India Sees Explosion Of Mobile Technology

While cellular phones in the US are getting more feature-laden and expensive, just the opposite is the case in India. There, cell phone technology is seemingly limitless when it comes to giving people access to information and social accommodations. Host Michel Martin talks with reporter Anand Giridharadas from Mumbai about how cellular technology is changing many Indians' way of life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The big tech news in this country, the iPhone and iPad. Despite some grumbling about dropped calls and other glitches, these products are flying out of the stores with all their the-future-is-here-now glamour. But in other parts of the world, the simplest cell phone technology is also sparking innovation, allowing millions of people new ways to send email, pay bills, consume television and radio and flirt at a fraction of the cost of products like the iPhone, Blackberry or Droid.

In India, for example, companies have taken basic cell phone technology which is now all but shunned in U.S. businesses and added technological steroids to win an estimated 15 million new users each month. Anand Giridharadas has been reporting on the advances for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He's a columnist for the Times and he's writing a forthcoming book to be titled "India Calling." And he joins us now from Mumbai. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. ANAND GIRIDHARADAS (Columnist, The New York Times): Thank you. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So just give us a sense of the scope of this. In India, for example, how many people have a cell phone right now have some access to mobile technology right now?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: It's just over half the population up from nearly nothing a few years ago. And it's just a remarkable growth story. And what's really important to understand for an audience in the United States is, in the U.S., people will spend most of their day in front of a computer.

For many Indians, the cell phone is not only a substitute for a computer, which most Indians still don't have. It may also be a primary alarm clock, primary music device. It may be the only source of private, romantic correspondence they have for people who don't even have their own bedroom. And so it's this kind of all-in-one magical device that serves a larger-than-life role that almost no single piece of technology serves in the West.

MARTIN: Well, the U.N. says that something like, there are, like, 445 million cell phones and, as you said, serving about 45 percent of the population, contrasting that with the fact that only 31 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation. Those figures from 2008. Does that sound right to you?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: That's sounds right in India and I think the U.N. put that out, but actually, what I figured out when I was doing the reporting for my essay in the Times was that that's actually true globally. More people in the world have access to a cell phone today than have access to a flush toilet around the world.

MARTIN: What does the cell phone mean, then, for people who have not had access to just a lot of the creature comforts that many people in the West are accustomed to? What does a cell phone mean?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: What it means is in an increasingly aspirational world, people want to do the same things that everybody else does. So they want to bank on their phones. They want to find dates on their phones. They want to find jobs on their phones. They want to do the things that people do on computers in wealthier countries. And all they have on the supply side is a really simple phone. You can get a phone in India for about $15 and get it connected for another, you know, two or three.

And what has happened as a result of that kind of supply/demand imbalance is that phone companies and other companies have come up with extraordinary innovations to do fairly complicated things like banking and getting people dates on really simple text-based phones that are totally not smart phones, just through basic text message technology.

MARTIN: One of the points you made in some of your coverage, which I've really enjoyed, is just how it upends kind of traditional relationships that people who, as you say, might be sharing a bedroom with a sibling until they're in their 20s, until they can afford to kind of get married and move out, can actually have a little bit social privacy.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: The way I put this with regard to India and I'm sure this is true elsewhere, is that a cell phone is really a bedroom. It's the first place where you can collect messages that no one else will read. It's the first number, just the fact of that number is the first individual identity that many people have that they have access to 24 hours a day.

MARTIN: What other, you think, impact it will also have on the ability to negotiate with authority figures? Because traditionally one way that people have been, if I could use this term, kept in their place, is by being - denying them access to information. They say, oh, well, no, you can't have this loan because there are other people who got it. Or you can't have this job because it's not available. You can't have this place to live because it's already been rented.

And I do have to wonder what access to this technology will do for people who want to upend those authority hierarchies.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: And there's all kinds of different examples of that happening already. In India, there's been something called the no criminals campaign in which some organizations got together and arranged it so that if any Indian text messaged their parliamentary district, or their zip code, they'd get back a text message telling the name of all the candidates running for parliament, their incomes. They're hoping to rat out corruption, any prior criminal convictions, those kinds of things.

In Kenya, you had an organization called Ushahidi born with the opposite. It was crowd sourcing information from the public rather than giving the public information. It was asking people to report incidents of violence after the electoral clashes they had there.

And from all those disparate pieces of data they put together this extraordinary crisis map. And that technique that Ushahidi developed has become the main source of map data in the Haitian earthquake and then the Chilean earthquake and now is being used in the Louisiana Gulf.

MARTIN: And I think it also is fair to mention too in Iran with the protest after the elections last year, when the young woman was killed by a member of the security forces, her death was not only noted - was clearly noted by a person who had a camera there, but those pictures, those images were immediately translated around the world through people's cell phones.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: Absolutely. And I think, you know, I just spent some time in China recently and I think in societies where you do have authoritarian government, whether the perception is right or not, I think ordinary people have a perception that computers are something that governments can really get into and catch you doing bad things on, and that phones are not. And I don't know if that turns out to be right. But I think people behave on that assumption it probably is true.

MARTIN: But to that end, though, I mean these are all very new and burgeoning developments. Is there any sense of changes that have now become, you know, the expectation is that the changes will really be permanent or, you know, you've talked about how, you're written about how people can now do things like pay bills. They can use their phones to consume media. They can, you know, use them even as flashlights. I know we've certainly done that.

But do you have a sense of where it's really in India where you've spent a lot of your time changing people's expectations of how they are to be treated mainly by institutions and authorities?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: I think if you look at a society like India, the reason it's so revolutionary is people traditionally, the way the power structures have worked, people have been at the mercy of other people. And whether that means you are made being at the mercy of her employer, you know, remembering to tell her to not to come in today so she doesn't spend two and a half hours on a bus. Or whether it's the government taking its time to give you that document that you're entitled to but they just can't get around to giving you. And there are a million other examples like that.

And a cell phone, just because of its directness, you have one at all times and the people in power have one at all times. And everyone has assumed at a certain point to have one and there's no excuses. It powerfully disintermediates all of those relationships. And it's pretty transformative for that maid or for that farmer looking for his land deed from the government to know, even just psychologically that he can make your pocket vibrate at any hour of the day.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, you go back and forth quite a lot. What's the main thing you noticed between the U.S. and India?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: It's interesting. I think when I come, when I return to India, what I notice is in some ways there's an optimism and a dynamism. I think I'm also reminded whenever I return to India that it's going to be a long road and that life is still very, very hard, as it's lived at the average. When I return to the U.S., I am always struck contrarily. I don't think Americans appreciate certain things that work in the U.S., that no country is going to be able to replicate in the near term. No one is going to have the Ivy League universities or anything like them for a very long time.

No one will have, you know, the number of really good radio stations and media organizations for a very long time. And people in places like India know that. Everyone still has their road ahead, but there's a lot left to savor in the U.S.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is a columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. His forthcoming book is called "India Calling." And he called us from Mumbai. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.

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