Returning to India after two years, I have noticed many changes. One of the most striking changes I have noticed is the expansion in access to mobile data. When I used to live in India before, smart phones had already expanded to middle and even lower-middle class households but, for most people, data was just too costly for things like video streaming. Mobile companies would even sell cheaper data plans for running a specific app only such as WhatsApp.
Expansion in access to mobile data came after the entry of the new telecommunications company Reliance Jio into the market in 2016. Jio was able to take over the market by offering unbeatable deals including starting packages of 1 GB of data per day free for a period of several months. Competitors have had to respond, offering similar competitive packages with free calling and very low cost mobile data. In the two years since Jio first launch, monthly mobile data consumption in India has increased from 200 million GB to 3.7 billion GB.
Almost overnight India went fully online, with hundreds of millions of people now having access to nearly unlimited mobile data and streaming. My current data plan, with a Jio competitor, gives me 1 GB of data per day, an amount I couldn’t imagine exhausting unless I was streaming Netflix the whole day from my phone.
My first inkling of the change occurred when I was in the taxi from the airport on the evening of my arrival. I began chatting with the taxi driver in Hindi. I then asked him about a large red building I could see from the car window. “What is that building?” I asked him. The driver paused. Sounding somewhat annoyed by my question he responded, “I don’t know. Look it up on Google.” This took me aback. My experience with taxi drivers in the past in India had been that they often enjoy sharing their local knowledge of routes and landmarks. Drivers I remember from previous trips to India were definitely not “Gogglers.” Some of them may not have even known anything about Google.
Clearly the number of Google users in India has expanded significantly. So much so that it is part of the common lexicon to use the verb “to Google.” In fact, after one of my research interviews, a respondent asked me why I had come all the way to India to ask him about his family’s views on marriage. “If you wanted to learn about marriage in India, why didn’t you just Google it?” he asked me.
Continuous access to high quality data hasn’t just made more Indians Google users, it has also made them avid video streamers. Functions such as video calls and video streaming are now accessible to even the poorest households in Delhi. One of the favorite apps is WhatsApp. When I lived in India before, most people used only the texting function in WhatsApp. Now it’s not uncommon to find people on a video call as they walk down the street. This function is especially usefully to users who are less literate, for whom text messaging is difficult. I once had to tell my Uber driver to turn off his WhatsApp video while he was driving. From the back seat, I could see his wife and the rest of his family sitting on the floor of a dark cramped room from the screen of his phone. They could see me too.
Each day when I open the door to let in the cook who prepares my breakfast and lunch, she is holding her smart phone. Hardly ever resting idle, her smart phone is usually either playing Hindu religious music on Youtube or streaming a live WhatsApp video of her family. Often I see her lean the phone against the kitchen counter so that she can chat with her relatives while she is chopping vegetables or making rotis. One morning when I entered the kitchen, I was greeted by her husband and other relatives on a WhatsApp video call from her village. I could see the lush green landscape of banana trees and her small white and brown house located in some remote part of West Bengal. Her family was very eager to meet me, she informed me.
The expansion of access to the internet has had a revolutionary impact on Indian society. Now access to information (and also misinformation) is at the touch of most Indians’ fingertips in ways it never was before. WhatsApp videos have given me access to the private spaces of my cook and driver’s homes but also given their families access to the spaces I inhabit. In many ways, WhatsApp video shrinks the distance between people and places. It makes more visible different sections of Indian society to each other and, in doing so, lays bare inequalities that may have previously been hidden.