How the smartphone is transforming India
Ravi Agrawal's new book 'India Connected' tells a people-led story about how smartphones are likely to be India's transformative tech
Technology transformed America in the form of the automobile—it connected the vast country through a network of highways and roads, gave people unprecedented mobility, and created the right circumstances for an entrepreneurial population to assert its agency and independence, leading to a thriving economy and culture. Naturally, the car also became a cultural artefact, signifying many things—from coming of age to breaking free.
Noting this in his book India Connected, Ravi Agrawal, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, draws parallels between early 20th century America and early 21st century India; between the car and the smartphone. From 2014-17, when he was the chief of CNN’s Delhi bureau, Agrawal had the opportunity to observe, first hand, the vast social and political changes that the smartphone was creating in the country. “I started asking myself ‘could the smartphone be more than just a device? Could it be an enabler of social change?’ America was transformed by the car, by automobile technology; will the smartphone do the same for India?" says Agrawal over Skype.
When he came to work in India after spending eight years abroad with CNN, Agrawal was looking for “the big changes", and one of the most visible was the proliferation of cheap smartphones and access to data. He recalls watching an ad for Idea Cellular—part of the internet service provider’s “no ulloo banaoing" campaign that showed ordinary people using mobile internet and search to bust lies told by politicians and companies—and wondering if this was the agent of change India needed. “Technology turned out to be a great prism through which to look at India. It was fresh and ongoing—we are right at the start of India’s technological transformation and we don’t know for sure how it’s going to pan out," says Agrawal. His book, a set of connected essays about real people whose lives have been transformed by the technology of the smartphone, aims to capture some part of this story even as it unfolds and changes every day, with new innovations, new legislations, and fresh data.
In the introduction, Agrawal writes about how for most Indians, the “internet-enabled smartphone will be their first computer—as well as their first private TV screen, their first portable music player, and their first camera… In the cramped, tiny homes in which so many live, it is their only privacy." Agarwal says, “As a student in Kolkata, I had a PC and dial-up internet at the age of 15. I wanted to make sure that the stories in this book are not of people who were in that top 20%."
The book tells stories of people like Phoolwati, a woman living in a small village in Rajasthan, who is an “Internet saathi", teaching other rural women how to access the internet as part of a programme run by Google and Tata Trusts; of a village in Gujarat where women were deprived of smartphones because of the deeply patriarchal belief that they would use it to “run away"; of a young man who taught himself English using the Hello English app and runs a successful coaching centre; of how teachers and school principals in Haryana have been organized into WhatsApp groups for better communication because none of them have email addresses but everyone uses WhatsApp. “WhatsApp has allowed Indians to leapfrog email. While an email address can often be a form of identity in the West, in India one’s identity is often tethered… to a mobile number," writes Agrawal in the book.
Curiously, though, many Indians constantly juggle between multiple SIM cards and mobile numbers, looking for better recharge value and cheaper rental plans. But if the 10-digit mobile number is tied to identity, how do Indians deal with its multiplicity? “They can switch between identities easily, just as you and I may have different email IDs—one for work, one for personal stuff. Indians’ comfort with the mobile device is unique. They are native to the medium (in a way those who were exposed to the pre-mobile internet are not)," says Agrawal. In the book, he touches upon how the way Indians use mobiles has shaped several smartphone technologies and new services have evolved—the “lite" versions of apps, or cash-only payments for Ola and Uber, or the ability to switch between languages, or the “download content" option for videos on YouTube and Netflix for watching later because of erratic data speeds and low Wi-Fi penetration in Indian homes.
For the book, Agrawal interviewed start-up founders, Uber drivers, users of online dating services, privacy and data protection activists, gaming addicts and actor Sunny Leone. In the book, Agrawal describes Leone’s evolution from one of the most-searched pornstars on Pornhub to a mainstream, popular Indian celebrity.
He also speaks about the dangers inherent in handing over smart, connected devices to people who, because of a systemic lack of education and exposure, have few filters to enable them to tell right from wrong and truth from falsehood, resulting in internet addiction, proliferation of fake news, violation of women’s privacy, and deaths as a result of rumour-mongering on WhatsApp.
The challenge of writing a book like this is, of course, the danger of technology and events overtaking the narrative, and Agrawal was fully cognizant of this. “The numbers were changing every day," he says, referring to figures like the number of smartphone users in India or the number of handsets sold every year. “But thankfully, the book is not about data, or about a specific company. It’s about people, and taking a step back; taking a long view of things, which writing an article does not allow. That’s the advantage of a book."