From numbers to anecdotes

Anuj Srivas
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Anuj Srivas

t a time when academia and media commentators alike are gearing up to analyse what Google’s new computing spectacles or Apple’s imminent phone-like wristwatch “mean for society”, it is almost too easy to dismiss the changes that the common mobile phone has brought about.

In Western societies, where the evolution of landline to smartphone has been smooth and gradual, a conversation about the social effects of the humble mobile phone usually takes the form of people lamenting the death of the dinnertime conversation or parents expressing concern over their children’s addiction to the ever-present smartphone.

India, on the other hand, offers a more violent telecom transition to analyse. In 2000, the country had a population of more than 1 billion and 28.5 million telephones (mostly landlines). A little more than a decade later, there were nearly 900 million SIM cards out in the market — a communication revolution that also sparked an industry that now employs millions.

Assa Doron’s and Robin Jeffrey’s The Great Indian Phone Book takes off from this premise and takes readers through a whirlwind, which at times suffers from repetition and clichés, that seeks to answer how India went from being a country where making phone calls was torturous to the world’s second largest market for mobile phones in a decade.

The first part of the book, chockfull of remarkable numbers, starts with the dark ages — a time when the state-controlled economy was incapable of producing the copper cable required to link to the near 600,000 villages where the majority of the country’s population lived. Indeed, telephony was not a priority in the years immediately before and after independence; the country had only 100,000 phones at that point.

This changed, however, in the years of liberalisation, where telecom operators rode the wave of reforms to open the floodgates of connectivity. Despite the happy ending, the authors bring readers face-to-face with the much needed lesson of how the initial attempts of ‘Celling India’ were often met with corruption, criminality and poor planning.

Add to this a messy spectrum-allotment process, unfeasibly high prices and an abundance of vested interests; one is left wondering how the telecom industry survived the heavy-handed nature of the Indian Government and bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, by 2003, policies were streamlined and there was no stopping the torrent that followed. The narrative dives into the businesses that mushroomed around the production of mobile phone industry, a move that also led to the shift from a predominantly male, unionised workforce to a new class of young, educated female workers.

The authors try, unconvincingly, to compare the mobile boom to the ascent of the American auto industry. It is here that prescient analysis is lacking. While it is true that jobs were created in the form of the unorganised maintenance and mobile repair sector, this phenomenon has already started waning in India. The proliferation of advanced smartphones over the last five years, for instance, has contributed to the decline of the “one-man shop that could solve motherboard issues with a bucket of bad-smelling chemicals”.

It is also at this point that the book deviates, disappointingly, half-way to start examining the effects of the rapid proliferation on Indian society. It is easy to see that India’s confusing contrast, where technological progress has outpaced social reform, has attracted the authors’ attention.

“Because of long-standing discrimination and structures of authority,” they explain, “the mobile has proved even more disruptive [in India] than elsewhere.”

While the authors start exploring how mobile phones brought about an interesting confrontation between Indian citizens and a public sector struggling to shake off decades of bureaucratic inertia, they abandon it in favour of retelling the worn-out tale of Kerala fishermen embarking on the process of price discovery and other phenomena that were popular in the Western media in 2007.

Case studies

While interesting case studies, such as the role of the mobile phone in the Bahujan Samaj Party’s assembly election win in 2007, pop up frequently, they are often difficult to take seriously after they are compared to world events. The BSP win, in part, is somewhat superfluously compared to the role that social media played in Obama’s 2008 election win.

The second half of the book clearly suffers from the absence of the analytical rigour that its first counterpart brought to the table. In fact, the second half, which quickly moves onto the effect of mobile phones on social relations, consists primarily of anecdotes from one of the author’s journeys through various North Indian cities!

Above all, the authors, at times, fall prey to the general tendency of wanting to believe that the mobile phone is a social, political and moral force and not a simple collection of inanimate hardware.

Cliché as it sounds, The Great Indian Phone Book is truly two books in one. While the first half is a researcher’s delight and an excellent history lesson of how India was connected along with the consequential change that followed, the second is a study of the intricacies of largely rural society that lacks numbers and research.

Nevertheless, the important take-away, which the book ends with, is that “the cellphone drew India’s people into relations with the record-keeping capitalist state more comprehensively than any previous mechanism or technology”.

While nobody is claiming that the mobile phone has over-turned power structures, perhaps it has played its part in making conditions “faster, more efficient” and most importantly “more democratic”.

( Anuj Srivas writes on technology for The Hindu )



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