The Unbearable Modernity of Mobile Money
In this paper, we describe an ethnographic study of a mobile money infrastructure, especially its design, organization, and implementation, and its potential consequences for financial inclusion goals. Through using the analytic lens of infrastructure studies to ground our findings, we observe is that infrastructures emerge in organized practice and use. Moreover, they are constantly evolving with no specific beginning and end; any bounding is contingent on our own methodological and theoretical affiliations as well as our logistical constraints. To this end, we focus our attention on the two different infrastructures – the mobile money and the loan management infrastructures – that were operating in tandem to connect low-income auto-rickshaw drivers to mainstream bank loans. We specifically privilege the human work that goes into making and sustaining this mobile money infrastructure. In doing so, we challenge the ‘unbearable modernity’ of mobile money and its purported effects on helping the poor manage their unpredictable cash flows. Eventually, we make two main contributions. First, we demonstrate that what appeared on the surface to be solely a ‘mobile money infrastructure’ is in fact a complex and, often, visibly seamless organization of at least two interacting infrastructural systems. These come together in an intricate, layered way to enable mobile money to be used for loan repayments in this low-income setting. It becomes especially important to emphasize that an infrastructure is not always organically built or spontaneously accessed in order to challenge the dominant narratives around mobile money where an insulated infrastructure is thought to enable all digital transactions and thus achieve financial inclusion. Second, we privilege the human work of what is otherwise often considered an exclusively technological infrastructure. Bringing attention to these sidelined human workers is an important concern for CSCW with its focus on the work that enables systems to function seamlessly. Indeed, mobile money remains a favorite topic of interest for development scholars and practitioners and in the emergent conversations the focus continues to remain largely on the technological innovations. Even where the retail agent networks are discussed, their work is not completely understood. Bringing attention to these sidelined human workers is an important concern in this paper.