ROCHESTER, USA - Robert Foster, a professor of anthropology at Rochester, has a longstanding interest in Papua New Guinea that started in 1984 with his doctoral research.
He later researched cultural attitudes toward Coca-Cola and, visiting again in 2010, he found PNG transformed by another product - cell phones.
“The coming of the cell phone in Papua New Guinea just couldn’t be ignored,” he said. “There was a moment when they were nowhere, then a moment when they were everywhere.”
In 2014, Foster launched a three-year research project on what he called the “moral economy” of cell phones in PNG and Fiji.
As part of the project, he has coedited a book for Australian National University Press together with Professor Heather Horst of Sydney University, ‘The Moral Economy of Mobile Phones: Pacific Island Perspectives’ (free download here).
It describes what happened in PNG and other Pacific island nations when their governments opened up the telecommunications sector to market competition.
One company, Digicel, built an infrastructure that brought cell phones to remote areas, achieving in PNG, a remarkable 90% coverage.
“Digicel has offered a service that the government failed to provide, namely making communication possible throughout PNG,” said Foster. “And in that way, the company has helped bring together family and friends living across the country.”
Cell phones were not simply used to talk with family and friends. Foster learned that people in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific were randomly dialling numbers in an effort to make new connections or “phone friends.”
Cell phones offered villagers, including women, a way to create social relations outside the customary bounds of kinship and locality.
“It is perhaps the combination of intimacy and strangeness made possible by mobile phones that marks something new,” he said.