Technology, History, and Place

Category: Modern India (Page 2 of 3)

Phones in the United States and India (part 2)

Compared to mobile phones, an even more recent arrival in India is the smartphone. In 2009, smartphones were unheard-of in the Garo Hills. I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere I went in north and northeast India either. By 2013, smartphones were more in evidence in Jaipur when I spent the summer there, but more in TV ads than real life. Now in 2015, smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. When I ride the Delhi Metro, half of the passengers are fiddling with smartphones, reading something in English, Hindi, or Punjabi, or playing a game. Apple iPhones are not as common in India as the USA, since most people don’t care to pay the premium price. The Samsung Galaxy is much more common as a prestige phone. There are also several indigenous brands not seen in the USA, such as Micromax.

What is remarkable to me about smartphones in India is that they are being adopted by a wide range of social classes. There is nothing remarkable about the privileged urban youth of India using smartphones in 2015, although I feel that they try too hard to prove that they have arrived in the twenty-first century by taking too many selfies and signing up for all of the social media services, and then posting all of those selfies, and anything else they think or do, on all of the services. They aren’t just using the usual suspects like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but also services I’d never heard of before coming to India this time.

What I do find remarkable is that some manual laborers and service workers, like the maid who works in the house where I stay in Delhi, have started using smartphones. Non-smartphones have not been marginalized in the market as definitively as they have been in the West, but it is clear to me that for certain classes of Indians, smartphones are now the only socially acceptable option. This is not the case for lower classes, but it is worth noting that lower-income groups now have access to the same technology that the privileged classes are using for status symbols.

Mobile phones gave many members of lower-income and rural populations access to their own phones for the first time. In the same way, smartphones are making the Internet more widely accessible. In the Garo Hills in 2009, when I wanted to check my e-mail, I had to hitch a ride to the nearby town and pay Rs. 40 an hour to use a slow, unreliable cell-network connection at a computer services shop. Sometimes I would arrive and the power would be out, or the manager would be away, or the connection would inexplicably not be working. This was an all-afternoon outing, and I could only make it once every week or two. I went to the effort to access the Internet because I had already become reliant upon it from my life in the West. For those who had never used the Internet before, it wasn’t likely that they were going to go out of their way to start using it there. Now, the growing number of smartphone users can access the Internet whenever they want, without having to go anywhere.

It is much too early to make any conclusions about what all of this means for Indian society. Are smartphones an egalitarian technology, like non-smartphones? TV ads that show sequestered women in rural Haryana using their smartphones to access educational resources would have you believe so. Of course, TV ads playing on the same channels also claim that “Love and Nourish” soap will give you perfect skin like Kareena Kapoor, and “Juzt Jelly” candies will give you the strength of the children’s cartoon hero Chhota Bheem. In the case of smartphones, though, this technology may indeed give economically disadvantaged people access to knowledge resources that were too expensive to access beforehand. Or smartphones might prove to be just a passive form of entertainment, opening the way for huge sections of the Indian population to become addicted to the next “Candy Crush.” I suspect that smartphones in India are already on their way to proving themselves as both useful tools and useless toys.

Phones in the United States and India (part 1)

When I first went to India in 2009, I was surprised to see that seemingly everybody had a mobile phone. I still thought of mobile phones as a luxury, because that is how the technology began its life in the United States. But by 2009, even in the rural Garo Hills, cowherds and fishermen had mobiles, even though these people led lives that were figuratively and literally a world apart from the affluent American college students I had been used to seeing with cell phones. Surely if Garo villagers could afford mobiles, then this technology was no longer a luxury.

The course of technological change has been quite different in India and the United States. The adoption of telephones illustrates the difference. In the USA, the first telephones came into use in the late nineteenth century, and they worked by sending voice encoded as electric signals through lines specially strung for that purpose. Telephones served a niche urban market at first, but as they became cheaper and the American population became more affluent, they expanded to suburban and rural markets as well. Telephone use became overwhelmingly common in the United States after World War II.

Mobile phones, also known as cell phones, were a much later addition to the American technological landscape, but they took root faster than the traditional wired phones or landlines. The earliest handheld mobiles reached the market in the 1980s, but they were bulky and impractical, as well as extremely expensive. They came in two parts: a handset and an additional transmitter and battery pack that the user carried in the other hand, like a combat telephone. My father reports that despite their impracticality, early mobile phones were a status symbol, and he would see executives proudly carrying them on the streets of San Francisco.

Both the size and the cost of mobile phones decreased dramatically during the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, they were cheap enough to be within reach of the American middle class mass, although they did not really start to catch on until the end of the decade. Around the middle of the next decade, my demographic at the time, college students, had so thoroughly adopted mobile phones that now anybody who didn’t have one had to explain why not.

The course of technological adoption in India was quite different, because wired landlines never became as popular here as they did in the United States. Telephone networks existed in India during colonial times, but they were limited to large cities and were too expensive for the majority of the population. After Independence in 1947, cities were linked through Standard Trunk Dialing (STD) networks, but the vast majority of the Indian population still lived in villages and had no access to this service. Even for urbanites, installing a telephone line was a lengthy process with manifold bureaucratic hurdles. In Anurag Mathur’s novel The Inscrutable Americans, the main character Gopal tells his American friend Randy that the installation of a telephone line in a home is a cause for celebration, second in importance only to the birth of a son. This is of course artistic license, but it illustrates how difficult it was to obtain a telephone connection in pre-liberalization India.

This began to change with the advent of mobile phone networks in the 1990s. The widespread adoption of mobile phones in India lagged the United States by about five years. In 2000, mobile phones were still a luxury in India. Each call cost Rs. 10, and handsets were out of the reach of all but the wealthy. This changed when the private industrial conglomerate Reliance Industries forced competing carriers to lower their rates by slashing handset costs and call prices by 90 percent. (A friend of mine in Delhi tells me that he got his first mobile phone in 2003 as a free promotional with 5 kg of oil.) By 2009, mobile networks had spread all across the country, and now served rural areas where it would have been too expensive to run landlines. For most of the Indian population (India’s population is still 70 percent rural), mobile phones leapfrogged landlines. Communities that had no access to any form of two-way direct communication now had telephones that they could carry with them wherever they went.

Mobile phones facilitated cultural change in both the United States and India, but the change was much more dramatic in India. Ten years ago, when cell phones were still novel enough in my demographic to be worth discussing, I heard this line on a regular basis: “I just don’t know how we survived before cell phones!” But this was a silly thing to say. Of course the way we survived was by planning ahead and using landlines. For the mass of the Indian population, the adoption of mobile phones really was revolutionary, because it allowed instantaneous voice communication over a distance, as well as the mobility that my demographic found so indispensable. But for us in the West, mobile phones were evolutionary, not revolutionary, because they permitted an extension of capabilities that we already had. For those Indians who had never had landlines, mobile phones really were revolutionary.

By 2009, mobile phones had gotten cheap enough to be accessible even to most of the poorer classes of Indians. Mobile phones facilitated business transactions and community organization, more quickly and cheaply than any means available prior to the phones’ arrival. Since they are now so widely accessible, mobiles have become an egalitarian technology, as they give a large portion of the population access to useful services previously accessible only to the elite.


Riding the Delhi Metro

On my first visit to New Delhi, in 2009, my parents and I stayed in a hotel within walking distance of the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg station on the blue line of the Delhi Metro. At this station, the blue line still runs above ground, but this is the last elevated station before the line plunges underground. One of the first times my parents and I rode the Metro was on a Saturday morning. We climbed the stairs from street level to the station, bought RF-ID metrocards with value stored on them, went through a quick security check that made sure we weren’t carrying any guns or bombs, and then climbed the rest of the way to the platform level. When we got to the platform, there were only a few people milling around, waiting for the next train. As minutes passed, the platform slowly but steadily filled up with people, until there was a crowd of hundreds standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the platform.

The train had better be empty, I thought, because there is a trainfull of people standing here on the platform.

At last, the train arrived, and as it pulled up to the platform I saw that it was already packed full of people. The train slowed to a halt, the doors opened with a ding, and all at once the crowd on the station platform surged into the train. My parents and I had no choice but to go along. As we crossed the threshold and stepped into the coach, other people pressing in on us from all directions, I had a brief moment of panic. This is where I die, I thought, trampled to death in the Delhi Metro.

I am happy to report that I did not die while boarding the blue line. I did not even suffer any physical harm. Somehow, the bodies already in the coach managed to compress and make room for all the bodies that had been standing on the station platform. Once everybody was inside, the doors shut and we were off. As we pulled away from the station, a young man next to me started chatting with me and asked if he could take a photo with me (and the forty other people standing in close proximity with us) with his mobile phone. He told me that there was a fair today, and that explained why there were so many people riding the Metro on a Saturday.

When the Delhi Metro opened in 2002, it became the newest and sleekest addition to Delhi’s public transportation infrastructure, joining buses, local trains, Ambassador and Maruti taxis, autorickshaws, and cycle rickshaws. Each electric-traction Metro train consists of four, six, or eight coaches built by Bombardier, which have benches along the sides of the interior and plenty of standing room in the middle. The Indian broad-gauge lines of the Metro radiate out from the city center, covering the National Capital Territory and stretching out into the two adjoining states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The biggest station is Rajiv Chowk, where the blue and yellow lines meet. The station is built under the center of the circular shopping district Connaught Place in the British-planned part of the city. Whenever I have been to Rajiv Chowk, it has always been busy, with long queues waiting on the platforms for the two lines.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has had to socialize the population of Delhi to use the Metro, because subways are a technology that originated in the West during the Industrial Revolution and can only be adapted so much to Indian culture and conditions. Announcements piped over the station intercoms in Hindi and English (the Delhi Metro is totally bilingual) remind passengers boarding the train to allow other passengers to disembark first. Posters in the stations masquerade as fun trivia but really take part in the socialization as well: “Did you know? 95% of all passengers cooperate with CISF [Central Industrial Security Force] personnel during security checks.” I have a strong suspicion that this is part of the proverbial 40% of statistics that are made up.

The socialization has worked to some extent, but still not everybody follows the instructions for the security checks and it is common for passengers to shove into a coach while others are trying to disembark. Getting onto a train can be challenging, and getting off equally so, as you have to shove past passengers who are not getting off at the same station as you. For the most part, though, other passengers are courteous, asking you to make side if they are getting of before you, or helping to eject you from the train when you have reached your stop.

Fares on the Delhi Metro generally range from Rs. 9 to Rs. 21, which in US currency is 15¢ to 35¢. Most of the passengers I have seen on the trains appear to be businesspeople, students, or government servants, although tickets are cheap enough that working-class people can afford to ride too. In recent years, there has been plenty of infrastructural development in the Delhi area that has been for the privileged classes only, such as shopping malls where the guards at the doors are instructed to turn away anybody who appears working-class. The Delhi Metro, on the other hand, is for the aam aadmi (common people).

A later addition to the Delhi Metro system is the Airport Express Line; it opened in 2013. It runs from the suburb of Dwarka to New Delhi Railway Station in just 25 minutes. Unlike the main lines, the airport line is almost never crowded, and I have gotten a seat every time I have ridden on it. (On the main line, I almost never get a seat.) This speed and convenience comes at a higher ticket price: Rs. 90 or $1.50 for a one-way trip. This hasn’t stopped commuters who live in the suburbs from using the express line, in addition to the jet-setters for whom the line was ostensibly built.

I can’t help but be enamored by the Delhi Metro. It makes getting around the city so much easier. New Delhi was inaugurated 69 years before the Delhi Metro opened, and the history of civilization in the area goes back at least three thousand years before that. But for me, Delhi wouldn’t be Delhi without the Metro.

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