Ravi Agrawal: “India Connected: How the Smartphone Revolution is […]” | Talks at Google

Ravi Agrawal: “India Connected: How the Smartphone Revolution is […]” | Talks at Google


[MUSIC PLAYING] ARUN VENKATARAMAN:
It is my pleasure to have here with us today
Ravi Agrawal to discuss his new book “India Connected– How the Smartphone Revolution
is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy.” Mr. Agrawal is currently
the managing editor of “Foreign Policy” magazine. Before that, he spent more
than a decade with CNN, where he worked in New
York, London, and most recently in New Delhi, where he
was the region’s bureau chief. The book has received quite
a bit of praise already. Fareed Zakaria calls it
quite simply the best book about India today. Nicholas Thompson, the editor
in chief of “Wired” magazine, says the story of
how India got wired is one of the most important
in the world today, and you won’t find a better
guide than Ravi Agrawal. That conversation couldn’t
be more important for us here at Google to
embrace robustly, just given the fact
that we are one of the key drivers of the
smartphone revolution. 80% of the smartphones in
India are Android smartphones. So I don’t think we can
be thoughtful enough about ensuring that our
products and technologies not only help build a more
technologically enabled India but a better India. And to unpack, distill,
discuss that even further, I’ll bring Ravi up on the stage. [APPLAUSE] I want to start off with
the smartphone revolution. You talk about how, in
2000, 20 million Indians were connected to the internet. In 2017, that number
was 465 million. And you projected, in 2025,
that that number is going to be more than a billion. And you talk about the
ways in which that’s similar to the advent
of the automobile and the transformational impact
that it had here in the United States from the
creation of suburbia, the interstate highway, to
where, very often, someone got their first kiss,
long weekends, all sorts of tremendous impacts. And you talk about how the
smartphone is doing the same in India, which makes it
not simply an evolution, as it’s been here in the United
States, but a revolution. So I would love for you to
talk about how India got here to this moment, where
is it right now, and where do you anticipate it’s
going to be 10 years from now as a result of the
smartphone revolution. RAVI AGRAWAL: Sure. That’s a great question. Thank you for having me. Thank you, all of
you, for attending. And really, it’s very special
for me to come speak at Google. And as Arun said, Google’s
playing such a huge role in the growth of the internet
in India and, in fact, expanding the pie of
internet users in India. So to begin with,
your first point about how India is going
through a smartphone revolution, the reason why I use the word
“revolution” in the book, and I don’t use it
lightly, is to contrast it with the way in
which the West has– people in the West have
discovered the internet. So for most of you in
this room, my assumption would be that sometime
in the late 1990s, you had a PC and a
telephone landline, and then you got a dial-up
internet connection, and then evolved from there
to DSL, then cable, broadband, and then you got your
routers, you had Wi-Fi. And then, eventually, you had
3G on a phone, 4G and a phone, and you are where you are today. In India, a very small slice
of Indians who are rich, privileged usually
urban, often male, had access to those things. Only 2% of Indians had
access to telephone landlines in the year 2000. A similar percentage of
Indians had access to PCs. And that’s why there were
only 20 million Indians online in the year 2000. And the numbers then begin
to jump very rapidly. In 2010, there are hundreds
million Indians online. By 2015, there were 300
million Indians online. And now, we’re crossing
half a billion, the projections are that it
will reach 800 million by 2025, and then a billion
shortly thereafter. All of this growth is going
to come from smartphones. Why? Because smartphones in
India are very cheap. They are easily accessible. They are, for most Indians,
not just a smartphone as it is for you guys here. For most Indians, the smartphone
is their first camera. It is their first screen. It is also their first
Walkman and MP3 player. It is the first of many
things in one device. And that’s why it’s as
transformative as it is. For most Indians,
this is a gateway to many forms of technology,
all of it in one go. You could be
illiterate in India, and you can still
speak to your phone. You know, the old
internet was mostly for English speakers in India. The new internet
is for people who speak a multitude
of Indian languages. And thanks to Google,
in part, those languages are all now accessible
on the internet. There’s a great analogy with
the car, which you brought up. And I like to compare
the moment that India is going through right
now to the moment that America went
through a century ago. So America invented the car. And with the car, you
created roads, and highways, and the interstate system. And then with that, tens of
thousands of jobs were created. And America built suburbia
and the picket fence home. And with that, you
had the commute. And along the
commute, you needed to create an infrastructure
so that infrastructure was gas stations, and
multiplexes, and movie theaters, and the drive-in
restaurant, and so much more– than 7 Elevens. Think of all of those things
as a national infrastructure across the country. And it wasn’t just that. There was a cultural and
imaginative infrastructure as well. I mean, for most
Americans, the car was their first private property. It was literally a
tool of mobility. It was the vehicle in which
they injected their dreams and their ambitions for
the baby boomer generation. In Hollywood, it was enshrined. I mean, think of the race, and
the chase, and the bank heist. Every Hollywood movie
of a certain era was defined around the car. The car defined Americans. I mean, if you drove a
pickup truck, or a sedan, or a hatchback, it kind
of explained who you were and where you were headed. Take all of those things and
transpose it to India today. The smartphone
defines who you are. Are you an iPhone person? And therefore, do you have
$1,200 to spend on a phone? Likely not in India. Because, as we
know, Apple hasn’t been able to make serious
inroads into India. But the phone says a lot
more about who you are. And by the same
token, the phone is creating an entire
infrastructure of payments, of communication. It’s building trust with
maps, with education, with various tools
that people are using. For all of those
reasons, for a country that is as young as
India is, average age 27, average income less
than $2,000 a year. You take all of those things
together for a country that’s marching and on the rise,
and the thesis of my book is that this one
device, this one tool, will end up being incredibly
transformative for the country. ARUN VENKATARAMAN:
And I think, one of those stories that
you start the book off that really illustrates
that compellingly is the story of Phoolwati,
who is a Google saathi, and you can explain what it is. I have to admit. I fell a little bit in love with
Phoolwati reading about her. She’s like, on her bicycle
going around rural Rajasthan introducing the internet
for the first time to women in these villages. I would love for you to
talk about how you first like found her,
her story, and then what kind of broader
lessons we can draw about her example and
the penetration of India, not only for women, but
for rural communities. RAVI AGRAWAL: Sure. It’s so great to talk
about Phoolwati here because I’m coming full circle. I found Phoolwati through
Google, not the search engine but literally through
people at Google who said, you must take a look
at Google saathi, and you must look into
this story, and so I did. For those of you who
don’t know, Google saathi is a program at
Google where Google’s partnered with many
NGOs across the country. And it is giving– first of all, its training rural
women how to use the internet. And then, it’s arming them
with smartphones, and tablets, and a bicycle to then go
out into other villages and teach and train
other women how to use the internet, how
to familiarize themselves with the internet. Why is this important? Well, you might remember, when
I was starting off, I said, the old internet in India
was urban, elite, and male. It was also English. And the reason why I say “male”
is that even in 2014, about 70% of internet users
in India were male. 30% were women. In villages, only 1 out of
10 internet users were women. And so the big gap was
rural women and women more nationally. Google, obviously– and
you guys work on this– realized that this was
a great market to tap– and not just for
economic reasons, but also for
humanitarian reasons. And so the saathies,
what they’ve been doing is, in a
sort of, peer to peer conversational way, have been
able to train other rural women to use the internet And the
reason why this is important again is that illiteracy is
rife in these parts of India. In Rajasthan, the state
in which I met Phoolwati, female literacy rates
are at about 50%, which means there are all these
women who cannot read or write anything at all. And so the internet,
for them, was always going to be a thing that they
could never dream of using, not on a PC, not on a phone,
not on a regular phone. And vice technology
changed all of that. Phoolwati– and I begin
the book with her speaking to some other
villages, and she says, ask this thing, Google,
ask it something. And most of them don’t
know what to ask. And then one woman says,
well, show us the Taj Mahal. And a video pops up. She says it in Hindi. She says, [SPEAKING HINDI] And a video pops up. And they press play. And for the first time, they see
moving imagery of this monument that they have all grown
up as knowing as the most beautiful thing in India. And it was a very profound,
moving moment for me as well to see that. And it gives you a sense
of how technology really can break through so
many of the boundaries that we’ve built in India, not
just gender, but also cost, and geography, and
language, and literacy. And Phoolwati was, if you
read the book– was just a great example of a woman who
was completely interminable in spirit and was
able to venture out into all these villages
and very enthusiastically be set of an internet
evangelist or Google evangelist. And she was paid only a
very small amount of money to do this but was doing it
mostly because she was really excited about the project. For those of you
who’ve been to India, it’s quite rare to see women
on bicycles wearing a full sari and heading out
into the villages. And you know, the saathies
are doing just that, which is a real testament
to their enthusiasm for the internet. ARUN VENKATARAMAN:
Yeah, what was interesting about her case
is you talked about the fact that she had a husband that was
very supportive of what she was doing, which enabled
her to be such an enthusiastic
kind of ambassador for the saathi program. There’s a quote in the
book where you talk– you brought up
caste, where you talk about how Karl
Marx, in the 1850s, thought that the railroad
was going to get rid of the caste system in India. And there have been
all sorts of technology since then that have been,
like, this is the vanguard of, like, pushing against
some of these more ancient social or
cultural systems. And those obviously failed. But you feel more bullish
about the smartphone? What’s different
about the smartphone that you feel is going
to break through some of these more older kind
of patriarchal systems? RAVI AGRAWAL: So
I am more bullish. There are still obstacles. For example, there are
entire villages in India where the smartphone
is banned for women. And I go to one of these
villages in Gujarat. And the men I
spoke to there said that women just can’t use this. They’re not smart enough. They don’t have– they’re
not capable of dealing with the internet. And, really, what
they were trying to tell me without saying it in
as many words is that they were frightened of what it would
mean to give women access to the internet. They were frightened of what
it meant to give women freedom. They had built around– in fact, entire
societies were built around patriarchal systems where
women had very little agency. And so in a sense, one
of the greatest obstacles to allowing the internet
to reach all Indians is men, and mostly rural men. But that said, I
think the reason why I am more bullish
about the phone than any other technology is
that the phone is a catalyst, and it’s coming
at a moment when– so first of all, it is cheap. It is accessible. It is aspirational. But it’s coming along with
a range of other forces. There’s a confluence
of events at play. And those events
are globalization; cheap technology; the
creation of smartphones, which let’s face it, are
unprecedentedly compact, and powerful, and able to
take all of these things into one device, all of these
other devices into one device; but also rising levels in
India; the ability for bigger Indian companies to
take big decisions, set up big
infrastructural projects. You may have heard of
Reliance Jio, which is a company that, for the
first six months of its launch, essentially made
data free in India. So if you look at all of
those things together, we’re at a moment, fairly
unprecedented in India’s history, where the smartphone
is just perfectly poised to reach so many
people and to give them all these different
things in one go that were not going
to happen organically. PCs were not going to
reach a majority of Indians organically. Cameras were not going to
reach a majority of Indians organically. But you put it into one device,
you put all of these things into one device at a
very low price point. Jio, for example, leases out– it’s a very basic phone, but
it’s kind of a smartphone, for $23. It’s a three-year lease for $23. You can buy certain Chinese
and Indian-made phones for somewhere
between 50 and $150. And at that price
point, when you include all of these
things, it’s irresistible. ARUN VENKATARAMAN:
One of the gaps that you talk about the
smartphone being able to bridge is the urban-rural gap but also
kind of the linguistic gap. To your point earlier,
the mobile phone has primarily been– or the smartphone
and PC before that was primarily– targeted the
English-speaking audience, and that started to change. I think one of the stories
that really illustrates that is the story of Abdul,
who started this education app. Tell us about that. RAVI AGRAWAL: Sure. So I have a chapter
on education. And one of the people I
profiled in that chapter, his name is Abdul Wahid. And he’s a real sort of
fixer-upper of a character– didn’t go to an English
school growing up, so he never really
spoke English well. And in India, to
succeed, speaking English is a huge leg up. And so he started
using an app called Hello English, which is one of
India’s top educational apps. And the way Hello English
works is, as long as you speak some other Indian
language, say Hindi, and you can read the
English alphabet, you’re able to then play
these games that teach you or help you improve your
conversational English. So Abdul Wahid was playing
this game every day, sitting on the toilet seat,
sitting in traffic jams, and he got better, and
better, and better. And he was ranked number one out
of millions of users worldwide. And so I found him and
sort of profiled him. And his story was amazing
because he, essentially, became a confident man
and a confident teacher. He runs a coaching
Institute in Rajasthan through not only Hello English,
this app, because he couldn’t afford was Rosetta Stone or
going to a school, but he also, through YouTube and watching
videos of motivational speakers and stuff like that, he
just was able to become a very confident educator. And that struck me as you
know the kind of thing that it’s hard to
quantify nationally. Like, there is no metric
to look at those kinds of intangible improvements
in people’s lives. But also in that chapter, I
also looked at learning outcomes for four children. Because I think, if
you look at the biggest space for disruption
in India, it really is early childhood education. And the reason is that India
has opened a lot of schools, but these schools don’t always
train people in the right way. And they’re all of
these studies that show that learning
outcomes for children was greatly reduced
after the age of 7, 8, which meant that the reason
why they were dropping off in math and literacy is because,
frankly, they couldn’t read. They couldn’t read and write. And so they weren’t able
to progress further. And there’s a lot
of research now– and there are many NGOs that
are working in this space, but the phone has really
come through as a tool that could allow people to
improve their basic numeracy and literacy at the lowest
levels, which would really work at a mass way
to India’s advantage. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: I want
to kind of take a step back and think about some
of the macro trends that have enabled a
lot of the evolutions that you discuss in
the book, it strikes me with the analogy
of the automobile, that it required a robust
partnership between the state and private companies
to get that right, and the state knowing when to
lean in and when to lean back. At the end of the
book, you actually do a really good
job of framing up that narrative in the context
of mobile phones in India. There’s like an Indian
American businessman who has a conversation with
Rajiv Gandhi to kind of really pave the way to bring
telephones to India, which was a luxury as
late as the early 1980s. I would love for you to
talk about that evolution, particularly with
an eye towards what is the right way that
kind of private forces and public institutions can
work together to really take advantage and bring to
fruition the potential of these new technologies. RAVI AGRAWAL: Sure. You know, the telephony
in India has mostly been a private sector story. So the public sector
story was what you were describing of
the ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s of the state trying to get basic
telephone landlines to people. And that was something that
the state largely failed at. And one innovation that
really worked for the state was when they opened
what was known as these STD, ISD, PCO booths. And these were basically
telephone booths, but they were manned by
shopkeepers or 7-Eleven mom and pop store owners. They’re basically
at marketplaces. And you would go in. And you could pay for a metered
call, local or international as the case would be. And that allowed many
people to get access to telephony in a way that
they wouldn’t have otherwise. But in terms of
mobile telephony, when the state first began to
sort of open up in that sense, there were still many,
many restrictions for the private sector. And it was through
sheer force of will in the form of
the private sector that 3G and 4G finally took
off in India, basically through advertising
and offerings from the private sector that
allowed it to reach Indians in a mass way. And then the second wave
was through hardware– so the handsets and cheaper
smartphones, all of which are led by the private
sector in India. I think the space we’re at now
is, the government has largely ceded a lot of the space
to the private sector. But I think where the government
could be very important and where the private
sector could work closely with the government
on is regulation in terms of how to
regulate this market, how to regulate the
entrance of new players, how to regulate foreign
players versus Indian players. But then, the second thing
that is very important to me and is really a large
part of the book as well is to sort
of deal with some of the adverse effects of
the smartphone boom in India. And those range from addictions,
to fake news, to pornography. And we can get into some
more detail on those topics. But just to use the analogy
with the car once again, governments around the
world and the private sector partnered on cars
with advertising, basically, in terms of telling
people that the car is clearly a tool for immense
good, but it is also a web of mass destruction. So you need to not
drink and drive. You need to wear seat
belts when you’re driving. And those were public
interest campaigns that were very important,
I think, for societies around the world. And I’ve begun to see
smartphones as something quite similar to the car in
that respect, where smartphones and technology can
also be immensely destructive to societies,
especially a society like India, which is still
so nascent and gullible in so many ways, with superstitions
in various communities. And the notion of being able
to see this device as something that has immense potential for
good but also for bad and what to do with that and how to deal
with that is very important. And I think that’s a space that
public and private can really cooperate on. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: Yeah, I
think that’s a great segue into what I’d love for us
to unpack a little bit more. The first part of
the book is very much about the opportunities
of the smartphone revolution in education, health
care, and empowering women all across the country. I think the second part is
when you talk about some of the potentially
negative consequences. And you talk about the
story of Sheikh Halim and the lynching
that took place that was more or less driven by
communication messaging apps. Talk to me a little
bit about that. And this is really me putting my
Google News initiative hat on. The evolution of misinformation,
[INAUDIBLE],, synthetic media misinformation, how do
you see that playing out in India and the role
and responsibility that you feel platforms should
take in addressing that? RAVI AGRAWAL: Sure,
so many of you have heard the stories
of lynchings that have taken place in India– Hindu-Muslim related,
violence, mob violence. And much of this tends to
stem from the proliferation of fake news on messaging apps,
specifically WhatsApp, which is very popular in India,
but also other messaging apps in India. I hesitate to put
the blame squarely at the place of messaging
apps because it is not as if rumors didn’t spread before. It is not as if there were
not lynchings and mob violence before technology. Technology has just
allowed for the spread of these things
faster and quicker than was possible before. What often happens is
that people in India are often not equipped in the
same way to decipher and deal with fake news as people
may be in the West. And think of it this way. I mean, when you all first
started using the internet, let’s say in the late ’90s,
you had a Hotmail account, and you would get a chain mail. And the chain mail
would say, if you don’t forward this to 15 people,
you’ll be unlucky in love. And you’re laughing there. I mean, many of you have
probably hit forward and sent it to 15 people until
a friend or two says, hey, this is stupid. Don’t do that. And then, you don’t do that. But remember when I was talking
about the West’s evolution versus India’s revolution? So you all have evolved
with the internet, and you’ve evolved
with your mistakes. And you’ve learned not to
make those mistakes over time. So you are now more
discerning consumers of the internet
and of fake news. And you’re better able to judge
what is true, what is false, what smells right, what
to forward, what not to. That’s sort of the case in
India because, again, hundreds of millions of people are
discovering the internet right now on smartphones. And they haven’t built the
same nose for fake news. Add to the fact that they
are not as privileged, they don’t have the same
levels of education. They don’t have the same levels
of media literacy necessarily. And various societies
in India were quite superstitious to begin with. So you take all of those
things together with the power of social media to amplify
in a viral fashion, and you have a cocktail
that’s quite dangerous. It’s a huge challenge
for, I think, tech companies to figure out
but also society to figure out and the government
to figure out. And as I was saying
earlier, I think media literacy
would be something that I think tech companies, if
they can play a part in helping communities understand
the basics of how to decipher what is news? Who’s funding it? What’s the date line? Is it written by a human being? Is it from a wire service? What is it? And then, also, just the
basic pitfalls of what happens when you
forward something basic, how this can be exponential– how to trust, how to verify. That’s very important. It’s a conversation
that has just begun to take place in India. But as a journalist,
I can tell you with elections around
the corner in India, this is an issue
of grave concern. A lot of things could go wrong
before Indian society figures out how to get it right. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: Yeah,
and as you well know, it’s supposed to be
quite the challenge here in the United States. So I imagine it’s even– RAVI AGRAWAL: It’s even more. ARUN VENKATARAMAN:
Even greater in India. On the same vein of like some
of the potential pitfalls of the smartphone
revolution, one of the parts of one of
the chapters that really kind of shocked me was
entirely news to me, concerns just broadly a
conversation on sexuality and how it shows
up online, but you talk about the advent of
very violent pornography and how that’s become readily
accessible to hundreds of millions of people in India. And you don’t necessarily draw
a direct causal relationship between that and
the horrific crimes that we’ve seen in the
last few years in India, but you do kind of
allude to the fact that there is something
there that’s worth exploring. Based off of
exploring that story, do you feel like tech
platforms have a responsibility to curb or curtail
that sort of content? RAVI AGRAWAL: This
is a tough question. Because the last
thing I would ever want to advocate is curtailing
or censoring content. And yet pornography is
one of those things where you have to wonder, are
people properly sensitized to deal with it? And the reason why
I say this is, look, growing up in the West is
so different from growing up in a village in India. If you grew up here, you were
sensitized at a young age to the human body. I mean, you go to the beach. If you’re a young boy,
you see a woman’s legs at a very young age,
and you talk about sex, you go to coed schools. You have a healthier
relationship with sexuality. If you are a young
boy in rural India, you may have a very, very
different relationship with the human body with
sexuality, with sex. Given that backdrop, if your
first experience of sexuality is violent pornography
and add to that the fact that this is not something
you can talk about with your family, this is not
something you can talk about at school, so you have no way of
deciphering it and interpreting it, there are real
problems with that. And as a journalist, again,
when I was reporting in India, one of the things that– the worst stories that
I often had to cover were very violent gang
rapes and other types of rape across the country. And it was a deeply, deeply
disturbing thing to cover. And on the one hand, of course,
rape happens everywhere. This is not unique to India. It’s not unique to any country. But it did get me
wondering, is there a connection between this
explosion in pornography, this explosion in access to
pornography– because, again, if you were a teenager in
America 10 15 years ago, you could hide a Playboy
Magazine under your mattress. For most Indians, that
was not an option. Privacy works very
differently in India. Access works very differently. Most Indians didn’t grow up with
a TV and a VCR or a DVD player. So the internet
changes everything. A private viewing device
changes everything. And I do wonder, quite
openly in the book, whether there is a link
between pornography and rape, whether there is a link between
porn and sexuality in India. And I don’t have answers. I mean, this is
where I have to be honest in that a lot
of the data shows that there may not be a link. But I closed that chapter
very much in two minds. And I think this is a
conversation and a debate that I think needs to take
place more widely in India in a very open fashion. And the reason why
I say this, again, is that sex and sexuality
is not new to India. If you go back 500
years, 1,000 years, think, again, of the Kama Sutra
and think of temples in India that really enshrine
sex and sexuality, so notions of openness about
sex should not be new to India. But a notion of prudishness was
introduced into Indian society through colonization. And it was more of
a Victorian import. Think of the blouse,
and the petticoat, and so many things
that didn’t even exist in India before that. So the water’s quite
muddied on this, but I do think
it’s an issue that needs to be debated openly. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: I wanted
to pivot a little bit to kind of the relationship between– or the role of the state and
some of these technologies. You kind of talked
very compellingly about the fact that
India is the world’s leader in digital blackouts
and, specifically, most of that takes place in the
state of Kashmir. And then you also kind
of talked about some of these very
digital-forward initiatives like [INAUDIBLE] for example,
which sound incredible in terms of their potential
if we can get it right, but there have
been conversations around data breach and
privacy leaks from that. It’s the kind of theme that
percolates throughout the book. Like, this is an
incredible technology that we should– that can do
all these incredible things. And it’s really
addressing and solving real problems for
a lot of people. But we have to be
careful about the state’s role, and particularly trusting
state with data and privacy. Would it be great to get
your sense of, do you– I mean, having
written the book now, do you feel like
the state in India is equipped to properly
manage and handle this data in a way that
ensures that we get the better end of the potential? RAVI AGRAWAL: I don’t
know is the honest answer. I mean, what we do
know is that everyone needs checks and balances,
including the state, including big corporations. So for example, if you
haven’t read this yet, India has more
internet shutdowns than any other country on earth. Syria and Iraq
are two and three. And what this means is
that, at any given moment, the state can just
switch off the internet. So it basically has the
biggest cellular providers on speed dial, and it can
call them and say, all right, in this particular area,
shut down the internet. This often happens in
Kashmir after encounters with terrorists. And the reason, the
logic, is that, again, to use the car analogy,
if there’s a car crash right outside here,
the police will likely cordon off the street. And so digitally
speaking, if there is a clash between the police
and militants in Kashmir, the authorities would
shut off the internet so that militants wouldn’t
be able to send out imagery on social media, or seek
help, or anything like that. Now on the one hand, there’s
a clear use for this. But on the other hand,
there is immense misuse, especially if it isn’t
properly codified. Under what circumstances
is the government allowed to impose a shutdown. Who makes the decision? Is there any accountability? Is there any recourse if
a wrong decision was made? And then, linked to all
of that is, over time– so the state of
Kashmir, for example, it lost hundreds of millions
of dollars in lost business, and this is according
to a study by Brookings, because the internet was
shut down for months. So those are clear
examples of the state. You can call it overreaching. You can call it taking
a draconian approach to dealing with the problem. But again, for all the
good that the internet and the proliferation
of smartphones can do in a place
like India, there is so much gray area
and so much of sort of new areas of regulation
that haven’t really been covered or discussed
in the public space. And internet shutdowns
is chief among them. Aadhaar is a very interesting
topic in and of itself. For those of you who
don’t know, that’s the biometric ID system in
India that has now signed up– I think it’s about
1.2 billion people. It’s a system that basically
allows people to say, I am me. So it’s an ID card
with fingerprints and retinal scans included. And this is part of a very
polarized debate in India. There are people who will
say that this could have immense positive impacts
in terms of people being able to have an ID
to open bank accounts, to get cell phone lines, to get
subsidies from the government, so on and so forth. But there are many who
will also tell you, critics who will say that this
could be misused by the state. There could be leakages. There could be hacks. You can’t change
your fingerprints. So once you lose
them to someone else, you’re in trouble,
so on and so forth. I tend to fall
somewhere between– in the middle of that
debate, where I think you can’t deny that there is
immense potential to this. And I think the government,
on the other hand, needs to address the critics
and openly acknowledge that there have been leaks. And this, again, is where
the private sector could help in terms of how
to plug those leaks, how to have better
security, and how to be more upfront about
where things stand, better communication all around, which
I think the private sector has immense experience with. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: One of the
striking chapters is on a topic that folks who followed
Indian politics over the last couple
of years would be well aware of demonetization. What’s interesting about
that particular chapter was, you kind of followed the story
of this auto-rickshaw driver and kind of his journey through
dealing with the aftermath of modernization. There’s a line around, you
wondered whether or not he’d ever be able to learn
how to use a smartphone and really be able to
join in this increasingly digital economy. What responsibility do you think
society and tech companies have for those who, in the
short term, or maybe medium term, maybe
even long term, are being left behind
by this increasing wave of digitization? RAVI AGRAWAL: So you can
contrast Phoolwati’s story with the story of Sarvesh who
is an auto-rickshaw driver I met in Delhi and followed
around for two years now. And he knows deep down that he
just cannot use a smartphone. He can’t bring himself
to use a smartphone, doesn’t understand it, is very
intimidated by technology, can’t even afford
it to begin with. And the reason why
that even came up is, during demonetization,
which, for those of you who don’t know, was a moment where
the government recalled the two highest currency denomination
notes from the market, which was 86% of all cash,
and replaced it with two other notes, the reason being that
they wanted A to get rid of so-called “black
money” in the system, which is money that hasn’t– on which income tax
hasn’t been paid, and B, to move India towards
digital payments. But in that chaotic
moment, which most economists worth
their salt have decried as a horrendous stupid
decision which has cost India as much as 2% of its GDP,
but in that chaotic moment, many people suffered
for their livelihoods, including Sarvesh, this
auto-rickshaw driver, because all of his rides
were paid for in cash. And because people
didn’t have cash, he wasn’t making any money. So he was really struggling. And in that moment when I
was interviewing him for CNN, I asked him, well, hey,
why don’t you use Uber? Why don’t you sign
up for Ola, which is Uber’s Indian
equivalent and competitor. And that’s where it all came up. He just was very
intimidated by technology, didn’t have a
smartphone, and felt like this was just not for him. And I contrast that story
with Phoolwati’s because it’s one thing for us to think
of technology as, you know, if you just build it
and people will come, that’s not necessarily
going to happen, especially in places like India, where
there is so many barriers. And think of not just people
like Sarveshh who are young– I mean, he’s in his 20s– and should really
be able to learn. Think of older people in India. India has about
250 million people who are over the age of 55, 60. And for those people,
technology is very intimidating. It’s very hard to just
be given a smartphone and then learn how to use it,
and learn how to communicate, and learn how to use apps. So that space was very important
for me to explore as well. Because it’s sort of a
counterpoint to the narrative that tech is necessarily
going to transform India. And as much as tech
will transform India, I think India will
also transform tech. I think India has
all these unique ways of dealing with tech. Indians are still much
more comfortable with cash than they are with
digital payments. Indians prefer dual Sim phones
over a single Sim phones because they like to switch
between service providers. Indians prefer prepaid
cellular contracts instead of postpaid because
they don’t trust large companies to give them good service. Not only that, large
companies don’t trust them to pay up on time so
they prefer prepaid options as well. So for all of those
reasons, India is just a unique market
and a very large market that I think is going
to evolve and change in its own very special ways. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: And my
last question before we open it up for Q&A,
so given that, given how unique India is and the
realities that we’ve unpacked here so far, let’s say,
hypothetically, you are a product manager
overseeing Android or you’re in charge of
building out products for the next billion
users in India, what are some of the things
that you’d keep in mind or that you would feel
are considerations that would be front and
center in how you approached rolling out those products
and the sorts of products that you built? RAVI AGRAWAL: That’s
a great question. I’m sure Google is doing
all of these things already. If I was a product
manager, I would bring on board people like
Sarvesh and Phoolwati. I would bring on board
people who are not literate, people who have never used
any technology before, and see what kinds of
problems they’re encountering. The English market in India
is already very well served. It’s the Indian
language market– Hindi, Bengali, Tamil,
Telugu, so on and so forth that is still underserved. And I would explore
how those users engage with the internet,
what they need, what they’re struggling with,
and then links to all of that, I would really focus on digital
literacy and media literacy. I think there is– with the great power that
companies like Google have in places like India
comes a responsibility, I believe, to help
people navigate things that could
do immense good but can do immense harm as well. And so stepping in where the
state has failed to help people understand to learn how
to engage with news, to learn what is right,
what is wrong, to verify, to build that inner sense
of that aptitude of being able to gauge what is
real and what is fake. That will be one of the great
challenges for Indian society. And if I was able to do
that as a product manager, I think that’s one
of the things I would spend a lot of
time thinking about. And I think whoever is able to
fix that in the private sector would have done an immense,
immense service to a place like India because India
doesn’t have to repeat the mistakes of the West. India’s path could be
different through technology. And we all talk about
the word “leapfrog.” And India will
leapfrog in many ways. It will leapfrog credit cards. It will leapfrog so
many different things that the West has
evolved through. But leapfrog isn’t
necessarily a good thing. You can leapfrog to
a bad place as well. That’s where, I think,
the private sector can really help with and sort of
speed up that learning process and not assume that that
learning process is already in place. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: So we’ll open
it up for audience questions. There are two mics, just
one there and one there. Folks will start queuing up. AUDIENCE: First of
all, thank you– very, very interesting talk. I think throughout this talk,
mostly or even completely, we’ve contrasted India with the
West, with the United States, specifically. And there are some ways where
we share similar problems. One obvious thing
that we did talk about was sexual content online. I think even in
the United States, the availability of
problematic content online far outpaces the availability
of good sexual education in most of this country,
just as an example. So I am wondering
what lessons have you learned from your
exploration of how India got connected that might
apply to the United States as well? RAVI AGRAWAL: Wow, so
the other way around. Wow, that’s a great question. I think because India has
discovered all of these things later, it is sort of learning
from the West’s mistakes as it goes along. But in terms of lessons from
India, one takeaway, I think, would be that cultures
use technology in ways that are very unique to them. And I think, especially
for investors here, you know, anyone who’s dealing
with products that are global, I think it’s very
important to see each culture, each
community, each country as having very unique ways
of dealing with technology. And so for example, when
I was talking about cash, India’s what I like to call
a very low trust society. And that’s because Indians
almost always just assume that anything that could
go wrong in the system will go wrong. Indians don’t show up
for meetings on time because they don’t
expect the other person to show up on time. Indians like to pay
for things in cash because they think
something could go wrong with a credit card. So cash on delivery is a
very big thing in India. Amazon’s a big competitor
in India, Flipkart, began as a company that was
delivering books to people, and then those customers
would pay for it in cash at their doorsteps. And the reason why
I’m explaining this as a lesson for America
is that each market will develop in its
own way and will have its own sort of unique
relationship with how technology develops and
how it should be used. That said, I wish
I could tell you that India, for all of its
great connections with faith and religion– you
know, India was the birthplace for religions. It was the birthplace of yoga. I wish I could tell you
that Indians have a better relationship with screens. And they don’t. As a screen addiction is a
problem here in the West, it is becoming so in India. And so in that sense, India
really has no lessons to offer. And the solution to that problem
will have to be a global one. AUDIENCE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: Hi, Ravi, thanks
for joining us and sharing your thoughts. I wanted you to go a
little bit more into– that you briefly mentioned
regulation and regulation of technology and the foreign
was this Indian company dynamic. And I’ve seen many
stories recently about the government
wanting to change how things are and the status
quo, things like localization and stuff like that. So I just wanted to
hear your thoughts on how things look right
now and what you think will happen in the future? Like, is India going
to become another China in terms of foreign
companies not being able to play on the same level? RAVI AGRAWAL: I
mean, I don’t think India can become
another China, and I don’t think even the
government wants to do that. China is just such a different
market to begin with. Their internet is almost
like one language. They have apps that
are, as you all know, an entire ecosystem
in and of itself. India’s evolution with the
internet has been so different. Number one, India has more than
200 million English language users. Right from the start, Western
companies were allowed in and became the leaders
of the Indian internet, Google being first among them,
but also Amazon, and Uber, and so many other companies
that made it big in India quite early. I think what you’re
seeing now more recently in terms of regulation
is India and this government’s reaction to Western
companies having such a large slice of the pie. And so for example, in
the e-commerce space, you know if the Indian
government is restricting the amount that
Western companies can own in a company or
the amount of business that they can do
in a certain space, I think they’re doing that
primarily just to protect local companies from being
able to survive and stay in the game. I don’t think it will ever rise
to the levels of either China or even the protectionism that
we saw in India in the ’80s. I think one of the things
you must see about India is that every politician,
every regulator looks to 1991 as the year in
which the Indian economy really opened up and benefited
from opening up. I just cannot see India
going back on that. I cannot see even this
government stepping back on that front. I think they realize
that opening up is where their strength lies. I think they also realize
that the market isn’t static. It’s growing so
fast that there’s enough space for everyone. AUDIENCE: Thanks for being here. I remain largely
ignorant of India short of some stories
from [INAUDIBLE] about his personal
travels before this talk. And I’m very interested in–
you mentioned the way that India will change technology. Is there infrastructure in place
for either developers in India or phone makers in India to
really learn at scale how to build better
technology for those that are often
overlooked in the West– poor people, beyond just
the cost of phone and sort of reducing access to
entry, actually building technology that serves at the
app level or one layer further, some of those more rural and
often separated populations? RAVI AGRAWAL: Yeah, there is. That’s a great question. I think most of it is led
by the private sector again. So coming back to education,
I talk about an Indian company in my chapter on education. It’s called EkStep,
which means one step. And they have
developed, essentially– they like to think of
themselves as, for example, the Uber of primary
education, where they’ve created a platform where
other developers can jump in and create multilingual
content for primary schoolers or primary school teachers to be
able to use for their students. And it really is a great example
of Indian tech developers using their technologies. And this was
inspired by Aadhaar. So it’s sort of an
OpenStack kind of system that allows other companies to
create other things around it. Think of Aadhaar
itself, the biometric ID system, which is Indian. It’s indigenous. It’s Indian run,
Indian engineers. And this was the
government’s initiative, but it was led by a private
sector techie, Nandan Nilekani, for those of you
who don’t know him, who found co-founded Infosys– but again, the basic
logic being that you can harness Indian
strengths and Indian workers to create these open platform
systems that could then plug into other aspects. It could plug into
the banking sector. It can plug-in to the
government subsidy schemes and so on and so forth. So I think that space is
where most of the innovation is taking place, more than
any other space, I would say. You know, if you look at
other spaces like search, or messaging, I would
argue that the most innovation is taking place in
the West or maybe in China. And India’s development on
that front is more derivative. AUDIENCE: My question was
more towards the future. So if you look at
India right now, as the country is still
not fully industrialized. A large fraction
of the population is living in rural villages. [INAUDIBLE] talking about
it in the next decade or two how, say, artificial
intelligence will take your jobs. And I also assumed
that maybe instead of driving
auto-rickshaw could be as profitable as a self-driving
car for a company that wants to make it. So do you have any
thoughts about how a country like India that is so
behind in terms of technology and in terms of
industrialization would be affected, say,
20 years down the line. RAVI AGRAWAL: Yeah,
that’s a great question. And I try to deal with this
a little bit in the book. So there are two
things going on. On the one hand, the
rise of smartphones will lead in the
immediate future, I think, to immense
job creation. So if you think of the
e-commerce market, which is going to grow leaps
and bounds in India, the kinds of jobs
that you create with the e-commerce
market are ideally suited to the Indian
labor profile. So you’ve got delivery jobs. You’ve got packing
jobs, warehousing jobs. Those are exactly
the kinds of jobs that rural Indian men mostly
are exactly primed for. They don’t need more education. Those are the kinds of
jobs they’re looking for. They’re relatively well-paid
for what they’re looking for. So there are enough
studies out there that show that
those kinds of jobs will create tens
of millions of jobs over the next 10, 15 years. That’s sort of the
shorter-term perspective. And then there are
many other stories of– like, there’s an Indian
version of LinkedIn for blue-collar workers. It’s called “BabaJob,” which
is then bought over by Quikr. And basically, it
sort of connects people who are seeking
a certain type of job to that particular
type of employer. You know, if you’re a Domino’s
Pizza in India, for example, you are looking
for a delivery man, the standards for selecting a
delivery man are pretty low. Like, if you show up
for the job interview, you’re going to get the job. So the real challenge there
is connecting the secret to the employer. And technology will fix
a lot of those issues. So in the short term, I think
there’s an immense benefit. The longer term is where
the troubles come around as these giant
warehouses get automated, as deliveries get automated,
as cars get automated. The thing is, it’s
hard for me to imagine those things happening in
India the way I can imagine them happening in the West. See, it’s one thing to
imagine a drone delivering a package to this giant
house in Pasadena, where it just drops it off
in the garden, delivery done. But can you imagine the
same drone delivering the same product to
a slum in Mumbai, where you’re trying to
hover over this tiny shack, and there are, like, 200
children playing around there, and then one of them
grabs the package, someone else grabs the drone. That’s the end of the
model right there. It’s hard also to
imagine you know the algorithm that would work
for automated driving in India. I used to drive in India. And you’re navigating
not just roads and cars, but you’re navigating people,
and cows, and other animals. And it’s hard to imagine
automation really working in these tiny,
narrow lanes, where it takes immense ingenuity
to scream, and shout, and corral support for
your car to get out. So on the one hand, I think
when these things eventually get automated in India, we
will see immense job losses. I just– I can’t bring myself
around to seeing that moment. I can’t imagine it. I don’t know if you
guys can at Google, but India’s a very
different market. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: Yeah, and
it speaks to our responsibility to kind of be thoughtful about
some of those consequences before they really manifest. Our lost audience question. AUDIENCE: Hey,
thanks for coming. I have a question. You mentioned a couple of times
about the biometric ID system, but you also mentioned that
India is a low-trust society. Has there been any
worry or discussion about adopting some of what the
Chinese government is doing, using the biometric system? RAVI AGRAWAL: There has been. I think the debate has
been restricted mostly to more elite policy
circles amongst journalists and civil society. And I don’t imagine that, out
of the 1.2 billion people who’ve signed up– I would imagine the vast
majority haven’t really thought too much about privacy. And you have to think, again,
of where they’re coming from. Most have come
from a place where they had no form of ID–
no driver’s license, certainly no passport, no way
of getting access to government subsidies or products. So this was a big
leap, and it was a useful leap for many people. And despite being a
low-trust society, it’s very telling that
they were able to invest so much trust in the government
in the hope of something better. And that speaks to the potential
for technology in India and how much hope people have
for what technology could do and how it could
better their lives. But as I was saying
earlier, there are many, many things
that could go wrong. And that is a debate
that needs to be had. It is something
that the government needs to be more open about. There certainly have
been massive leaks. And fessing up to them nice
and early and being transparent would serve the government well. I mean, everything has leaks. It’s owning up to
them and dealing with them that eventually will
win people’s trust, I think. So that’s a longer
journey for India. Sorry, go ahead. AUDIENCE: Yeah, so
just to clarify, so overall, it’s been very
beneficial, and the risks are– like, what are the more
immediate risks if not– RAVI AGRAWAL: For Aadhaar? AUDIENCE: Yeah. RAVI AGRAWAL: I think
the immediate risks are A, large-scale leaks;
B, the information from those leaks being
harnessed in ways that are particularly insidious. So it could be voter fraud. It could be impersonation. It could be opening
fake accounts. There’s a range
of things that one could see happening based
on leaked biometric IDs. All of that said, one
advantage of this system is that A, it is a
government controlling it, not a company; and B, it
is data that is fairly dumb. I mean, it is your
ID, but it doesn’t have your browsing history. It doesn’t have
your preferences. It’s hard to sell that
to an ad firm and see– it’s not of immense value
to someone else in the way that other leaks that we’ve seen
from other companies could be– Facebook’s leaks,
for example, through came Cambridge Analytica. So in that sense, I think
the potential for Aadhaar to be dangerous is less
so than other leaks that we now know about
from the private sector. All of that said, one
shouldn’t dismiss what could go wrong with Aadhaar. And I think, again,
it’s a conversation that needs to be had more openly
and robustly in India. ARUN VENKATARAMAN: Thank
you all for being here. RAVI AGRAWAL: Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE]

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