Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: February 1st, 2021

Article Discussed: Foster, R. J. (2020). The Politics of Media Infrastructure: Mobile Phones and Emergent Forms of Public Communication in Papua New Guinea. Oceania, 90(1), 18-39.

Lucas Watt

Digicel aggressively entered the telecommunications market across Oceania, including Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the mid-2000s. Digicel’s strategy of erecting a comprehensive network of communications towers in rural areas has been lauded as the reason for their success in the region, as it allowed urban wage earners to contact relatives in the rural village.  This new possibility caused a surge of mobile uptake in places like PNG, and thus creating a market to which airtime, text, and mobile data could be sold. Foster (2020) argues that Digicel’s expansion into PNG created a new domain over which everyday day Papua New Guineans could consider what was fair, just, and proper. Or in other words, a moral economy of the mobile phone emerged.

Upon the upsurge of its growth, consumers of Digicel’s services, plans, and deals, experienced moments where mobile data or mobile credit went “missing” from their phones. This happened in part because the terms of these deals were not always made clear by Digicel. For instance, deals which offered mobile users unlimited data for 72 hours did not notify users when their time was coming to an end. Any data used by users after that time were then charged at an exorbitant price which drained credit from their phones. This led to Facebook groups such as the Digicel Complaints Group (DCG) to be created where users could air their grievances in a public forum. Foster (2020) argues that, the creation of this group demonstrates that new ideas of what is ethical behavior for a company is quickly emerging in PNG. For Digicel specifically, mobile users demand transparency over pricing and conditions of deals.

Other notions of what is fair, just, and proper, within this emerging moral economy of the mobile phone are also being established. This includes to what extent are Facebook and Digicel responsible for controlling the spread of misinformation to mobile users, what is the role of the state to hold such companies accountable, and how does the mobile phone change the relationship PNG citizens have with the state and its elected officials. Overall, the reading group agreed that the moral economy of the mobile phone in Oceania shows a level of complexity and awareness of ethical issues between consumers, the state, and companies, that perhaps supersedes many more developed countries.  

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

One response to “Reading Group Summary: February 1st, 2021”

  1. […] This however is a minor point of contention. Rooney (2021) does put forth some highly relevant concepts regarding infrastructural development and citizenship in informal settlements that needed to be addressed in academic literature and urban policy in broader Oceania. I was delighted to see this topic covered in the highly influential regional journal, The Contemporary Pacific. I look forward to seeing greater ethnographic methodological refinement around infrastructures in informal settlements in the current moment of the”infrastructural turn” to see how infrastructural citizenship in Oceania continues to develop and change. For more discussion on ideas of citizenship and moral economy embedded in infrastructure in Oceania, see our discussion on the development of mobile infrastructures here. […]

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