The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life

The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life

by Assa Doron, Robin Jeffrey

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In 2001, India had 4 million cell phone subscribers. Ten years later, that number had exploded to more than 750 million. Over just a decade, the mobile phone was transformed from a rare and unwieldy instrument to a palm-sized, affordable staple, taken for granted by poor fishermen in Kerala and affluent entrepreneurs in Mumbai alike. The Great Indian Phone Book<


In 2001, India had 4 million cell phone subscribers. Ten years later, that number had exploded to more than 750 million. Over just a decade, the mobile phone was transformed from a rare and unwieldy instrument to a palm-sized, affordable staple, taken for granted by poor fishermen in Kerala and affluent entrepreneurs in Mumbai alike. The Great Indian Phone Book investigates the social revolution ignited by what may be the most significant communications device in history, one which has disrupted more people and relationships than the printing press, wristwatch, automobile, or railways, though it has qualities of all four.

In this fast-paced study, Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey explore the whole ecosystem of the cheap mobile phone. Blending journalistic immediacy with years of field-research experience in India, they portray the capitalists and bureaucrats who control the cellular infrastructure and wrestle over bandwidth rights, the marketers and technicians who bring mobile phones to the masses, and the often poor, village-bound users who adapt these addictive and sometimes troublesome devices to their daily lives. Examining the challenges cell phones pose to a hierarchy-bound country, the authors argue that in India, where caste and gender restrictions have defined power for generations, the disruptive potential of mobile phones is even greater than elsewhere.

The Great Indian Phone Book is a rigorously researched, multidimensional tale of what can happen when a powerful and readily available technology is placed in the hands of a large, still predominantly poor population.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this fine anthropological study, Doron and Jeffrey look at how the introduction and current widespread use of the cell phone has altered life in one of the world’s largest countries. In 1991, there were 165 people for every telephone in India, but today this ratio is 2:1 or less. The authors cover the technical aspects of this rapid expansion, as well as some of the corruption involved, including the arrest of a former minister of communications. More compelling, though, are the stories of individual citizens and the changes, not always for the better, wrought by mobile phone ownership. For example, the growth of the cell phone industry resulted in new jobs in sales, tower construction, manufacturing, and repair, both by corporate employees and street craftsmen. The 2007 elections in Uttar Pradesh were profoundly affected by motivated citizens using their mobiles. In traditional households, it isn’t uncommon for new brides to have their phones confiscated by their in-laws for modesty’s sake. Pornography, terrorism, and surveillance abuses are just some of the criminal acts abetted by cell phones. This rich study reveals much about modern India and should be read by both students and scholars of technology and South Asia. (Apr.)
Richard R. John
The Great Indian Phone Book is a wake-up call for anyone intrigued by today's network society. Engagingly written, intelligently researched, and enlivened with memorable anecdotes framed by deft exposition, it offers up a compelling and compellingly readable introduction to a subject of unquestioned significance: the remarkable emergence of the mobile telephone as an agent of change in the developing world.
Tarun Khanna
An engaging and informative analysis of the use of cell phones in India, a nation of over one billion people, where this small device has been a harbinger of big social and economic changes—and an enabler of unbridled entrepreneurship.
Sevanti Ninan
A comprehensive chronicle of how mobile phones changed Indian life, and in the process, India's economy. Capitalists, ministers, boatmen, farmers, advertising geniuses, porn peddlers, political workers, and tireless salesmen populate this story. Doron and Jeffrey's sociological take on the mobile phone as a great leveller is rich and riveting.
Christopher Pinney
A marvelous, briskly written book, combining a panoptical overview of the broader media landscape with gripping vignettes. Doron and Jeffrey write with insight and journalistic brio, making this book highly accessible to a very wide range of readers.
Arvind Rajagopal
This is a fascinating, smart, and erudite volume on how the Indian cell phone industry developed and what its extraordinary growth has meant for the country. It can serve as a kind of vade mecdum for many thousands of interested readers seeking to learn about the subject, whether as amateurs or as specialists entering a new domain.
Dipesh Chakrabarty
Doron and Jeffrey's landmark study of how the humble mobile phone is changing the culture of Indian democracy in everyday life has no competitors. Their interdisciplinary analysis of popular aspirations and anxieties surrounding mobile telephones will invite and inspire comparative studies set in other emerging economies. A remarkable achievement. - Pankaj Mishra
Superb...Reminds us how little we have explored the new landscape of opportunity, aspiration and, inevitably, disappointment that mobile phones have opened up in India...[A] lively book.
Financial Express - Dilip Bobb
The book makes for fascinating reading and probes the entire universe of the mobile phone in India, the upside and the downside.
Finance & Development - Denis O’brien
This is an important book that can usefully be read by students, social scientists, and business managers--indeed, by anyone interested in change and its effects on developing and complex societies.
The Economist
The Great Indian Phone Book is actually two books in one. The first half is a whirlwind recap of how India was connected, told simply and with a wealth of numbers. The second is an ethnographic study that dives into the intricacies of Indian society without pretending to be comprehensive...The strength of the book lies in its repeated emphasis on technology as something that 'does not eliminate political and social structures, though it may modify them.'
Wall Street Journal - Isaac Chotiner
The conversation about [the cellphone's] social effects usually takes the form of lamenting obnoxious people who text over dinner or hold one-way conversations on the elevator and expressing angst about 'kids these days' and their addiction to their mobile devices. Fortunately, we now have Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey's The Great Indian Phone Book, which offers a comprehensive look at what cellphones have meant for India. Their story covers everything from family relations and gender barriers to terrorism and the relations of citizens to the state. Out of what could have been a dry study packed with statistics the authors have managed to write a superb book--informative, insightful, witty--that is essential reading for anyone interested in India, or technological change, or good stories told with clarity and purpose.
Economic and Political Weekly - Subhjayoti Ray
A timely and pioneering contribution to the green shoots of telecom literature...The book has been written for the general reader who is curious to know about the mobile revolution but cannot make sense of the numbers, charts, graphs, jargons, legalese and sophistry surrounding much of the writing on the topic...By representing a wide range of individuals and communities which have been affected by the mobile revolution in India, by judging the impact against the bedrock of existing social, political and economic structures and by suggesting realistic but complicated answers, and yet, keeping the narrative jargon and statistics free, the authors have done a remarkable job.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Swati Pandey
The Great Indian Phone Book is admirably comprehensive, unexpectedly engaging, and underscored with an appreciation for the country Doron and Jeffrey have spent several decades of their professional lives studying as a historian and an anthropologist, respectively.
Round Table - Bill Kirkman
A remarkable tour de force, reflecting thorough research, and impressive knowledge, judgment and enthusiasm.
Finance & Development - Denis O’Brien
This is an important book that can usefully be read by students, social scientists, and business managers--indeed, by anyone interested in change and its effects on developing and complex societies.
Your Story - Madanmohan Rao
This terrific book on the mobile revolution in India provides not just sound scholarship but also an engaging read for a broader audience, a rare double feat.
Books & Culture - Nate Barksdale
Over the past ten years the number of mobile phone subscribers in India has grown from a few hundred thousand to as many as 900 million--three subscriptions for every four Indians of any age. It's...a phenomenon with deep and significant cultural effects.
Doron and Jeffrey attempt to chart the pulse of these changes, looking at the history of long-distance communication in India and the ways person-to-person information has been controlled and consumed by both the élites and the masses.

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Seven: For Women and the Household

Arranged marriage, sanctioned by both sets of parents, remained a deep-seated institution in India in the first decade of the twenty-first century, despite predictions that it would begin to fade away as India ‘modernized’. Mobile phones introduced new possibilities for interaction between men and women, particularly for poor people who were semi-literate or could not read or write at all. The mobile phone had remarkable advantages: it was cheap, pervasive and capable of being used independently out of sight of authority. This was where Raju’s second mobile phone served as an example.

When Doron asked about his other mobile, Raju began to reveal a more subversive ‘mobile practice’, associated with a generation of men and women finding ways to circumvent restrictions surrounding marriage and the household. Raju’s first phone, he explained, was a Nokia, primarily used for calls in the city of Banaras. His second mobile, a Reliance brand which tied him to Reliance networks, was used for calls outside the city, particularly to communicate with relatives in Allahabad, most of whom also used Reliance. (Calls within the same network were very cheap.) He used his Reliance mobile daily, or more accurately nightly, to call his soon-to-be wife. She lived in Allahabad, 120 km away. Following established practice, the couple had been allowed to meet face-to-face only twice (and in the presence of family) while the marriage arrangements were proceeding. Raju explained that his prospective wife’s brother lent her his own mobile phone every night after 10 pm when calls were cheaper. Raju and his bride-to-be were able to talk for many hours into the night. Neither set of parents knew of these illicit phone calls, which had been taking place for several months. The only member of the family who was aware of, and even facilitated, the nightly conversations was her brother.

In this case, the mobile phone complicated and changed but did not destroy long-standing practices. The authority of elders was subverted, but the brother-sister bond acquired a new thread. As for Raju, his mobile was password-protected, and to assure further discretion he used a code name on his phone for his fiancé’s number in case anyone in the household or outside got hold of the phone. Raju’s descriptions of these conversations were marked by coyness and excitement. He explained how informative, entertaining and enjoyable the conversations were for both him and his bride-to-be. They had learned much about each other’s lives, interests, fears and hopes. Doron suspected that for Raju’s brideto-be the conversations were perhaps even more important than for Raju, because she would soon leave her own home and need to learn to live with people she hardly knew.

Such illicit conversations illustrated how lower-income, lower status people might acquire opportunities to escape the restrictions imposed on couples prior to marriage. Wealthier, higher status people sometimes had more opportunity, though for them too notions of propriety in relations between unmarried young people were strict. Raju’s intended was likely to experience a degree of discomfort in her new status as daughter-in-law; but the familiarity afforded by these conversations outside the purview of authority figures may have alleviated some of her apprehension. The unsanctioned intimacy established via the mobile phone promised to shape her relationship with Raju and influence the dynamics of the home in unanticipated ways.

Meet the Author

Assa Doron is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the School of Culture, History & Language, Australian National University.

Robin Jeffrey is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asia Studies and Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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