What Nokia should do next

Rather than mimicking Apple or Samsung smartphones in North America and Europe, Nokia should look through its archives - and to its success in Africa - for inspiration.

In the end, I decommissioned my £10 Nokia 1100 out of vanity three years ago. It had survived countless mishaps, including one memorable death-defying dive into a cup of hot tea. Unlike my iPhone, its battery could trundle along for at least a week and no app could be more useful than its built-in torch during a power cut.
 
After Microsoft announced its purchase of Nokia’s mobile phone business for £4.7bn on 3 September, analysts made much of the Finnish firm’s struggles to compete with Samsung and Apple in the smartphone market. But what if, rather than focusing on its weaknesses, the phone giant had the confidence to play to its strengths? Nokia is still the market leader in emerging economies, especially across Africa. The Nokia 1100 was one of the world’s bestselling phones, with a quarter of a billion sold globally, and these cheap, reliable handsets continue to transform the way some of the world’s poorest people live and work.
 
There are now more mobile phone users in Africa than in North America or Europe, the World Bank reported in 2012, but unlike in developed economies there’s still plenty of room for growth. World Bank figures also show that market saturation varies from 28, 38 and 48 mobile phone subscribers per 1,000 people in Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, respectively, to 1,049.2 per 1,000 in the Seychelles. Phone-makers may have to expect low margins when selling to some of the poorest, but there is money to be made in low-cost, highvolume goods.
 
Nokia’s sturdy feature phones don’t attract the same hype as the latest Apple product but African consumers make considerable sacrifices for their mobile phones. According to research conducted by iHub, a Nairobi-based tech community, phone users in Kenya are willing to forgo meals, or walk home instead of taking the bus, to save for phone credit. Phones such as the Nokia 1100 are comparatively low-tech but across emerging economies they have proved arguably more valuable, and certainly more transformative, than any other modern tech gadget.
 
For millions of Africans without bank accounts, mobile money transfer companies such as Kenya’s M-Pesa are overhauling the way many do business and are plugging gaps in the continent’s weak financial infrastructure. The research firm Gartner predicts that mobile payments will rise to $235.4bn by 2013 – and even my old Nokia can be used to transfer funds. Volatile currencies, repressive financial regulation and low bank penetration have led to mobile phone minutes being used as currency in African countries as diverse as Egypt, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
 
Mobile phones are being used in all sorts of innovative ways, whether by offering crop insurance to Kenyan farmers via M-Pesa, or linking health workers in rural Mali to health-care experts to assist in proper diagnosis.
 
Even in Africa, demand for the Nokia 1100 won’t last. The company’s sales across the continent are declining. Nokia’s challenge now is to use its market clout to lead the way in low-cost smartphones designed for the African market, and its competitors aren’t just Apple and Samsung, but home-grown African companies such as Mi-Fone, headquartered in Mauritius.
 
Perhaps, rather than mimicking Apple or Samsung smartphones, Nokia should look through its archives for inspiration – a long battery life and sturdy design will be essential to a bestselling, lowcost smartphone, and a built-in torch would be wonderful.
Relics from another age: discarded Nokia mobile phones. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile