The huge growth of mobile telephony in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade has inspired this ethnographic study of mobile phone repair shops in Kampala, Uganda. Repair shops are part of a socio-material infrastructure that enrolls handsets in Ugandan networks, and keeps them working. Perhaps surprisingly, ‘hackers’ and ‘crackers’ form part of this infrastructure too. This paper describes hackers who produce tools: software programs and hardware devices that allow repair technicians to reconfigure mobile phones.
Hackers form part of the community of repair in two ways: the tools that they produce materially enable (and constrain) the possibilities for repair in Kampala. A discussion of tool design raises familiar themes about access to information, as hackers work with (or around) proprietary systems. Secondly, technicians also interact with hackers via online message boards, where rivalries between worldwide hacker ‘teams’ are performed. These frictions are also enacted through the design of tools that ‘crack’ or ‘kill’ others. The materiality of these conflicts is important: repair practices are foreclosed by broken tools, or opened up by free access.
This paper also discusses the narration of hacker identities by Kampalan repair technicians (an unusual and interesting group of hacker tool ‘users’). Given that practices circulate across repair and hacking, it’s revealing to note how differences between the two domains of hacking and repair are enacted.