Dan Jorgensen has conducted ethnographic research in western Papua New Guinea off and on over the last thirty years or so, paying increasing attention to the ways in which rural villagers have engaged a range of cultural, economic, and political forces including the rise of the postcolonial state, large-scale mining projects, and transnational evangelism. His recent interests focus on the significance of the rapid adoption of mobile phones in the context of an ‘internal diaspora’ as villagers migrate to other parts of the country while trying to maintain relations at a distance.
Connectivity, Mobile Phone Use, and Papua New Guinea’s “Last Places”
Communications technologies that were recently the perks of high-end executives have become part of the everyday lives of people in the developing world. This is a profoundly global phenomenon, but its local effects are surprisingly poorly understood. In this paper, I examine the recent spread of mobile phones in Papua New Guinea with an eye to understanding the uses people make of them. Mobile phones in PNG are ubiquitous and new, with a third of the population now owning handsets. Much of the rural population is scattered over difficult terrain, with little infrastructure, inadequate services and few opportunities. As a result, migration is common: every rural villager has relatives in town, and most townspeople still call a rural village ‘home.’ This paper begins by asking what happens when mobile phones enter this equation.
In 2011 a large-scale communications project extended mobile phone coverage to a widely scattered population in the western part of PNG for the first time. Following networks of personal relationships along migration pathways between villages and towns, I examine the ways in which mobile phone use and strategies of connection at a distance play an increasing role in the lives of those who describe themselves as living in ‘or being from’ PNG’s “Last Places.” While wider accessibility to mobile phones bridges gaps between urban and rural users, mobile phones have raised new issues for the management of personal networks, a process which is part of a larger set of tensions about how to define individuals in their relationships with others. These tensions have given rise to a range of distinctive strategies in which restricting access to mediated networks may be as significant as extending them.