Session: The Moral Economy Of Mobile Phones: Pacific Islands Perspectives

Robert Foster and Heather Horst co-organised the session, “The Moral Economy of Mobile Phones: Pacific  Islands Perspectives” at the American Anthropological Association conference on November 20 2015 in Denver.

The moral economy of mobile phones implies a field of shifting relations among consumers, companies and state actors, all of whom have their own ideas about what is good, fair and just. These ideas inform the ways in which, for example: consumers acquire and use mobile phones; companies market and sell phones and data subscriptions; and state actors regulate both everyday use of mobile phones and market activity around mobile phones. Ambivalence and disagreement about who owes what to whom is thus an integral feature of the moral economy of mobile phones.

Over the last ten years, the liberalisation of telecommunications markets in many Pacific Island countries has spurred exponential growth in the use and distribution of mobile phones. Digicel, a privately owned company headquartered in Jamaica and operating across the Caribbean, expanded into the Pacific in 2006, precipitating what some have called the “digital revolution”. In Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Vanuatu, Digicel now dominates the market. In Fiji, Vodafone Fiji commands the largest share of the market while Digicel attempts to increase its presence. In 2014, the Vodafone Group PLC, the gigantic British multinational company, sold its 49 per cent stake in Vodafone Fiji to the Fiji National Provident Fund, making Vodafone Fiji wholly locally owned. In the same year, Vodafone Group PLC entered into a partnership with bmobile, one of Digicel’s rivals in PNG, in order to enhance competition. The multi-stranded relationships among these companies and with their retail consumers and business customers, as well as with various state actors (including regulators) and NGOs (including the Digicel Foundation and Vodafone Foundation), constitute the ground for ethnographic inquiry that this session begins to map.

The papers for this session highlighted the agency of different actors in shaping the moral economy of mobile phones. For example, companies fashion themselves as positive moral agents through highly visible public programs of corporate responsibility while also saturating urban landscapes with attractive advertising images of smiling people using phones. State agencies attempt to regulate the various ends - including pornography and political critique - to which consumers put new technologies of online social media while also struggling with the challenge of making mobile communication affordable and accessible to all. Companies compete with each other and collaborate with state agencies in building and controlling the material infrastructure that subtends mobile communications and information technologies. Consumers themselves negotiate the possibilities and perils of creating new forms of interpersonal intimacy at the same time that they inform the purchase and exchange of phone and date credits with expectations and ideals derived from longstanding practices of reciprocity and kinship. Attending thus to the shifting relations among consumers, companies and state actors, this session identifies and evaluates what is at stake and for whom in the moral economy of mobile phones. The papers do so by considering ethnographic cases from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu.