Heather Horst and Robert Foster
Funded by the Australian Research Council (DP140103773), 2014-2016
The mobile phone represents one of the first truly global digital technologies (Goggin 2010). Spreading far beyond the industrialized centres of Europe, Asia and North America, almost 5 billion of the world’s 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions are found in the developing world. The rapid uptake of mobile phones in these regions has provided people with greater capacity for interpersonal communication and access to Web-based media platforms as well as new services such as banking and money transfers.
Our project seeks to understand this profound change by foregrounding the role of information and communication technologies in shaping the moral and cultural dimensions of socioeconomic life. We organize the research comparatively through case studies of two countries in the Pacific – Papua New Guinea, where a single service provider (Digicel Group Ltd.) now dominates the market, and Fiji, where the same provider struggles against a larger rival (Vodafone). Building upon the investigators’ extensive experience analysing the social, economic and cultural effects of mass media and new forms of communication in developing countries, the project will investigate how engagements with mobile phones and related digital media generate and regenerate cultural and personal identities; remake social practices including civic participation and economic exchange; and reconfigure relationships among consumers, companies and states. We focus on mobile money in particular as an emergent phenomenon that redefines relations among consumers, companies and states and that facilitates financial and social well-being in the developing world.
The project has three objectives:
- Describe, compare and explain how consumers appropriate mobile platforms and understand the moral dimensions of using these platforms in their everyday lives.
- Develop a nuanced historical and ethnographic account of the ways in which companies offering mobile services fashion themselves as moral actors through the cultivation and maintenance of mobile markets;
- Compare and analyse how different state actors create mobile markets through policies, regulatory frameworks and other forms of governance.
The project will produce primary historical and ethnographic data on information and communication technologies in two Pacific countries where very little empirical research has been conducted, especially about how primary access to the Internet through mobile phones and platforms affects information use and social networking. Our research findings and analyses will be useful to government agencies and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) for assessing the social impact of information and communication technologies on effective governance (e.g., increased transparency and civic participation) and economic development (e.g., the commercial significance of mobile money and information exchange). In addition, our novel conceptual framework and immersive fieldwork will bring anthropological theory and ethnographic methods to bear on scholarly debates about the cultural consequences of digital media and technology.