“The Smartphone’s a Tool, a Weapon, an Opportunity”: Ravi Agrawal

Ravi Agrawal on how smartphones are transforming India

by: - Last updated on: October 8th, 2018

It has been one of the most talked about tech books of the year so far – one of those all too rare books that talk not just about technology but also its impact on society. And evidently does so so well that former Newsweek editor and current host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, Fareed Zakaria, has gone so far as to call it “quite simply, the best book on India today.” We met the author, former chief CNN India correspondent, Ravi Agrawal to talk about his book “India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy” (published by Oxford University Press) and smartphones in general (yes, we are reviewing it, so stay tuned).

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What prompted you to write the book?

I moved to India in early 2014 as the CNN bureau chief reporting in Delhi. One of the things that struck me when I moved here was that, on a lot of TV commercials that I saw here, the smartphone was dominating the advertising and commercials in some way or the other. All of the ads were either of smartphones or Internet companies. What struck me was: one, there is a lot of money involved; and two, they all seem to be selling something. More than just a phone and just the data, they were selling a dream, a vision. This could be something that is transformative, something that fixes your life. The one in particular that struck me, and I write about this in the conclusion, is the Idea Cellular ad – the ones that used to go “no ullu banaoing” (“don’t make fools of us”). The thing that struck me about the ad was the notion that the Internet can be a leveler, an equalizer. In a place where there can be a lot of inequality, male-female, upper caste-lower caste, rich-poor, urban-rural, English speaking, and non-English speaking and so on and so forth, this was this thing that was going to fix all of that.

I thought
A. that sounds like an interesting premise and
B. is it true? And in a sense, the book became an exploration of the moment we are in.

The moment we are in is this: Indians are discovering the Internet on their smartphones. In the west, most people had PCs and landlines in the late 1990s and naturally got the Internet from those two things. They evolved from there to using cable and DSL and broadband, and then they got wifi and 3G on a phone and 4G. It was a steady evolution. In India, we didn’t go through the same process. I mean I did, I was someone who was lucky to have a PC and landline at home, but I was one of the 2% of Indians who had those two things. 3% of Indians had landline, and about 3-4% had PC. The thing is most Indians are never ever going to get PC nor landlines because they are leapfrogging that stage. They have cheap smartphones and data plans. So it is a revolution here vs. an evolution in the west. This means that hundreds of millions of Indians, within a very short span of time, have possessed cheap smartphones and cheap data plans, and this has never happened in the history of the world. Most of the countries are either too big or too small. One can make a comparison with African countries, but again, Africa is a continent, India is a country. You could make a comparison with China, but China got rich before it got online; many Chinese had PCs and landlines before it got online. So the Indian experience is unique; unique in its scale, size and the nature of the country. That was one of the premises.

In your research, how have you observed the cellphone market evolving in India?

I’m not seeing the smartphone as a cellular talking device. I’m seeing it as an Internet device, as an everything device. Yes, India had the cellular boom from the late 90s to now, and India has had a mobile revolution which also in a sense leapfrogged because people leaped over landline connections. However, in the book, the smartphone revolution is interesting because it is an Internet revolution. How people are getting on the Internet, which is the whole other dimension of the phone. And it is not just that. The smartphone is an everything device. For example, in the west, people already had cameras. They already had the evolution for MP3 players. They already had private TV screens. But if you are a very low-income person in India, you don’t have any of those things. So this device becomes your first camera, your first MP3 player, your first video device, your first streaming platform. All of these things for the first time that is revolutionary, which a Nokia 1100 would not have given you in the year 2001. So this revolution is very different from that revolution.

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And that’s in part why I wrote the book because I grew up mostly in Calcutta and left Calcutta in 2001 to go to America and study and in 2001, India was well in the throes of the revolution of the cellular phone. But that’s why when I moved back in 2014, the smartphone revolution struck me because it is so much more powerful, impactful and revolutionary than the cell revolution.

You have traveled to several remote villages across India to explore the smartphone revolution. What has been your experience in observing people use the phone? Are there any anecdotes that you would like to share?

I think there are many, but the bit that struck me the most is, and we can roll our eyes in the city, but its true. India has about 300 million illiterate people. It’s a fact. So for these illiterate people, 20 years ago, can you imagine them using the Internet? Can you imagine them using the computer? No. If you are illiterate, you are cut-off from the world of the Internet. And now you can see, and I have seen, rural, illiterate women pick up the phone and say “mujhe taj mahal dikhao” (show me the Taj Mahal) and it shows them. But it is very cool that someone who is illiterate, and not an English speaker can use the Internet in this way and see videos that were inaccessible earlier. For some people it is a mystery, they don’t know how to use it, and they are intimidated by it. For some people, it is integral, so as with anything you’re going to get a wide spectrum of stories.

One of the things you mentioned during a recent session with Manu Joseph was how surprised you were to see that the technology reinforced Indians’ idea of Indianness. Could you explain what you meant by that?

When I saw young Indians using smartphone dating apps – Tinder and Truly Madly, I thought these Indians were going to become very westernized. By the way, a lot of these people were from small towns. I thought they would all become Americanised, and I was wrong. They were all searching for a partner on Tinder or Truly Madly, they were filtering for Marwari community and Gujju community, which surprised me, and then what really surprised me was the astrology. I didn’t realize how big a community this was for so many people I met for Truly Madly. They had to share each other’s charts and made sure it matched. And this was something that made no sense to me because I see astrology as something that is of the previous generation. My misconception, and maybe I am too westernized, and maybe Indians care a lot about astrology, but it is a big business online in India now. There is a huge app market that has hundreds and thousands of users apparently. A lot of astrologers are moving online. Young Indians clearly, despite modernizing and westernizing in certain ways are also retaining core traditional Indian values, which surprised me in a good way.

Do you think smartphones can democratize India?

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It can help in certain ways if it allows freer information, if it allows people to fact-check each other more which is a classic no ullu banoing story. It can help in ways but is becoming increasingly clear that smartphones divide us too. They polarise the debates, create echo chambers within which we have our own silo-ed conversations. It can spread fake news; it can spread rumors. It can be a vehicle for revenge porn. It can be all these things that may not have direct connections to democracy but have severe implications for society and the running of society; so I hesitate to weigh on a good vs. bad kind of debate. I just think as with all inventions — electricity, TV, the car; it can be used for good or bad. The phone could be used in a variety of ways – it’s a tool, a missile, a weapon, an opportunity. You can use it the way you want to. It certainly is an opportunity, and it certainly is transforming India.

How much of this expansion do you think can be put down to packages from operators as compared to the availability of affordable smartphone?

I think the Indian Internet story right now is because of a confluence of events. One is very cheap smartphones, which is both Indian makers like Micromax and Chinese like Xiaomi. Two is the mobile, the cell towers which have gotten better than ever before. Three is globalization because all of this would not have happened in a way unless the world had been more globalized. Four is the rise of the Indian Middle Class and the ability for Indians to spend money on these things. Five is the Indian economy opening up and their being companies like Reliance which have a lot of money to spend. Reliance has poured in 36 billion dollars. You need to have that money to spend it. This is probably the only Indian company that has spent that kind of money, why? Because they have a big revenue coming in from the petrochemical business and the refinery business. So that too is a new thing. So when I say that it is a confluence of events, it is all of this happening at the same time.

Where do you think India is heading with all this?

I am cautiously optimistic. And that is the whole book. I am mostly a reporter. So most of the book is character sketches, stories from far-flung parts of the country, and I want to tell stories. I should also add that this isn’t a tech book. This is a book about India. About where the country is headed, the opportunities it in front of them. I’m positive about India and its opportunities, but I have mentioned several times in the book that there are several problems ahead. I think India has a fake news problem it is not dealing with, media literacy problem that is not being addressed, unfettered access to pornography. I’m not for banning porn but I do think not sensitizing people to it and not talking about it is a problem. I think the Internet shut down is a massive problem.

But net-net, I’m cautiously optimistic for India.

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