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Book Review: Cell Phone Nation

 

India without the wires
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: April 28, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Cell Phone Nation | Robin Jeffery and Assa Doran | Book reviews |
 

The cheap mobile phone is probably the most disruptive communicative device in history. In India its potential to stir up society is breathtaking, argue well known historian Robbin Jeffery and leading anthropologist Assa Doran.

The authors are familiar with the emerging landscape in India for more than two decades now. Jeffrey is a visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies and Asia Research Institute, at National University of Singapore, and has also written on the rise of vernacular dailies in India. Doron, a research fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra, too has an earlier India book - Caste, Occupation and Politics on the Ganges: Passages of Resistance.

“Like shoes, mobile phones have become an item that almost everyone can afford and aspire to. Unlike shoes, mobile phones often get taken to bed,” the duo writes in Cell Phone Nation: How Mobile Phones have revolutionised business, politics and ordinary life. The authors explore this theme in the context of India to understand the impact of the cheap mushrooming of communication devices, a revolution for a country that until 1991 had only one phone for 165 people.

All this changed in the first decade of the 21st century and by 2012 mobile phone subscribers in India exceed 900 million out of the 1220 million population. It is ironic  that India had far more mobiles than it had toilets of any kind; 53 per cent of the country’s 247 million households still defecated in the open; but mobile phone density in 2012 approached 72 per cent.

The impact of the simple version of the device has been deep. Village councils continue to ban unmarried girls from owning phones. Families have debated whether their new bride should surrender them. Cheap mobile phones have become photo albums, music machines, databases, radio, flashlights… Religious images and uplifting messages continue to flood tens of thousands of millions of phones each day. On the other hand pornographers and criminals have found a tantalizing tool.

Each of the eight chapters is worth a book in itself. The canvas has been divided over the concept of three ‘Cs’. The first is ‘Controlling’, which examines how people struggle to control information, beginning with sub-continent’s Mughal rulers 500 years ago but quickly moving to radio frequency spectrum and nexus of big business, politicians and bureaucrats, and discusses the 2-G scam and infamous Radia tapes.

Second part of the book focuses on who did the connecting ranging from the fast living advertising women and men of Mumbai to small shopkeepers persuaded by their suppliers of the fast moving consumer goods to stock recharge coupons for pre-paid mobile services.


Also what made the cell phone revolution possible in the billion-plus nation conscious its caste and class hierarchy is that it developed the cheapest mobile call rates in the world and turned pre-paid mobile phone plans into a complex and much talked about subject. In 2010, a US dollar (Rs 50) bought more 200 minutes of talk time on an Indian mobile phone; in Australia, it often bought less than one minute. At one point of time, the cost of making an international call from India for three minutes was Rs 300. Today, it is as low as Rs 20.

With mobile phones invading every section of the society, authors tell us how masses became consumers. This occupies the third part of the canvas - consuming in a multitude of ways. “Mobiles were used for business and politics, in households and families to commit crime and foment terror. Some of the practices enabled by the mobile phones were new and disruptive,” the authors observe.

At the most phones brought fundamental changes in the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid whether it was fishermen in Kerala or Banaras with tips on the rough weather on seas or marginal farmers with farm advisory or money transfer in unbanked areas.

Envisaging the mobile phones powering social and organisational networks the books cites how it facilitates alliances between the elite and the oppressed, enables marginalised groups to gain political power. Equally significant is 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 wforest-dwelling communities, who transmit stories about their exploitation by state functionaries to mainstream newspapers and television channels. Cell Phone Nation is scholarly yet an enjoyable read. 

 

Author: Robin Jeffery and Assa Doran
Publication: Hachette      
Edition:  Hardbound
ISBN: 978-93-50095-34-2
Pages: 293 
Price: Rs 499

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017