Former chief CNN India correspondent and award-wining journalist Ravi Agrawal takes readers on a journey across the Subcontinent, through its remote rural villages and its massive metropolises, seeking out the nexuses of change created by smartphones, and with them connection to the internet.
As always with India, the numbers are staggering: in 2000, 20 million Indians had access to the internet; by 2017, 465 million were online, with three Indians discovering the internet every second. By 2020, India's online community is projected to exceed 700 million, and more than a billion Indians are expected to be online by 2025. In the course of a single generation, access to the internet has progressed from dial-up connections on PCs, to broadband access, wireless, and now 4G data on phones. The rise of low-cost smartphones and cheap data plans has meant the country leapfrogged the baby steps their Western counterparts took toward digital fluency. The results can be felt in every sphere of life, upending traditions and customs and challenging conventions. Nothing is untouched, from arranged marriages to social status to business start-ups, as smartphones move the entire economy from cash-based to credit-based. Access to the internet is affecting the progress of progress itself. As Agrawal shows, while they offer immediate and sometimes mind-altering access to so much for so many, smartphones create no immediate utopia in a culture still driven by poverty, a caste system, gender inequality, illiteracy, and income disparity. Internet access has provided greater opportunities to women and changed the way in which India's many illiterate poor can interact with the world, but it has also meant that pornography has become more readily available. Under a government keen to control content, it has created tensions. And in a climate of hypernationalism, it has fomented violence and even terrorism.
Ravi Agrawal is the managing editor of Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked for CNN for 11 years in full-time roles on three continents—including a four-year stint as New Delhi bureau chief. Agrawal was born in London, grew up in Kolkata, and attended college at Harvard. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Washington, DC.
Mallika Rao is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose work focuses on identity politics, culture and arts. She writes often on members of diasporic communities, especially Americans with roots in South Asia, exploring small and large aspects of their lives, from food and domesticity, to internal and external biases based on race and class, to questions of how newcomers historically fit into the American ecosystem. Her work appears or is forthcoming at the newyorker.com, Vulture, atlantic.com, the New York Times, the Rumpus, VICE Magazine, the Village Voice, the Believer and NPR.