Mobile phone repair networks in Kampala, Uganda: the role of “geeks and hackers”.

Like workplace studies such as Julian Orr’s Talking About Machines (1996), this research explores repair as an improvisational and situated practice – involving skilled, embodied conjunctions between technicians and tools. Yet studies of repair also open up opportunities for moving beyond the repair ‘situation’ (Pollock et al. 2009) to ask wider questions about information technologies. In a forthcoming book chapter entitled Rethinking Repair, Steven Jackson asks:

what happens when we take erosion, breakdown and decay, rather than novelty, growth and progress as our starting point in thinking through the nature, use, and effects of information technology and new media?

To begin to answer this question, I turn to software repair tools: the software programs and hardware devices that allow repair technicians to reconfigure mobile phones. Tool developers sit between the two framings of technology that Jackson describes. They are deeply wedded to the ideology of progress within the telecoms industry, regularly updating their tools to include new models. Yet they do so in order to enable repair.

Technicians consider themselves ‘end users’ of these tools, which are produced by “geeks and hackers”. A discussion of tool design raises familiar themes about access to information, as ‘hackers’ or developers work with (or around) the proprietary systems of multi-national corporations. In industry, these interventions are conceptualized as security threats, but in Kampala, they are part of keeping people connected. There is scope for a lively discussion of ‘openness’ here, which attempts to avoid a ‘moral binary in which hackers are either lauded or denounced’ (Coleman and Golub, 2008: 256). After all, tool developers are not heroic lone hackers battling corporations for the good of the community at large. An ecology of developers produce circumventions in order to make money from the sales of boxes and services to technicians. Developers protect their own innovations from interference with security systems.

Technicians meet ‘hackers’ on online message boards such as GSM Forum. This particular site is a virtual community of practice for mobile phone repair. It hosts support forums for many software repair tools, so it is a place in which technicians and developers interact. Significant rivalries exist between developer ‘teams’. Frictions are made visible on the Forum through boasts and insults, and other forms of competitive text ‘talk’. But they are also enacted materially, through the design and distribution of tools that ‘crack’ or ‘kill’ others. In the second part of this presentation I explore the ‘killing’ of the JAF flasher box by a rival, through the distribution of an update containing malicious code. This bad upgrade killed the JAF boxes of many of my research participants in Kampala; destroying key tools within their repair assemblages. GSM Forum was a place where this malware was secretly distributed, and also a place where the fallout of this act was negotiated, in huge ‘flame war’ threads.

In conclusion, this seminar explores how hacking is a form of work that both enables repair – through the breaking of mobile phone cryptography – and troubles repair – through the hacking of tools by rival teams. Software repair tools don’t simply deal with broken phones. Breakdown, destruction and conflict are major features of the ongoing re-production of these socio-technical formations. Tools like J.A.F. never reach a state of fixity: these are tools that remain as networks. For Kampalan technicians, the ability to repair rests on the complex interactions between manufacturers, developers and technicians, which one technician calls ‘the game’. GSM Forum is an important place in which technicians can navigate these changing relations.