Mobile money as material culture at the British Museum

If you do an internet search on mobile money, you will find that most results displayed deal with issues about technology, security, and socioeconomic development. Few people stop to think about mobile money as a cultural product or a material thing.

After all, it is meant to be a tool to move money around, not an artifact that expresses our social relations. Plus, the whole idea of mobile money is to make money less material as it reduces our dependence on cash, right?

Not so, says Catherine Eagleton, a curator from the British Museum. She is currently putting together a new section on digital money in the Museum's Money Gallery, scheduled to open to the public in June 2012.

In a recent podcast, she discusses how digital money presents interesting challenges for the Museum in recording the changes that are taking place in society through forms of currency that are a store of value but often have no single physical manifestation.

She is looking for objects to display in the Money Gallery that can tell a story about digital forms of money. In order to remain up-to-date, the exhibitions will change as people's use of digital or virtual money develops.

Certainly mobile money is hard to pin down as an object of material culture. It's easy enough to view coins and notes as artifacts that we can 'read' for their cultural meanings, whether this be what's printed on them, how people store them, or the rituals involved in giving cash in Ethiopia. And plenty has been written on different aspects of mobile phone material culture, such as how Jamaicans personalize their phones, or how mobiles change social patterns in Brazil.

Phones have also become an popular gift from boyfriend to girlfriend, or parent to child, or a status item that you just have to be seen with. Mobile phone producers spend a lot of time and money scrambling to keep up with changing aesthetics among a dizzying array of culture.

But mobile money is less straightforward, because it depends upon the interaction of a range of material forms. It is at once the money people deposit and withdraw, the phones they use to do this, the infrastructure that is used to run it, and the advertising that companies deploy to sell it.

And, being a system that is used by people, it is more open to cultural interpretation and modification than you might think.

Our research in Haiti showed the beginnings of how mobile money might be adapted to an existing cultural framework and also generate new cultural practices. By changing the ways that people materially store and send money, it could potentially have an enormous impact upon how people organize their social relations.

Haitian wooden money boxes. Photo by Erin Taylor
Haitian wooden money boxes

For example, it changes the social nature of how domestic remittances are actually delivered in Haiti. Rather than cultivating a relationship with transport drivers or other travelers who provide a remittance service, mobile money users can deposit money in their local store and do the actual transfer themselves.

Also, the facility to store money on your phone means a reduced risk of theft and less dependency on traditional means of storing money, such as in money boxes disguised as other items or carrying it in underwear with a special pocket (and the possible decline of those artefacts).

It may also allow people to hide money from people who demand a share or a loan, or even facilitate more remittances as people can increasingly send money to others who are not on the normal remittance routes.

TchoTcho Mobile Money Interface. Photo by Erin Taylor
TchoTcho Mobile Money Interface

Apart from technologies of circulation, mobile money has its own aesthetics. Unlike with mobile phones, mobile money currently offers very little scope for aesthetic personalization: most of its aesthetic is generated from the telecommunications companies who offer the service.

At the level of the user, text menus are the primary point of interaction. In Haiti, Digicel seemed to struggling to decide which language would appeal most to different aspects of their market. While we were in the field from January to March 2012, mobile money messages generally sent in either French or Haitian Kreyol, but their television advertisement is entirely in Haitian Kreyol, perhaps reflecting their view that the service was built for, and should appeal to, Haiti's poor majority.

Digicel's television advertisement for its mobile money service, TchoTcho Mobile, features a neatly dressed bus driver in Port-au-Prince sending money back to his wife in Jacmel. In fact, these people are portrayed as fairly affluent, as the wife, a pretty woman with straightened hair, enters a well-stocked store with her young child.

Later in the advertisement, a grandmother in the countryside also gives testimony to TchoTcho Mobile's efficacy. These characters reflecting ideal norms for Haiti's respectable poor, and is not so different from M-PESA's advertising in Kenya, though interesting the latter depicts a stream of real bank notes flying from one phone to another.

As mobile money expands globally, there will be plenty to talk about in relation to its materiality. The British Museum's exhibition is a timely exploration of how our changing material world can itself be agentive in shaping the ways we live, both individually and collectively.