Our Sea of Islands in the Era of Mobile Phones: A View from Papua New Guinea

Presented by ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

Epeli Hau’ofa’s celebrated essay Our Sea of Islands championed a vision of autonomy and freedom for the people of Oceania based on their longstanding cultivation of interdependence through practices of reciprocity.

These practices have enabled the people of Oceania to enlarge their world by expanding the networks through which they circulate not only themselves but also new material resources.

Relatively affordable mobile phone services in the Pacific, largely made possible by the privately owned company Digicel after telecommunications markets were liberalized in the early 2000s, provided people with a new means to enact interdependence. T

his paper accordingly surveys some of the ways in which people in Papua New Guinea have appropriated mobile phones as a new tool for communication. It does so by considering how the everyday demand for mobile phone services is stimulated by Digicel and satisfied—or not—by ordinary consumers. At the same time, the paper asks if the mobile phone harbors a peculiar form of dependency that rides on the back of the interdependency that it facilitates.

Robert J. Foster is Professor of Anthropology and Professor of Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. His research interests include globalisation, corporations, commercial media, museums and material culture. He is the author of Social Reproduction and History in Melanesia (Cambridge, 1995); Materializing the Nation: Commodities, Consumption and Media in Papua New Guinea (Indiana, 2002); and Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea (Palgrave, 2008). His current projects include a comparative study of the moral and cultural economy of mobile phones in Papua New Guinea and Fiji funded by the Australian Research Council (with Dr Heather Horst, RMIT).

This public lecture is part of the symposium 'Worlding Oceania: Christianities, Commodities and Gendered Persons in the Pacific'.