We often fret that we’re too attached to our smartphones or that we let them wield too much influence over our lives. But our reverence for technology is relative. In the remote Ambonwari society of Papua New Guinea, villagers believe that cell phones are extensions of their human owners and can be used to commune with the departed.
Borut Telban, an associate professor of anthropology at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and Daniela Vavrova, an anthropologist at James Cook University in Australia, spent a year embedded in the remote village of Ambonwari in Papua New Guinea, looking at how the locals incorporate new digital technology into their existing cosmologies. They published an early version of their findings online in the Australian Journal of Anthropology.
“For 60,000 years, they had no influence of Western philosophy, no influence of Eastern or Western religion,” says Telban, who has spent years living and working with the Ambonwari as well as other cultures of Papua New Guinea. “They developed their own philosophy of life.” In the 1950s, a Catholic bishop introduced them to Christianity; in 1994, Australian Charismatics brought their brand of Pentecostalism to the village. The Ambonwari adapted elements of each Christian tradition while maintaining many of their own rituals and social structures.
When the mobile phone network provider Digicel began introducing cell phones to the village in 2007, the Ambonwari enthusiastically embraced the new technology. Even though their service was, and remains, sporadic—villagers travel to the hills of nearby towns to try to get a connection, and can rarely scrape together enough credit for a real conversation—they have found other uses for their phones: as watches, torches, music players, and simply toys. “They love playing with the phones,” said Telban. “They’ll look at the screen endlessly.”
The Ambonwari have also incorporated the new technology into their existing systems of thought. They have long been confident in their ability to talk to the dead, believing they can communicate with the world of spirits in dreams, visions, and trances induced by special rituals. The introduction of mobile phones has opened up new possibilities: The Ambonwari believe they can use them to contact their dead relatives, whose numbers they obtain from healers. And once they reach them, they can ask for anything. “It is a general conviction,” write Telban and Vavrova, “that once people know the phone numbers of their deceased relatives they can ring and ask the spirits to put money in their bank accounts.” I asked Telban if the villagers are discouraged that they never get through to the spirit world; he assured me that they’re not. They might assume the spirits aren’t available. And they ring random numbers so often that occasionally they do reach someone, whose voice they attribute to a spirit.
When their calls don’t go through, they don’t blame shoddy service or wrong numbers; they believe the spirits of the dead can interfere with their connections. Telban recalled one instance when an Ambonwari man called Terence died in the nearby province of Madang. Over the course of the next few weeks, several men attempted to call Madang. When they had trouble getting through, they concluded that Terence’s spirit was getting in the way of the phone line.
Better cell phone service would allow villagers to stay in touch with family members who move to other towns, but the prospect of increased connectivity presents risks, too. Telban is concerned about what would happen if the villagers got Internet connection through their phones. “They have no clue about spam,” he said. “They would be tricked immediately into sending money.”
And mobile phones—a prized possession—have already proved a source of conflict in this traditionally egalitarian society. “Those few who are in possession of a wireless or mobile phone are constantly watched and expected to provide others with both information and goods,” write Telban and Vavrova. And Digicel has unintentionally incited ill will between villages, which compete to host the cell phone towers.
They haven’t had time to develop telephone etiquette have, either. Back in Slovenia, Telban’s phone rings nonstop. “They really love just to ring me,” he said. He never knows who’s calling, since villagers share the phones, and as soon as he answers, the other person hangs up: They don’t have enough credit for an actual conversation. But Telban doesn’t mind. “They are my friends,” he said. “They’re just saying hello.”
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