Calls for change

Jyothsna Latha Belliappa discusses a familiar technology’s empowering, transformative effects

April 11, 2013

In a country of 1.2 billion people, of whom fewer than 500 million have access to toilets, the existence of more than 900,000 mobile phone subscribers is intriguing, to say the least. What are the implications of the far-reaching penetration of mobile phones in India? What might this phenomenon tell us about the social, economic and political consequences of mobile phone technology in emerging economies? How might we understand popular assertions about the democratising influence of mobile phones? Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron set out to answer these questions in their part ethnographic, part socio-historical account of the diffusion of mobile phones across India.

The authors begin by providing a context for understanding the relationship between communication and power in India, followed by a brief history of the mobile phone industry. These sections discuss in depth how advertisers, phone companies, franchises and salespeople collaborated to turn an elite luxury product into a mass commodity in the post-2003 market. But arguably the most interesting portion of the book is its third and longest section, which analyses the consequences of mobile phone usage for business, electoral politics and gender relations. Using both urban and rural case studies, the authors argue that mobiles can empower individuals to resist existing power structures, even though they rarely succeed in overthrowing them. The cases the authors cite of the use of mobiles by Banaras boatmen and Kerala fishermen, although geographically distinct, show how individuals with little or no formal education can employ this technology to strengthen their economic positions.

Drawing on case studies from state-level electoral politics, the authors argue that mobile phones can facilitate alliances between the elite and the oppressed, enabling marginalised groups to gain political power. Another significant political consequence of mobile phones lies in their capacity to transmit news from remote, inaccessible areas to urban media. The authors cite instances of citizen journalism by forest-dwelling communities, who transmit stories about their exploitation by state functionaries to mainstream newspapers and television channels. In a country where access to formal schooling is erratic, a technology based on verbal rather than written communication is easy for semi-literate or non- literate users to master. While Jeffrey and Doron rightly point out that SMS use is lower in India than in other countries, they do not examine the middle classes’ use of it in political mobilisations such as the 2011 anti-corruption campaign led by social activist Anna Hazare, a case study that would have strengthened their analysis.

While a chapter on mobile phones’ effect on gender relations seems less detailed than the two chapters that precede it, Jeffrey and Doron are right to conclude that although the technology supports autonomy and privacy, women’s use of it rarely challenges existing power hierarchies based on gender and seniority because it is so closely monitored by family elders. The book’s penultimate chapter, which considers some of the more dangerous consequences of mobile phone usage from violations of privacy to acts of terror, provides the cautionary note that the outcomes of technology are finally determined by the values and agendas of its users.

This book is, overall, a very well researched, comprehensive and timely contribution to understanding the consequences of mobile phone technology, and its engaging and accessible style means it is likely to appeal to a variety of audiences. My only quibble is with the cover of the UK edition, which belies the authors’ nuanced analysis with a somewhat clichéd picture of Indian women. Harvard University Press’ US edition has an alternative cover that would be worth using for any future editions.

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