularly in the developing world, take place through text messages that are perceived as lacking in the vividness often associated with cinematics and screen culture. Although anthropologist Bill Maurer lists “Facebook,” “iPods,” and “videogames” in a catalogue of technologies with the characteristic of a “platform” that can transform business models, the possibility that mobile money similarly serves as a form of social media with similar aspects of sharing and play tends not to be developed as a full-fledged possibility in the micropayments paradigm.[10]

Maurer’s Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion based at the University of California, Irvine has supported fieldwork for researchers on mobile money and other portable microfinance technologies since 2008, thanks to the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With the launch of the M-PESA mobile money service in Kenya by the cellphone service provider Safaricom in 2007, many financial idealists hoped that unbanked customers on the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” would exit informal economies and benefit from the supposed leveling effects of mobile phone technologies. The M-PESA service allows users to deposit money into an account stored on their cell phones, to send balances using SMS technology to other users, and to redeem electronic deposits for conventional money at local centers. The cell phone is considered particularly useful for remittances to family members and payments to merchants for goods and services. Such modest transactions were supposed to support microfinance initiatives aimed at spurring entrepreneurialism and wealth management through microlending and small-scale cooperative ventures that share risk.

In the five years since implementing mobile money and branchless banking in the developing world through the phones of M-PESA participants, a more complex picture has emerged, according to IMFTI researchers, when phones and passwords are shared among members of families and communities. For example, gender norms have been challenged with the rise of “secret money” that allows working husbands to send money to illicit sexual partners and wives to receive money from relatives unbeknownst to their husbands. Although the “gift economy” at work in video sharing and game playing economies may be celebrated by those who imagine a communitarian future for digital citizens separate from currency markets, it is important to understand that gift economies not only can have expected reciprocities and obligations that complicate individual freedoms, but also that gift economies may include transactions with mobile digital cash. There also ideologies of efficiency at work in what Anke Schwittay calls the “financial inclusion assemblage” composed of “subjects, technics, and rationalities” in which power brokers assume that a logic of substitution is in play around the absence of formal financial services rather than a logic of appropriation around presence.[11]

Media may obviously serve as a medium of exchange and a store of value, as in the case of Indian men subscribing to mobile phone pornography that can be easily downloaded at stalls for a fee. However, it may be less obvious that currencies serve as media, just as media serve as currencies. If money becomes an event rather than an object for subjects in digital economies, where users attend to the timeline of transfers rather than treat units of banked data as static entities, the mediation of money may be presented in a variety of different ways.

Watching, listening, and anticipating money events on screen have also become events that require participation and spectatorship, since implied co-presence can be an important aspect of the digital money experience. In the case of M-PESA advertisements, we can see how various screen encounters function in the visual and procedural rhetorics of a mobile money transfer. In one advertisement, a man enters an office carrying a briefcase and sits down in front of his computer terminal to do his work. He soon looks at another form of interface: a framed photograph of his parents. This inspires him to pick up his mobile phone and navigate its menus to send money. Soon a flurry of computer generated bills flies from his phone to the phone of his mother working in the field of a rural village. She sees a detailed text message that includes a receipt for “Ksh 1,000 from John on 06/03/07 at 10:35 am,” which she can exchange for cash at the stall of a local vendor, after she negotiates the photo ID and duplicate form requirements of completing the transaction.[12]

In another advertisement called “Relax, You’ve Got M-PESA” a floating red sheet seems to be a piece of paper with an important notification, but it eventually transforms into the seat for a beachfront chair. The red sheet travels the world as people use various screens for different media modalities including text chat, video chat, telling time, reading e-mail, web browsing, ATM use, and dialing numbers to carry on spoken conversations. Financial transactions in the “Relax” ad run the gamut from paying school fees to dispensing salaries to construction workers. The image of Africans is one of media consumption as well as global capitalism, and the audience depicted for these media experiences of mobile money in these commercials is definitely characterized by strong affect and concentrated attention.[13]

In practice M-PESA can involve other kinds of media interactions involving melodramas of fraud, infidelity, bad timing, and family coercion, particularly when phones, SIM cards, and passwords are shared, and secrets are either perpetuated or revealed when a given screen is either hidden from view or shared. In theory, mobile money is imagined as a way to eliminate political corruption by limiting local bureaucrats’ access to the wealth of their citizens and by facilitating direct payment for goods and services; in a situation of public failure, private enterprise is seen as a solution. In fact, person-to-person transactions do not necessarily defeat a culture of coercion. Like other social media practices, mobile money does not necessarily promulgate a participatory culture of democratic inclusion, and authenticity and legitimation are not the only user problems with which to be concerned. As mobile money becomes more common among the banked in the developing world, we may have to consider how our own cultural imaginaries around media experience may shift.


[1] David Bobbit, “Scale in the Media Theory of Marshall McLuhan: An Application to Electronic Money and the Internet.” Media Fields Journal no. 5 (2011).

[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994. 60.

[3] N. Katherine Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.” October 66 (1993): 69.

[4] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction Vs. Simulation in Games.” Intermédialités: Histoire et Théorie Des Arts, Des Lettres et Des Techniques no. 9 (2007): 43.

[5] Adam Fish, “Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity.” Savage Minds, January 11, 2012.

[6]Peter Glotz, Stefan Bertsch, and Chris Locke, The Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society. Verlag, 2005. 43.

[7] J. C. R. Licklider, and Robert W. Taylor, “The Computer as a Communication Device.” Science and Technology 76 (1968): 21–31.

[8] Renee Kuriyan, Dawn Nafus, and Scott Mainwaring, “Consumption, Technology, and Development: The ‘Poor’ as ‘Consumer’.” Information Technologies & International Development 8, no. 1 (September 3, 2012): pp. 1–12.

[9] Genevieve Bell, “The Age of the Thumb: A Cultural Reading of Mobile Technologies from Asia,” Knowledge, Technology, and Policy 19 no. 2 (2006): 41-57.

[10] Jake Kendall, Bill Maurer, Phillip Machoka, and Clara Veniard, “An Emerging Platform: From Money Transfer System to Mobile Money Ecosystem.” Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization 6, no. 4 (October 1, 2011): 49–64.

[11] Anke F. Schwittay, “The Financial Inclusion Assemblage: Subjects, Technics, Rationalities.” Critique of Anthropology 31, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 381–401.

[12]Mpesa Send Money Home TV Commercial, 2009.

[13]Relax, You’ve Got M-PESA, 2012.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at Sixth College at the University of California, San Diego, where she teaches media history, digital literacy, online communication, and critical theory. She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and the forthcoming The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014) and is the co-author of the first-year composition comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander She was previously the Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course at the University of California, Irvine. She has published articles about new media pedagogy, the digital humanities, e-government, software-specific labor cultures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday digital practices.