[Ca][Es] The Mobile World Congress (#MWC16): Part of a Story

The #MWC16 creates a narrative and not many people question it, at least not out loud. One is mesmerized by news of the ‘technological revolution’, the purported economic impact of the event and the attraction the stars of the sector claim they feel for Barcelona. Yet one might be shocked to hear

other sources talking about digital dumping grounds, illegal data trafficking, the environmental impact of recycling devices, the mining of so-called “blood minerals”, the terrible working conditions of some of the people who make our technology, and so on. And what is really serious is that both issues are reported as if they were completely unrelated.

Another Year, Another Success
The #MWC16 has been a success, according to its organisers and press reports. More than 100,000 visitors (20% women), 2,200 businesses, 374 speakers, 4,000 accredited journalists, entrepreneurs, innovators; start-ups, new products, new apps, new software, new substances such as graphene; new areas including health, the Internet of Things, renewable technologies, security, digital commerce, marketing and advertising, games, media and communications, education, NGOs, etcetera. The GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association) says it is delighted that so many groups were represented and it seems to have met its goal of responding to the interests of its members: mobile operators worldwide, handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organisations in adjacent industry sector.

Connecting the #MWC16 to the City
The Congress gave rise to a couple of interesting questions separately posed by Genís Roca and Joan Subirats. How to connect the Congress to the people of Barcelona, and how to match the commercial and technological power of large corporations with the strength of the city.
One answer to both questions would be to create a third space, along with the WMC (as created by the GSMA) and @4YFN_MWC (4 Years from Now – as created by the Mobile World Capital Barcelona, @MWC_Barcelona). This ‘Digital Society World Congress’, as Genís Roca proposed to call it, would be a forum where citizens could discuss their concerns: the digital divide, control and data privacy, big data, the Internet of Things (in personal and domestic spheres, mobility, management of the city…) the common good, leisure and work.

A City’s Congress Might Already be Underway
Somehow a Citizen’s Congress seems to be underway in the form of four events that took place in Barcelona to “stand up to” or “complete” the #MWC16: the Congress of Technological Sovereignty (Sobtec); the AntiMWC Day; the Mobile Social Congress and the Mobile Commons Congress.
All four events addressed similar issues from slightly different perspectives or groups: more libertarian, more political, more humanitarian and more academic. Participants varied from one space to another, even though some were present at all four events. Others had also been at the #MWC16.
The main issues discussed were data, rights, sovereignty, technology and sustainability, analysed from both local and global perspectives. For instance:

  • Data
    • Exploitation – Public management of data in closed formats and by large multinationals, with specific examples such as T-Mobilitat.
    • Security – Data leaks, intelligence, digital shadow, encryption, …
  • Rights
    • Working conditions – Precarious local labour conditions, labour rights in the electronics industry.
    • Gender violence, low level of female employment in the industry.
  • Technological Sovereignty – Free telecommunications infrastructure, free software and hardware, autonomous internet servers, Electronics Watch, Guifi.net, Som Connexió, Fairphone … Specific problems such as the use of proprietary software by the public administration, public technological investment exclusively in large multinationals, weak security in ICT, introduction of blockchain technology,…
  • Sustainability – The actual cost of production of devices, environmental hazards, generating CO2, the sources of “blood minerals”, traceability, digital footprint, planned obsolescence, circular ecology, equipment reuse, cradle to cradle design, …

Conclusions were similar at each event. They invariably underlined the need to ‘degrow’, to make a more conscious and better informed use of technology, to be involved in its production, development and management, to promote more widely distributed and more democratic infrastructures, and to apply the rule of the 4R: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover.

Colliding Narratives
In the #MWC16 narrative value lies in “growth”. According to the GSMA, “… in 2015, the mobile ecosystem generated 4.2% of global GDP, a contribution that amounts to more than $3.1 trillion of economic value added”. Economic value added is calculated as the difference between the value of sales made by the sector and the direct cost of making those sales. It measures success by the growth of the network deployment, the number of direct and indirect jobs created, the amount of taxes paid and the purchase price paid for spectrum to states.

The #MWC16 glorifies technological developments and overlooks key issues, for instance who controls these new devices; who determines their rules; the working conditions for the jobs generated; the conflicts and exploitation related with the “blood minerals”; and the real impact of the mobile industry on the environment. The media receive a story and uncritically parrot it. The public simply accepts it.
One could demand that the media should take a different approach and encourage those in charge of the WMC and 4YFN to deliver a more honest account, especially since much of the budget comes from public funds. The Spanish State, the Generalitat (Government) of Catalonia and the Barcelona City Council each contribute 5 million euros every year to the @MWC_Barcelona, according to research published in the online newspaper Crític (@SentitCritic).

Moreover, the GSMA could be required to actually comply with its “public policy”, namely to generate debate within the industry and with governments and regulators, on privacy, the environment, energy efficiency and public administration. And the @MWC_Barcelona “a public/private initiative that promotes the digital transformation of society, with a view to improving people’s quality of life” could be exhorted to meet its goals more efficiently.

If Barcelona is to become a reference in the promotion of the use of mobile technologies, adding greater capacity and value for citizens, generating the best of collective intelligence, and managing the resources of the city, we citizens as a collective should start looking for points of convergence in the narratives offered by the market, the administration, and from the domain of what is held in common.

Links to articles and documents:

Democratización tecnológica – Joan Subirats

Digital Society World Congress – Genís Roca

GSMA Mobile Economy 2016

GSMA Public Policy

L’altra cara del Mobile Congress

Notes de SeguimFils a el I Congrés de sobirania tecnològica; les Jornades AntiMWC; el Mobile Social Congress i el Mobile Commons Congress.