Mumbai: When the first telegraph cable was laid beneath the Atlantic Ocean in 1858, connecting London and New York with the most advanced communication technology in history, excitable commentators at the time declared world peace would soon follow.

That clearly did not happen.

Simply improving human beings’ ability to communicate with each other faster and more often did not mean old prejudices faded away, unity prevailed or that our species became instantly more altruistic.

Now as smartphones have permeated all sections of Indian society, Ravi Agrawal, managing editor of Foreign Policy, a global magazine for foreign affairs news, and author of a new book, ‘India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy’, is hesitant to attach similar claims onto the devices helping millions access the Internet for the first time.

“While I am definitely more ‘cautiously optimistic’ than I am pessimistic, the backend of the book reflects my increasing anxiety of what smartphones could do in a country like India--especially looking at the data we now have on the impact it has had on the West,” Agrawal told IndiaSpend.

The number of mobile Internet users is expected to reach 478 million by June 2018, up 17% from December 2016, according to a joint 2017 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India & Kantar IMRB. While Internet users in the west progressed slowly from dial-up, to broadband and 3G, Indian consumers have largely leapfrogged into the digital world with cheap data plans and affordable handsets.

While this has brought countless positives like mobile banking, free access to education tools and widening employment opportunities, the menace of fake news and rapid onset mob-violence has become a feature of our times, exacerbated by low-levels of digital and media literacy amongst the general population experiencing the Internet for the first time.

Agrawal, a Harvard graduate, is not wholly downbeat though and believes the smartphone “serves as a catalyst of sorts, speeding up changes already under way”. While technology will never fix poverty, inequality and broken infrastructure, it can help to enable and encourage positive movements.

“As I reported around the country the idea grew in me that the smartphone really could be something that is transformative for India. When I left India in 2001 at the age of 18, only 2% of people had PCs and were online and I knew this wasn’t going to change for a while,” recounted Agrawal.

“To come back 13 years later and see how all of a sudden this cheap device has got more people online than ever before really struck me. These devices are multilingual, you can speak to your phone and not even have to type. Whatever you can imagine that happens in India, is now also happening online in a parallel way.”

Agrawal returned to India in 2014 as CNN’s South Asia bureau chief and correspondent, following roles with the broadcaster in New York and London, where he was born. It was on his first night back in India, in a nondescript New Delhi hotel room, that he first registered how extensively the smartphone is changing India and Indians themselves .

“I was watching an ad for Idea Cellular in which a politician makes a standard speech that’s full of tall claims and promises for 24-hour electricity, water roads and bridges etc.,” remembered Agrawal. “Then the shot cuts to two young men sitting on a fence. One pulls out his smartphone, googles the politician and begins shouting that the politician must think we are all “fools” since he made the same claims at the last election. The crowd’s mood changes and they throw objects at the politician to get him off the stage.”

“Something about this young guy’s impudence, for him to stop this man’s speech and him being emboldened by the fact that he could google and fact check live what he was saying made me think this device is going to level the playing field--paper over some of the divides we know to exist in India between rural and urban, rich and poor, English-speaking and not etc.”.

In an interview, Agrawal discusses the changes wrought by the rapid proliferation of smartphones in the world’s largest democracy.

Edited excerpts:

Just 3% of Indian engineering graduates are hireable, according to a 2016 study. Do you think that increased Internet access via smartphone usage will actually help to improve the quality of education Indian students receive, especially since (and as you depict in the book) education centres are geared towards exam ‘hacks’ and ‘winning’?

The jury is out. On one hand you have a character in the book like Abdul (a self-taught, degree-less owner of a private tuition centre in Rajasthan for aspiring IIT applicants). He learnt English through a free app, became more confident, a better presenter and learned so many of his tricks and teaching methods through his smartphone and the videos that he watched, that in this way you can easily see how huge improvements are being made to people’s lives. But it’s also very telling that Abdul has banned the use of smartphones in his classroom and sees it’s a major distraction.

Overall, I think the place [within education] where the phone will have the most impact is with the kind of things that Ek Step (a not-for-profit education platform) is offering. They’re working on ground level improvements in education and are part of a larger mood in India, where a phone with good software that is used by the right people can bring effective ways of teaching numeracy and literacy in Panchayat and village schools. These tools will help children in certain parts of India and improve their learning outcomes, which will then have a ripple effect on how they grow up and are able to engage with other materials. This will lead to them seeing education as a more holistic learning experience and not simply look for ‘hacks’ to an exam.

The phone will also help in intangible ways that will be difficult for us to quantify. For example look at how for you or me, having a computer when we were growing up helped us. It helped us to compare, contrast and google things we were curious about. This is what learning is meant to be--exploring your curiosity.

What are the social and economic implications for a nation where the working-age population is increasing by 1.3 million each month and the types of jobs increasingly available are in the gig economy, controlled by smartphone apps, rather than the traditional, stable desk jobs they may have aspired to?

Again, the prognosis is mixed. I don’t think the gig economy is a ‘fix all’. So many people who rode the Uber wave made a high income, around Rs 1 lakh a month at one point. Then the algorithms changed and incomes plummeted to around Rs 30,000 a month; that was really unfair for them. But as I learnt from interviewing the head of Uber India and its rival Ola, people are still lining up for these jobs and there is clearly a huge demand for the jobs that the gig economy is creating.

The biggest source of jobs growth will end up being in the packing, warehousing and delivery markets because India’s e-commerce industry is still tiny. In fact the entire size of the annual India e-commerce market is smaller than what China can do on Singles day--an annual holiday celebrated on November 11th when online shopping rates spike. India is dwarfed by China, but while this gives you a sense of perspective it also provides a sense of how much it can grow.

There will be some automation, but it’s hard to imagine that in the next 10 years you won’t still need millions of packers and delivery staff. There are a lot of blue collar workers who will need these kinds of jobs and the gig economy will create employment that fits this profile well. Some brick and mortar jobs will decline of course, as is the case in the rest of the world. One thing’s for sure, India is hurtling into the digital era and needs to figure out how to sustainably create jobs. I’m not sure that’s a discussion that is being had enough.

India is a typically a “low-trust” country, you write, citing anomalies such as paying cash for Uber rides and the enduring prevalence of pre-paid plans. Do you think smartphones can help to improve this and in which ways?

Trust is lacking across the board in India and this explains so many things--from paying with cash for Uber rides, to resisting certain forms of modernity and change. But actually I think a lot of this is inertia based and we’ll eventually reach a tipping point where so many people are operating in a certain way, that others will follow suit.

As India becomes a more developed economy, more educated, industrialised and less tied to family and tribal structures, the trust will build. The smartphone plays into this as it’s the motif of change for younger Indians and the motif of mobility (literally too). But to tout it as tool of trust is too much--as we have seen with fake news, it can also bring the opposite. The smartphone will accelerate things already happening in India and help the country move towards a high trust society at some point, just as southern Italy did. The phone is just catalysing and accelerating the processing.

The gender gap for mobile phone access widens at puberty and remains in place for the rest of a woman’s life, largely due to connotations associated to women’s promiscuity and phones being a distraction from ‘caregiver’ duties. It seems as with their offline lives, women’s online opportunities are still closely inhibited by conservative norms. How long do you think this will take to change? What else needs to happen first?

Men need to change. Men are simply the gatekeepers to too many things. Some of that will change in an evolutionary manner as younger Indians realise just how insane this is and after seeing where the world is headed. But this is a much larger question than just a tech question; it’s a society question.

Look at how the #MeToo movement has taken off in India. This has been a moment where men are realising how life has been deeply unequal, deeply painful and hurtful for women--particularly their sisters, wives, cousins, friends. Maybe this is overstating it, but I think there are men who realise they need to listen and learn more. They shouldn’t see women as a threat but as enablers, colleagues, co-workers, friends, partners and mentors as well.

The #MeToo movement is mostly urban and online driven, but it will spread further. Culture and gender disparities are deeply ingrained and don’t change overnight. Again, the phone is not a fix all, but will accelerate the process.

In some ways, the privacy of online dating apps (versus family introductions) and the sheer ability to access a diverse pool of potential partners is a great equaliser, but as you explain, also allows people to filter their search options by caste, community and income, further entrenching community boundaries--is this one area, which as you write, “21st century India is still pushing a Victorian-era mindset”? Or are you optimistic for the role of smartphones for dating and marriage in India?

I am optimistic in the longer term, in the same way I am about India generally. One of the things that surprised me though was that I thought anyone on a smartphone dating app would be open to dating different types of people, and not think about community and caste. I was completely wrong. In some cases the phone allowed people to behave in the same way as before--but better. They were able to micro-target certain groups and communities at the expense of everything else.

So the question then is whether the smartphone will make Indians more western or will deeply entrench Indian values and thinking. I think India’s Internet story will be a uniquely Indian story--Indians will still use astrology online for example, they will still have traditional ways of thinking about things and that’s not a bad thing. India should be India, it should be able to celebrate Indian culture, tradition and who are we to impose anything else on that.

At least young Indians will have access to this technology and the ability to see the alternatives. To compare and contrast, have global peers rather than just village or city peers and to know these are all options to them--then what they choose is up to them. If Marwaris want to marry Marwaris, and Gujaratis marry Gujaratis then there’s no judgement to pass. India is changing and it is a good thing that the smartphone can provide options.

While academics differ on a solid connection between a rise in porn and rape in society, what impression did you build about how young boys, who are accessing this type of content through their phones for the first time, are translating this into the real experiences and real relationships with the opposite sex?

It’s clear to me that if you grow up without having a healthy relationship with the female body (i.e. haven’t grown up even seeing a woman’s legs or arms, society is segregated and you’ve been to an all boys school and that you’ve simply had no normal interactions with girls and women) and then your first discovery of intimacy and sexuality is porn, then I do think it has an impact on the mind. Remember there’s porn and then there’s also violent porn showing rape which some of these boys are watching.

There are people I met and whose stories I didn’t include in the book, who said things about women and the way in which they perceive the female body which I found very disturbing--and this is entirely due to the smartphone. There is no way that large sections of India would have had access to graphic imagery without that; and I think without a sense of what healthy sexuality is, violent pornography can be damaging. I can only imagine what their first real life intimate experience would be like if this is all they know about women and sex and sexuality, so that bothers me immensely.

Internet users in India increased 324% over six years to 2016 (from 92 million to 390 million), largely propelled by smartphone use, according to data from International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. As the 2019 General Election approaches, what role will the smartphone play and how will it make this election different?

There’s going to be a lot of fake news and rumour mongering. There’ll also be a lot of real news and videos adding to the chaos. I really worry about the ability to spread rumours and fake news on social media right now. It’s a problem because people tend to trust social media since the content is coming from someone or a number you know, which makes it even more pernicious.

I really wish India invested heavily in digital literacy and in awareness campaigns about fake news and not trusting everything you see. It’s quite common for the State to invest in these kinds of public awareness campaigns and there is precedence for this in India--look at how we have had campaigns for safe sex, wearing a seatbelt or not drinking and driving. The fact that India hasn’t invested in digital literacy (neither the government or private sector) to explain to people that this device is immensely powerful (for good and bad) and that there isn’t some handy literature with your cheap Jio phone on how to sensitise yourself to or be more aware of certain things, is worrisome.

While it’s too soon for these elections, India really needs to focus on media literacy. I worry what the Internet could unleash around India in election time.

33 people have been killed in 69 mob attacks since January 2017 based on child-lifting rumours. There seems to exist a strange dichotomy, where as well as connecting people to more human beings, networks and services than ever before, the spread of smartphones in India also has created division, by amplifying misinformation and ‘fake news’ leading to violence--where do you think the solution lies in countering this phenomenon, or this a new reality we must get used to?

I’m not sure if it’s entirely a new reality. India has always had lynchings, mob-based, rumour and superstition-based violence that predates the smartphone. It just so happens that the phone hasn’t turned out to be a remedy, but rather helped to spread more of the same. It’s not really a surprise as this is what technology does, but it has also opened a window to mitigate it more than before too. Going back to my previous point on media education and literacy, people need to realise just because you see something on Whatsapp that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s real, mean it’s new and not sent by an ill intentioned person. Every global citizen should be able to look at a news story and ask standard questions like: Is there a dateline? Who does the writer work for? Who is funding this publication? What are their allegiances? Who pays for that?

The same goes for content you see on Whatsapp. You should be asking, who sent me this and where did they get it from? Those of us in media tend to have a finely honed scepticism and we need to spread this sense more nationally in India.

(Sanghera is a writer and researcher with IndiaSpend.)

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