Give me a missed call

I’m always fascinated by the way people find unusual and unintended uses for the functionality provided by designers of technology.

A particular example I’ve been tracking for a while is the “Give me a missed call” approach I first saw practiced in India. It’s been around for quite a while now; if you want to delve into it, this post at is a good place to start, to follow as you wish; in fact as a general rule kottke and smartmobs are good places to dig around for stuff like this. It is by no means restricted to India, as the Kottke post shows.

Why do I find this so fascinating? Because I think it has something to do with abundances and scarcities and the Because Effect, in a strange kind of way.

It’s all about affordability. Over thirty years ago, when I was still in Calcutta, international calls were (a) operator-based (b) very expensive and (c) often person-to-person. I’m sure there were many reasons why such calls were prohibitively expensive; to many of us, at least one of the reasons was some form of artificial scarcity.

And the response to this situation delighted me even then as a fifteen-year old stripling. A neighbouring family created a simple code, agreed in advance, to solve a simple problem. Their children tended to travel abroad while waiting for university offers and acceptances. They would call their children wherever they happened to be, person-to-person, with the first name of the synthetic “callee” or recipient, carrying the message, and the surname identifying the addressee. So a call for Stanford Philip would translate to “Philip, you have an offer letter from Stanford waiting for you at home”.

It seemed ingenious to me. Completed calls became expensive and “scarce”, while person-to-person not-completed calls became free and “abundant”.

Today’s equivalent is “give me a missed call”. I think there’s a lesson here for all of us.  And that is this:

When you create an artificial scarcity, the market will create an artificial abundance in response.


7 thoughts on “Give me a missed call”

  1. I don’t actually think it is all about affordability although this is an important driver. Even if there were to be affordability the geek would still find the challenge of bucking the system something that could not be foregone. Also, the desire to take something and make it something which it is not is deep-rooted and independent of affordability. Now – when you put the two together, affordability driver and the drive to tinker then that is when some interesting action happens :)

  2. OK, I’ll file the rebuttal to Malcolm’s point:

    If some people (geeks, if you will) get joy (utility if you are an econ geek) from tinkering to find ways around things then these people will do this tinkering for very little reward. But some geeks really want some reward for their tinkering. The reward is often cost avoidance so as the amount of cost avoidance goes up, the number of people willing to tinker goes up. Some will tinker for no return, but most want some return, and if the reward is high enough many will tinker.

    it looks like typical homo economist behavior… but with the understanding that some get joy from tinkering.

    | /
    | /
    | /
    | /
    | /
    | /

    x axis = cost avoided by tinkering
    y xis = number of tinkerers

    So how big of a geek am I to attempt ascii, econ, geek art?

  3. oh man! wordpress killed my spaces and destroyed my ascii art. Damn. Well, it was an upward sloping line :)

  4. In case you didn’t know, this was why the British Post Office was founded. Roland Hill got into trouble by charitably paying the postage for a letter where the family used the return to report that everying was alright. He decided this wasn’t good enough and founded the penny post.

Let me know what you think

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