When I returned in February after four years away, they had multiplied, innumerably. I saw them at chai stands and tin-roofed restaurants, laid on tables between plates of rice and masala dosa; on the seats of rusted buses and crowded railway cars; under fluorescent lights at dusty street corners, casting an eerie glow of their own. In the hands of men and women, the sick and the healthy, the old, the young, and the in-between.
Everywhere in India, I saw smartphones.
In just a few years, India has undergone a mobile revolution. Once toys of the rich, internet-enabled phones are now within easy reach of the middle class and available to growing numbers of the poor. Even at around 25 percent ownership, India is now a bigger market for smartphones than the U.S. and is second only to China in the number of units purchased. Since only a fraction of these new smartphone owners have access to the internet through a home connection, smartphones in India (as in other developing countries) represent a first portal to the digital world for hundreds of millions of people.
But this is only part of the story. The mobile revolution in India is now in a second phase, driven not only by affordable handsets but also by cheap data, thanks to a single mobile operator that is now a household name after just a year and a half of operation: Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., known as Jio. The company entered the market in late 2016 with an offer of months' worth of free calls for new subscribers, with ongoing data fees only a fraction of all other operators' in the market. Competitors were quickly forced to match Jio's prices or face irrelevance, and in one fell swoop the cost of voice calls and data in India was slashed and the gates to the internet swung open for millions who had long been excluded.
I heard about Jio from a web developer I met recently in the South Indian state of Kerala. Intrigued to learn that India was little more than a year into an explosion of cheap access, I took to the streets of the city of Thiruvananthapuram to talk to ordinary Indians about how the internet was affecting their lives. Was it delivering on the much-vaunted promises—a transformation in microfinance, medicine, even farming and resource management—or were Indians just swapping cat GIFs and turd emojis like many of us in the West? Ultimately, what I found was a lesson in perspective: We tell the story of the internet as a "global village," a space where everyone has a common understanding, but outside of the Western bubble it's clear that assumptions change widely from place to place.
Under the morning sun at Kovalam Beach, a Keralan seaside resort near the tip of the subcontinent, I watched a line of fishermen singing work songs while standing waist deep in the Indian Ocean, hauling a huge net to shore. Around them a mix of foreign and domestic tourists took pictures with phone cameras, the kind of meeting of ancient and current that takes place across modern India.
At a nearby taxi stand, Manoj, a portly man in a mustard-colored auto-rickshaw driver's shirt and cotton dhoti around his waist, told me that seeing news through social media gave him a better understanding of life in India's many states—and that he was now more concerned than he used to be about violence in northern states, especially against women.
Like many of the people I talked to, Manoj's daily usage was heavily skewed toward WhatsApp and Facebook, where he enjoyed sharing a stream of updates, memes and general gossip throughout the day. In fact, in emerging markets as a whole, the internet is overwhelmingly social: In a 2016 trend report headlined "Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies," the Pew Research Center observed that these internet users make greater use of social networks than their rich-economy counterparts.