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.
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