FEBRUARY 12, 2019
RAVI AGRAWAL’S OPTIMISM about India is giddy but infectious. While his book, India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy, doesn’t ignore the dark side of the mobile phone’s sudden explosion over the last several years, Agrawal, currently the managing editor of Foreign Policy, presents a convincing case of how smartphones are creating a brand-new social infrastructure that did not previously exist in India.
Throughout 200 pages, we learn how the recent exponential growth of the smartphone facilitates female empowerment, aids mundane tasks in rural slums, enables political resistance in places like Kashmir, and also assists modern couples who subvert the traditional processes of arranged marriages.
Similarly structured books about India’s future usually function as provocative and enlightening surveys, whether they are about youth dynamics, food, crime, or the billionaire class. In this case, the narratives throughout India Connected present ordinary citizens devising work-arounds or concocting new mobile-tech ways to deal with old-world problems. In most instances, they use smartphones to simply circumvent limitations imposed on them. Beginning with female empowerment, education, and job creation, Agrawal moves on to the darker sides of the equation — porn, harassment, and internet stalkers — but eventually comes around the block to posit a hopeful outlook.
Using a somewhat ironic analogy, though, Agrawal first explains how the automobile created post–World War II American suburbia, how it transformed a nation, empowered millions, defined identities, and revolutionized the way Americans understood themselves. “For many Americans the car was their first property, their first truly private — and mobile — space,” he writes. “It was the place many would experience their first kiss. The internet-enabled smartphone will mean the same thing for India. To young Indians today, smartphones represent literal and figurative mobility. The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian Dream.”
The rapid speed at which India embraced mobile technology informs the entire book. Getting to know this country, or at least becoming closer to it, often requires one to abandon entire schools of Western thought, especially when it comes to time. In India, one cannot normally even attempt to hurry his or her way through queues, arguments, paperwork, court cases, or the many endless layers of bureaucracy it takes to get anything done from the bottom strata of society all the way to the upper echelons of government. Trying to rush usually makes everything worse. Not so with the smartphone’s rise.
As such, the most profound frame surrounding India Connected comes in the form of a time comparison. In the West, technology became faster, smaller, and more personal over a span of several decades. We went from mainframes, punch cards, and landlines in the 1970s, to rip-roaring 386 PCs in the 1980s, to the World Wide Web in the 1990s, to iPhones and broadband fiber in the aughts. This differs dramatically from India, a place where hundreds of millions of people went from no computers, landlines, or any technology in their lives straight to the ubiquity of smartphones almost overnight by comparison. The transformation is staggering.
With a journalist’s talent for hard data, but without fetishizing the statistics like many business writers do, Agrawal wraps each instance of the smartphone’s rise with adequate details to pull the story along. In 2014, for example, only one out of 10 women in rural India had ever been online. Google then partnered with local NGOs to launch its saathi program, an initiative filling much of the first chapter of India Connected. We learn how various local female “trainers” now operate in rural slums, tasked with educating local women, many of whom are functionally illiterate. The women now learn internet and search engine basics, via Google of course. At the start of 2018, there were 30,000 saathis operating in 110,000 villages, in almost half of India’s 29 states, benefiting an estimated 12 million women — only a drop in the ocean, but still a serious ray of hope.
When it comes to arranged marriages, Agrawal profiles a couple who met via a new dating app and bypassed all conventions their parents expected or wanted. However, in a glorious fusion of tradition and modernity, even as the luxuries of modern-day mobile technology led to their union, the couple remained indebted to ancient astrology for assistance, as do most Indians. Astrology is a $10 billion industry in India, with online astrology nearing one-10th of that market. Astrology apps might be the new untapped frontier for India, enabling people to consult officially vetted astrologers without the risk of getting scammed, Agrawal suggests.
Most heroic, though, are Agrawal’s portrayals of individuals using smartphones as tools for resistance to government and corporate power. The section of the book titled “The State” includes a chapter called “Big Brothers,” introducing us to Zeyan Shafiq, a 16-year-old Kashmiri who circumvented a government shutdown of the internet. As Kashmiri separatists battled with state forces, the Indian government implemented curfews, banning social media apps and punishing the Kashmiris by forcing local ISPs to shut down everyone’s access. No one could organize any form of resistance or even upload photos to send anyone else. Family members could no longer even contact each other via social media. In response, Shafiq created his own platform, Kashbook, which operated below the government’s radar, allowing Kashmiris to once again chat with each other, exchange video and photos. He became a young figurehead of political resistance, even if he was just more interested in getting his wired life back.
This is okay, Agrawal seems to suggest. Shafiq is young. He’ll expand his skill set and build a portfolio.
The same chapter illuminates the story of a journalist combating Facebook’s disingenuous attempts to force its product on the mass populace under false pretenses. In other countries, like the Philippines, Facebook had discovered that many people didn’t know the difference between “the internet” and Facebook. So Mark Zuckerberg and his COO Sheryl Sandberg thought they could hoodwink hundreds of millions of Indian citizens by partnering with a mobile company to offer free internet access for all when in reality they were merely offering free Facebook access, but with a few dozen websites that Facebook deemed suitable. It seemed like a total scam, snake oil promoted under the banner of “bringing access to the masses.” It wasn’t “Internet for All” as Facebook claimed; rather, it was Facebook for all, under the dubious guise of philanthropy.
Nikhil Pahwa, an independent journalist and founder of the tech website MediaNama, wasn’t buying any of this. He helped start a campaign to expose Facebook for what he thought the company was doing: destroying net neutrality in India. In his take, people in India should be able to access whatever parts of the internet they wanted, not just what Facebook decided for them. The argument went all the way to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), who, after dueling editorials in the newspaper from Zuckerberg and Pahwa, eventually ruled in favor of net neutrality. Facebook lost.
All throughout the ploy, Zuckerberg was getting front-page treatment in India — landing in a helicopter and meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and pandering with a lot of claptrap about India as the “new tech frontier,” so he was all over the news. While India Connected is not overtly political, the image of the Westerner swooping in to liberate the savages comes through in this particular case, intentional or not.
These scenarios are what gives Agrawal hope that a free India will still persevere, despite Western frat-boy CEO intervention. The wily natives have a long history of work-arounds. When it comes to tech, they will continue to do so. The car metaphor keeps circling the block. “Asian smartphones are India’s Model Ts,” he writes. “They are not only cheap but are also rugged and designed for local conditions.”
Gary Singh was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University and is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (The History Press, 2015). For 13 years, his columns have appeared in Metro Silicon Valley, San Jose’s alternative weekly newspaper.