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.
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About the Author
Assa Doron is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Anthropology, College of Asia & the Pacific, at the Australian National University.
Robin Jeffrey is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore, and an emeritus professor of La Trobe University (Melbourne) and the Australian National University (Canberra).
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.
Table of Contents
List of Maps, Illustrations, Figures and Tables xxi
Radio Frequency and Mobile Phones xxxi
Introduction: 'So Uncanny and Out of Place' 1
In India 2
In the world 9
In conclusion 13
Part 1 Controlling
1 Controlling Communication 19
Horses, runners and rulers 20
Untying communication 32
2 Celling India 39
Act I '… Within a fortnight…' 41
Act II Sidelining the referee 47
Act III Bread, clothing, shelter-and a mobile 53
Act IV Schools for scandal 57
Part 2 Connecting
3 Missionaries of the Mobile 65
Man's best friend 66
Talk time-small, medium, large 70
The art of retail 75
4 Mechanics of the Mobile 89
Factory workers 90
Tower walas 94
Trainers and trainees 100
The Care Centre 104
Part 3 Consuming
5 For Business 115
On the sea… 118
Around the globe… 121
At the bank… 123
On the river… 131
On the farm… 137
Empowering, ensnaring or just chatting …? 141
6 For Politics 143
'Smart mobs' in the world 144
'Smart organisations' in India 146
Limits, lessons and possibilities 158
7 For Women and Households 165
Who will guard the mobile? 170
The household mobile 172
Ownership and property 176
Romance, marriage and the mobile 178
8 For 'Wrongdoing': 'Waywardness' to Terror 185
Scandal and surveillance 202
Espionage and terror 205
Conclusion: 'It's the autonomy, stupid' 209
Mobile waste 213
Social networks 215
Language and media 218
Politics and governance 220