The last five years have witnessed a boom in internet-related services that have altered the urban Indian experience. The smartphone has become a device that is integral to our personal, social and political life. We date, travel, network, pay bills and campaign for our politics through it.
Ravi Agrawal’s India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy is a timely intervention documenting the telecom revolution in India through the smartphone. Agrawal, a former CNN journalist combines data with specific vignettes to present a case for how the internet-enabled smartphone is supposedly creating new infrastructures for India.
The book is divided into three main sections – “opportunity”, “society” and “the state”. Agrawal is successfully able to capture the affective, political and aspirational registers produced by the smartphone. The book begins with the story of Phoolwati, a Rajasthani woman working as an “internet saathi” for Google, teaching other women in villages how to use the internet. The smartphone is a “magic device” for these women, one that can answer any query they might have. However, Agrawal also is quick to present the other side of the story where the men in Gujarat think the smartphone is a dangerous thing for women to possess, for it will make them aspire for better and greater things.
India Connected documents stories of entrepreneurial aspirations like that of a young man teaching himself spoken English through an app and opening a coaching centre. The book also admirably brings forth the peculiar social conditions of India that must be dealt with by the app creators and users. For instance, Agrawal narrates the story of a young couple who met via the customised Indian dating app Truly Madly but had to concoct a whole new story for their families who would not have approved of a marriage forged via online dating.
Some unanswered questions
What is commendable about the book is the way Agrawal manages to touch upon the many key aspects of our life that are governed by smartphones. In an important and detailed chapter on internet policing and shutdowns in Kashmir, Agrawal does not shy away from voicing the difficult questions that the Valley poses for the Indian state. It is not only stories like those on Kashbook, a Kashmiri social networking site, but also Agarwal’s exploration of net neutrality and Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org that move the narrative from the ubiquitous nature of the internet to vital questions of how democratic the internet really is.
Agrawal wraps up the book with a commentary on demonetisation and the proclaimed shift towards a digital India while remaining skeptical about the same. There is also a brief but key section on the implications of handing smartphones to people who lack adequate exposure and education. Agrawal illustrates this point with the case of fake news and rumour-mongering on WhatsApp, which has led to mob lynchings and deaths of individuals.
It is admirable to have a book that documents the many shifts in our lives brought about by the internet-enabled smartphone but this is also where the book runs into its primary problem. It spreads itself too thin. India Connected narrates how the smartphone has generated jobs, promoted fake news, gotten an entire generation to access porn easily and constructed a social world for young people so much so that there are now smartphone de-addiction centres in Bengaluru and Delhi. But these vignettes stay just that. For instance, the chapter on demonetisation tracks an auto rickshaw driver who was greatly inconvenienced by the move but believed fervently that it was for the good of the country. What made him believe that? It can’t just be the fake news being circulated on WhatsApp. A curious reader will be left wanting better answers.
To Agrawal’s credit, he is cognisant of the fact that “digital India” and a smartphone revolution is a faraway dream in the face of backbreaking poverty and illiteracy. But then, one wonders about the need to make blanket statements like “[...]smartphone...could be India’s great equaliser” when the very next chapter has men punishing women and banning them from using smartphones. Given the breadth of the chapters in the book, it should serve as a cautionary note that a generalisation in the name of “India” is inadvisable.
While the book keeps the internet-enabled smartphone at its centre, be it the changing face of education, politics or dating, it is the conclusion that makes the most crucial point. Agrawal suggests that the smartphone will enable and fuel new desires in lifestyle and consumption but it will not mitigate the problems of poverty, illiteracy and religion. In fact, India Connected positions the smartphone as a catalyst that could speed up the events – the culture of aspiration and consumerism, and the changing political milieu aided by fake news – unfolding in the country. This is an important point and would have served the narrative of the book better had it been established earlier on. It can also help us understand what affective registers of our selves are being tapped by social media, dating sites and fake news websites that then produce the world around us. Most importantly, the data mined by the state through smartphone usage will have consequences. One wishes these important implications were explored better through the course of the book rather than as mere last thoughts.
The book also has a basic but important factual error. Agrawal, while analysing the relationship between porn and the internet recounts an incident from a few years back where two Karnataka ministers were caught watching porn in the state assembly. A keener editorial eye would have been able to discern this given that this piece of information had caused a fair bit of embarrassment for the state government of Karnataka and not Kerala as Agrawal claims.
Nonetheless, India Connected is a timely book on a very contemporary theme. The language is extremely accessible and devoid of any jargon that could put off a wider readership. It might just make some of us pause and reflect personally and politically on the medium through which we seem to conduct most of our lives.
India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy, Ravi Agrawal, Oxford University Press.
Suchismita Chattopadhyay is a researcher and is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology from The Graduate Institute, Geneva.