Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Adam Fish January 11, 2012
9 minutes

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become true in industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity.


Granularity is the reduction of symbols to binary-type simplicity such as lines of computer code or small economic integers. Granularity means to break down money or media into symbolic and quantitative units for digital delivery and reconstitution. Granularity and networks are what gives bit-based media and money its mobile advantage over its cousins–film stock that needs to be “bicycled” to theaters and precious metals that need to be stored in fortified treasuries. Granularity is the physical principle that allows the discourses of money and media to meet. With granularity come two conflicting social worlds –the financialization as well as the democratization of media and money.

More philosophically, the media/money verisimilitude reveals the already tenuous analytical separation of thought and action, discourse and practice, and rationalities and tactics.

Financialization and Democratization of Money/Media

Digital money and mobile media, in a state of fine granularity, are symbolically opened for innovative as well as manipulative financialization and potentially wide democratization. Granularity, by refining things into ever-smaller units, increases the opportunities for access to previously closed systems. On the one hand, this can be empowering as peer-to-peer media and financial transactions can increase and, for a time, transpire under the radar of regulators and speculators. On the other hand, media/money granularity can also result in “flexible accumulation,” the post-nation manufacturing of information/financial/mathematical tools such as seen in the derivatives market that is increasingly difficult to regulate, litigate, or access if you are a citizen.

Digital Money as Democratizing

The granularity of digital money can create opportunities for access by materially poor people to small investment-able capital. This form of capital democratization is dependent upon new technologies and networks. Digital money, largely a numerical system within ornate cultural contexts, is easily made granular and digitally shared via phone or internet from person to person, micro-lender to person, and employer to person. Such transactions on unregulated communication networks has democratized new forms of money sharing, saving, and transfer.

While it isn’t popular in the United States, mobile granular financing has exploded in Kenya. For instance, Vodaphone affiliate Safaricom started m-Pesa, a mobile money transfer in Kenya in 2003. M-Pesa has 12 million users out of 17 million mobile phone users representing 70% of the mobile market in Kenya and 21% of the Kenyan GDP flows through the system, wrote mPay Connect founder Menekse Gencer in 2011. It works and it’s profitable for Vodaphone shareholders. And yet its commercialization balances any breathless optimism about m-Pesa’s democratizing impact.

This democratization of capital provides an opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the overbearing symbology that is money. It also invites us to reconsider basic issues of financial autonomy and agency. How will mobile money challenge, magnify, or articulate with local customs? As digital currencies evolve will they be pegged to national or international banks? How will they be regulated and by whom? How are they insured and what backs their legitimacy? As these pragmatic questions are answered and applied digital money will likely move further from democratization and nearer to financialization.

Financialization of Digital Money

Few have bank accounts but the 1.7 billion materially poor people will have a cell phone in 2012. This phone can be used to make calls, many can take photos and videos, upload them to the internet, and, increasingly, receive and give money. Even before this form of digital money there were banks micro-lending. Following CK Prahalad’s claim that the collective material wealth at the bottom of pyramid can make development profitable, a number of microfinance organizations went into non-profit “business.” Kiva, who started in 2005, the same year as YouTube, is the most recognizable microlender for Westerners. Kiva founders were inspired by a talk by Muhammad Yunus at Stanford. Yunus, of course, started Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the first microfinance organization. Kiva, Grameen, Yunus and the following, Banco Compartamos, are all vigorously successful and have all claimed to alleviate poverty. Such philanthrocapitalism is rich with contradictions. The World Bank, for instance, is the largest micro-lender in the world. The problematic financialization of granular money is evident in Banco Compartamos that started as a non-profit micro-lending bank to materially poor Oaxacans, took a shot at becoming private in an IPO, raised a billion dollars, and made its shareholders wealthy. Yunus was outraged by the high interest rates and simple bald privatization of the now profitable banco.

While the granularity of digital money can create capital access and capital democratization, it can also create access for corporate financialization. By financialization I refer basically to commercial or market tactics and discourses; of tacking profit generating financial instruments onto each grain of digital money and a charge onto each node it its circuitous pathway through the technological and social network. This is an important facet of “flexible accumulation” which refers both to the global mobility of capital as well as the instrumentalization of social life.

Mobile Media Democratization

The democratization of digital money is spiritually linked to the tactical and discursive interventions of local entrepreneurs who “hacked” into public systems –satellite television, electricity, water– that had been privatized. My research into the history of cable and satellite “guerrilla television” producers reveals how techniques and rationalities are mobilized by marginalized producers to gain access to systems of media power closed by economic or political power. The process goes something like this. A disruptive network communication technology evolves out of tinkerer communities (radio, cable television) or large-scale federal investment (satellite, internet). The indigenous or local innovators are either responsible for the technology, as in the case of radio and cable television, or adapt to exploit it like early internet hackers, public access television producers, and phone phreaks. Examples include TVTV, a psychedelic television producer community who created an opening on cable television in the 1970s and Deep Dish TV, a progressive producer collective who exploited inexpensive satellite rents to distribute their anti-war message. They used their policy discourse and interventionary practices to exploit an opening in an otherwise closed system. These opening can provide the context for the democratization of (capital) production. These examples of media democratization are from the pre-digital phase, how does granularity impact media democracy as well as the financialization of media?

Mobile Media Financialization

Granularity impacts two forms of media financialization: personalization and fragmentation. The obsession the Google founders Page and Brin have with artificial intelligence is dutifully documented by Nick Carr in The Big Switch. They hope to know enough about each of us through recording our search records to be able to recommend consumer solutions to life. This they call personalization, the individualization of search. This ‘give-them-what-they-appear-to-like’ mentality includes searches we do on politics as Eli Pariser explains, keeping us in homogenous “filter bubbles.” Just yesterday it was reported that Google’s personalization ambition has been branded as “Search,  Plus Your World” to honor how they merge their search data with the person data we freely give them on their fledgling social network Google+. The point is that every granular piece of personal data has a price. It is on these grains of identity that Google and Facebook hang their future business plans.

Google is financializing another stream of granular data, the video clip. Beginning back in 2007, I began documenting the transformation of amateur to professional YouTubers. By the end of 2011, this transformation is now complete and YouTube is fully prepared for the convergence of broadband home entertainment by creating the Partner program, buying Next New Networks, and recently enshrining 100 top video producers. Many of the professionalized channels are vloggers whose work is not granular in the traditional sense of the term (micro-payments or lines of code) but it is granular in reference to the lengthy documentaries, over-cooked television talk shows, and studio call in shows of the past. They are short and often include ever more granular clips. Ray William Johnson, the most subscribed and viewed YouTube celebrity built his business around making fun of little clips. Kind of like America’s Funniest Home Videos for tweens. Taken as a whole, from the semi-famous vloggers making almost a million dollars a year from revenue sharing with Google to the one-hit wonder who uploads an addictively watchable cat video and who make a few thousand dollars for Google and herself, granularity is part of the financialization as well as democratization of visual media.

Possible Social Consequences

What are the possible global and local impacts of the theory that granularity is turning money and media into objects easily interchangeable, financialized, and democratized? In essence I am concerned with the manufacturing and exploitation of desire, the commercialization of bio-politics, and the death of democracy. I worry about the emergence of a corporation capable of exploiting the verisimilitude of money/media and developing financial/media instruments that can control and monetized the smallest units of both symbolic systems. I worry about the capacities of these money/media corporations to manufacture ubiquitous entertainment environments that can extract financial rewards based on phenomenologically inconsequential but altogether quantifiable granular units of sensual attention. I worry about the media, which includes journalism, being colonized by financial interests to such a degree that there is no media (and no journalism) without a financial product immediately inscribed in its metadata. That would negate any democratization granularity would produce.

And yet, I have faith in the rationalities and techniques of the indigenous innovators, phone phreakers, “guerrilla television” producers, and hacktivists to intervene in this worrisome future.

This post is largely inspired by Anke Schwitty’s excellent 2011 article, “The financial inclusion assemblages: Subjects, technics, rationalities” in Critique of Anthropology 31[4]:381-401.