chapter  3
15 Pages

The cultural economy of cell phones: New relations of consumption and production

As a way of understanding media, political economy is relatively well established. It offers clear ways to approach questions of power and media, especially helpful with its emphases on ownership, control, structures and arrangements of power. In approaching mobile media from the standpoint of political economy in Chapter 2 – however loosely – I sketched the kinds of firms that largely organize mobile media production. As well as power, and media, the other cardinal concept of this book is culture. There are many ways to draw the relationships between power and culture, long debated, for instance, across those committed to political economy approaches in the study of media and communication (Chakravartty and Zhao 2007), and those who are interested in a range of other approaches, developed in cultural theory and studies especially. At some peril, I will skirt those debates here, and consider the recently developed approach of cultural economy. Cultural economy offers a range of approaches to thinking about culture,

value and policy (for instance, Aitken 2007; Ash and Thrift 2004; Best and Paterson 2009; du Gay and Pryke 2002). There are economists who have long studied the arts, who also consider the broader concept of culture. The question of cultural policy, rather than say arts policy, emerged during the 1990s. It represents an attempt to grapple with the wide range of kinds of culture, and the value that accrues and is placed upon these across a society. It remain controversial because it involves a de-centring of so-called ‘elite’ arts or cultural forms, in favour of research and policy that seeks to do justice to, say, computer games, handicrafts and festivals, as much as opera, literature and theatre. Cultural economy is worth pursuing precisely because of the heightened role that culture plays in contemporary economies. This is thematized in the policy and intellectual movements around creativity, notably in ‘creative industries’ discourse. Theorists of creative industries argue for the need to move beyond old understandings – pejorative and neutral alike – of cultural industries, to a recognition of the role that creativity plays in everyday life, and in the creation of economic value. The importance of cultural economy has grown rapidly in the past decade, especially with developments in globalization, and

little work to date on cell phones and the cultural economy, cell phones are likely to feature significantly in this (Cunningham and Potts 2009). We might start by measuring how much digital technologies, and in our case

here, mobile media, might contribute to cultural goods and service, and so to our economy. Cultural economy, however, signifies other things too. In political economy we are accustomed to looking for the new ways in which power is arranged, brought together and functions in a system (hence the connotations of the word ‘economy’). There is a similar resemblance evoked by the economy of culture. What are the new kinds of systems – economies – that construct our relationships with, around, and through culture forms? What new cultural practices and characteristics arise in this? What are the systems of value arising from these? Here cultural economy offers a way to bring together central questions about digital technologies and cultures – especially to do with the role of use and the new role consumption and creativity is believed to have in new media. Again, less has been written to date regarding cell phones in this – attention has focused upon internet based technologies and cultures, with an assumption that cell phones add to, or extend, such developments. Against this background this chapter seeks to consider implications of cultural

economy of mobile media. First, I investigate the economy of consumption and use of mobile media. Who consumes mobile media? How is mobile media being used in different regions of the world? How are cell phones figuring as media in developing countries? How do forms of mobile media relate to other forms of cultural undertaking, value and distribution, such as traditional television, film, music and newspapers? Having discussed some indicators of mobile media use in the second section, I discuss the valorization of consumption, and the creative role of the consumer in shaping, indeed sometimes co-producing, technologies. New forms of participative culture have emerged, notably in gaming, but mobile media also has its own distinctive forms of creative consumption that need to be scrutinized. Third, I look at the area of ‘user-generated content’, which has rapidly emerged as a strategically important area in internet cultures, especially with the meteoric rise of music (Napster), photo (Flickr) and video (YouTube) networks and sites. In one sense the forms of user-generated content allied with mobile media have been more easily captured for revenue because of telecommunications billing systems, or through the wholesale and retail merchandising and sales chains of handsets and accessories (upon which are based user customization of mobiles – Fortunati 2006, and Hjorth 2009b); on the other hand, the kinds of new cultural activity of mobile media, in which users are key, have not yet been adequately registered.