“India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy” by Ravi Agrawal

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With almost 17% year-on-year growth, India’s is the world’s fastest growing smartphone population; more than a billion phones are estimated to be sold over the next five years. There are now more Indians with smartphones than the entire population of the United States, driven by phones that cost as little as 10,000 rupees (US$150).

Ravi Agrawal’s new book India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy explores this explosion in smartphone consumption through stories collected during his time as CNN’s New Delhi Bureau Chief. Agrawal, now the Managing Editor of Foreign Policy, argues that the smartphone will become central to understanding the identity of ordinary Indians, writing that:

 

In a land that has long judged people by caste and tribe, the smartphone is emerging as a new vehicle for self-definition. Your phone announces who you are. Micromax or Samsung? Xiaomi or Spice? Selfie camera or no? Plain vanilla ring tone, Bollywood song, or religious hymn? Boring plastic cover or bling gold?

 

Agrawal is not a technology reporter, which shows in his choice of subjects. A thirty-year old woman figuring out how to tell her traditional parents that she met her fiancé on an online dating service and a teenage activist in Kashmir struggling under a government-ordered internet shutdown are not typical subjects in books about smartphones, in which one might usually see technology entrepreneurs or villagers wowed by seeing a phone for the first time (though their stories are heard in India Connected as well).

 

India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World's Largest Democracy, Ravi Agrawal (Oxford University Press, November 2019)
India Connected:
How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy
, Ravi Agrawal (Oxford University Press, November 2019)

Many of the same questions that are being asked in developed countries are also being asked in India, though in a manner that reflects the country’s size and level of economic development. Concerns about the gig economy in the United States are found in India, where Uber and Ola drivers went on strike to protest the reduction in driver subsidies. Questions about privacy and data security are being debated as well, sparked by initiatives like the Aadhar: a biometric ID system that Agrawal calls the “the greatest national exercise in trust ever attempted”.

But India’s mass adoption of the smartphone changes how these questions are expressed. Facebook may be the vehicle for fake news in the United States in Europe, but fake stories in India are shared via Whatsapp (ironically also owned by Facebook).

If the smartphone truly transforms India, it will be by unlocking human potential in India’s less-developed regions.

As a collection of stories, India Connected does not present a unified theory as to why the smartphone is taking hold in India in the way it is. Agrawal does describe India as a “low-trust” society, where ordinary citizens have little faith in social and state institutions. For Agrawal, the smartphone is a link to reliable and verifiable information, which allows an Indian to build trust with other people, with businesses, and the state.

Regardless of the mechanism, Agrawal believes smartphone use represents a fundamental transformation in Indian society, changing not just how Indians live their lives, but their very conception of what the Indian lifestyle is. He compares the Indian smartphone to the American car, which permanently changed American life, economics and culture.

A better analogy, however, might be air-conditioning, which helped the American South to catch up to the Northeast and Midwest in the 1960s. Without artificial cooling, it is hard to see how either manufacturing in Alabama or urban growth in Phoenix would have taken root.

If the smartphone truly transforms India, it will be—as did air-conditioning in the American South—by partly unlocking human potential in India’s less-developed regions. India has large regional inequalities, especially between urban and rural areas. India’s villages suffer from a lack of infrastructure, are far from bustling urban economies, and often literally speak a different language from the mainstream.

Literacy is significantly lower in rural areas than urban ones, a difference particularly stark when it comes to women, whose literacy rates can be as much as fifteen points lower than rates for men. Those with poor (or no) literacy find it difficult to engage with the modern economy, which usually requires a basic level of reading and writing. Illiteracy also complicates the delivery of business and public services: transactions must happen in person, so either the rural villager or public/social institution must travel long distances to find the other.

But the smartphone—or, more specifically, speech synthesis and the recent development of reliable voice-recognition—overcomes this barrier. Now, rural residents can ask questions into their smartphone and receive answers back, opening access to information—and hence economic activity—to a entirely new segment of  the population.

 

One should not overstate the case. Agrawal admits that India’s struggles with poverty reduction are unlikely to be resolved by smartphones alone. And it is telling that some of the loudest proponents of smartphone adoption as a development tool are some of the companies that stand to gain from universal adoption of their services: Agrawal devotes a chapter to Facebook’s failed effort to promote access to information by providing free mobile access to (unsurprisingly) Facebook.

The smartphone may or may not transform the world. But if does, it will not—as India Connected makes clear—change all societies in the same way. India, unique as it is, may well be changed in unique ways. Ravi Agrawal has signposted some of them.


Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.