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The Great Indian Phone Book

The Great Indian Phone Book

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Great Indian Phone Book
    Book Description:

    Over just a decade in India, the mobile phone was transformed from a rare, unwieldy instrument to a palm-sized staple that even poor fisherman can afford. Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey investigate the social revolution ignited by what may be the most significant communications device in history and explore the whole ecosystem of cheap mobile phones.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07424-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Technology, Anthropology, Business, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-viii)
  3. PREFACE (pp. ix-xiv)
    Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron
  4. GLOSSARY (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. ABBREVIATIONS (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS (pp. xxvii-xxx)
  9. [Maps] (pp. xxxiii-xxxiv)

    If we were writing this book as a film script, the opening shot would show a pair of fine slippers lying beside an elegant double bed. Two well-pedicured male feet slip into them. A phone rings. A man’s hand picks up a fourth-generation mobile phone, on whose colour screen ‘unknown caller’ flashes, and the camera pulls back to reveal through a penthouse window the skyline of central Mumbai and the Arabian Sea. The film cuts to battered sandals on a pair of cracked, dusty feet, braced against the deck of what proves to be a large row-boat. The camera frames...


      A little of this book is about subversion and spying, and it is also about governments and high-stakes capitalism. Most of all, it is about ordinary people’s lives and how they alter as their access to information changes. At the centre of the story is the mobile phone. To appreciate the remarkable transformation that it wrought in India in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and why this was especially noteworthy, we need to understand how ideas and information were communicated in the past. Only then can we gauge the extent of the change that the mass-owner-ship of mobile...

    • 2 CELLING INDIA (pp. 39-62)

      A huge Indian flag flutters over the memorial where Rajiv Gandhi was murdered by a suicide bomber. The village of Sriperumbudur is about 30 kilometers west of Chennai, and Rajiv Gandhi’s electioneering cavalcade reached the place about nine o’clock on the evening of 21 May 1991. He had been riding in his white Ambassador car—a symbol of out-dated self-sufficiency in post-independence India—with Barbara Crossette, the correspondent of theNew York Times. Moments after he left the car there was ‘a large boom’ and he was blown to pieces. Crossette was hustled away in the same car, back towards...

    • 3 MISSIONARIES OF THE MOBILE (pp. 65-88)

      ‘Speak directly into the mouthpiece, keeping moustache out of opening’, advised an advertisement for the telephone in California in 1884.¹ People had to be educated about how to use a phone and persuaded that they might want to use one. Similar education was necessary for the mobile phone in India. In old societies, as we saw in Chapter 1, information reinforced power, and such relationships carried over into independent India when phones were rare and locked away. Under the government monopoly, a telephone was a privilege that a citizen had to demonstrate a right to own. In the monumentalSwamy’s...

    • 4 MECHANICS OF THE MOBILE (pp. 89-112)

      When the Supreme Court of India revoked licences for 2G Radio Frequency spectrum awarded in a controversial allocation in 2008, one of the affected companies instantly sought sympathy by appealing to ‘the authorities … to ensure that our … 17,500 workforce and 22,000 partners are not unjustly affected’.¹ Mobile phones created jobs in manufacturing, distribution, maintenance and repair. In 2007, 2.5 million people were estimated to be employed in the ‘telecom services sector’, and this figure did not include the most innovative mobile mechanics of all—those doing repairs and second-hand sales in small shops in every town in the...

    • 5 FOR BUSINESS (pp. 115-142)

      Celebrations of the mobile phone as a tool for the economic benefits of the poor are common. Sometimes they are well founded.¹ Mass availability of mobile phones, Peter O’Neill predicted in 2003, ‘will lead to economic expansion from the bottom up, in part because direct information for marketing can eliminate the urban, middlemen market-makers’.² A study conducted throughout India from 2006 to 2008 found that states with higher mobile-phone penetration had more rapid growth in State Domestic Product (SDP). For every increase of 10 per cent in mobile penetration, SDP was said to grow by 1.2 per cent. The study...

    • [Illustrations] (pp. None)
    • 6 FOR POLITICS (pp. 143-164)

      In an old India, caste and class determined how much freedom a person had to travel and communicate. Material conditions also imposed restrictions: roads were poor; conveyances were limited and costly; and letters required literacy, writing materials and messengers. More important, low-status villagers, such as agricultural labourers, were prevented from moving about without the consent of their superiors, and religious texts decreed that low-caste people should be punished for even hearing, much less repeating, certain religious incantations. The constitution of independent India in 1950 aimed to end such distinctions and declared all citizens equal; but the success of legislated egalitarianism...

    • 7 FOR WOMEN AND HOUSEHOLDS (pp. 165-184)

      Elites and ruling classes tend to live by different rules from poorer and less powerful people. In a notorious example from the English-speaking world, Henry VIII had six wives in a time when an ‘average Englishman’ would have had one. The powerful change the rules when it suits them, and they are usually first to adopt ideas and technologies that alter prevailing social customs. From washing machines to the contraceptive pill, upper classes have been able to take on new devices because they have the leisure to discover them and the wealth to acquire them.

      The cheap mobile phone in...


      If mobile phones were as commonplace as footwear, we have to acknowledge that shoes, though they provide mobility, security and status, may also be caked in slime from walking in muck or capped with steel for kicking heads. Users of mobile phones have dark sides. The mobile phone made pornography more widely available in India than ever before—and in high-resolution colour. Such material ranged from the mildly suggestive to the deeply disturbing.¹ The worst of the latter broke the criminal law or ventured into areas that many arguedshouldbe governed by criminal law. But the law trailed behind...


    We began this book with the fantasy of a film’s opening sequence—the feet, the footwear and the phones in the rowboat in Banaras and the penthouse in Mumbai. How would our film have proceeded? The body of the book provides clues. Our film would hinge on the relationships and networks that grow from mobile phones. Imagine our elegant businessman in Mumbai to be a supercilious and superior character who chuckles at the presumption of the boatman and says off the cuff before ending the call, ‘Come to Mumbai. Give me a call. We’ll talk about your problems’. Our boatman,...

  15. NOTES (pp. 225-264)
  16. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 265-280)
  17. INDEX (pp. 281-293)