Robert Foster presented a paper titled “Top Up: The Moral Economy of Pre-Paid Mobile Phone Subscriptions” for the 5th SHSS Research Seminar at the University of Papua New Guinea on April 6 2016.
Pre-paid subscriptions enable poor people to purchase mobile phone services on a pay-as-you-go basis. Such an arrangement has facilitated the rapid spread and uptake of mobile phones throughout the Global South, where users routinely “top up” their phone credit in very small increments while telecommunications companies escape the problem of unpaid bills for services rendered. Less acknowledged, however, is how pre-paid subscriptions entail a peculiar moral economy in which mobile users assume fiscal responsibility for managing their phones in the face of demands and enticements from corporate service providers to increase and accelerate consumption. This paper ethnographically describes tensions that inhere in company-consumer relations around the mobile phone in Papua New Guinea. It documents how the dominant company Digicel promotes ever new ways for consumers to spend more money on voice, sms and, increasingly, data credits and how mobile phone users seek ways to avoid paying rent for use of Digicel’s self-proclaimed “ bigger and better network”. The paper argues that pre-paid subscriptions can and should be understood as an unstable market device comparable to disciplinary technologies of gambling designed to stimulate game playing and preforce extract greater amounts of revenue from players. This process of extraction paradoxically encourages and undermines temporal discipline; it shapes the practices of mobile phone users, but not without public criticism and creative resistance.