I recently flew to Mumbai after three years, the longest I’ve ever been away. I expected the instant familiarity of home — not this time. I noticed the screens straightaway — thousands of people on smartphones, furiously scrolling, posting and streaming.
The last time I was back, mobile data were still prohibitively expensive, so calls and SMS were the primary ways to communicate. After the billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani launched his Jio data plan in 2016, slashing prices for mobile internet connections, and Chinese smartphone makers flooded the market with cheap devices, more than 100m people went online across the country.
My taxi driver had been WhatsApping me from the moment I landed. Unlike every previous time I’ve arrived at Mumbai airport, we found each other almost instantly, without a phone call. On the way to the hotel, he told us he only drove this car part-time — otherwise he worked for Uber and its Indian equivalent, Ola. His erratic driving, however, reassured me that nothing has changed in Mumbai when it comes to disobeying the traffic rules.
I’ve visited the city regularly since I left it over a decade ago. But the seismic change brought by people going online on their phones had never been more apparent. With its crumbling Victorian buildings, Mumbai may not be the picture of a futuristic metropolis — but it is becoming one. I felt like a digital time traveller emerging into the future.
I had come to Mumbai to speak at the TedX Gateway conference about the threat of commercial biometric data collection. The other speakers shared intriguing insights into the mind of India. A senior police officer told me how viral WhatsApp messages spreading fake news had led to rioting and violence among local youth. A healthcare entrepreneur explained how he was using artificial intelligence to improve tuberculosis diagnoses. A farmer described his organic collective, which encourages farmers to take up mechanised farming over traditional manual practices.
The event was in a globe-shaped hulk of a theatre that housed more than 6,000 people, and resounded with homegrown success stories. Signs of India’s resurgent tech sector were visible across the city — from the giant Reliance Jio billboards, advertising the meteoric mobile telecoms network that delivers more data than any other mobile network in the world, to the bright orange uniforms of delivery people from foods start-up Swiggy, biking takeaways across the city.
But the most prolific app I noticed on my visit was WhatsApp. It is used by more than 200m people in India. On my trip I used it to communicate with restaurants, drivers, a carpetwallah, a home baker, and a paediatrician, among a host of others. With its imminent launch of payments across the country, WhatsApp will allow people to text money to each other and to businesses from beauticians to barbers.
Strikingly, however, in my conversations I sensed no admiration for western technology companies. In fact, I detected a decidedly anti-Silicon Valley sentiment — something I rarely hear from entrepreneurs in Europe, where start-ups tend to measure the size of their ambition in terms of Silicon Valley.
Facebook in particular has hit a raw nerve with the Indian public, ever since the spectacular failure of its limited internet programme, Free Basics, in 2016. Mark Zuckerberg’s sweeping plan to offer free internet access to rural Indians was stymied by the government, when citizens and activists protested that Free Basics was a censored version of the open web, walled off by Facebook. Many rejected it as a patronising attempt to increase Facebook’s own reach in India, rather than to help bring people online.
Facebook, of course, owns WhatsApp. One small business owner I spoke to seemed concerned that her WhatsApp messages were being processed on Facebook servers.
“People aren’t sure how safe that is,” she said. Even my hairdresser was fed up; she told me she never used Facebook any more, especially after she heard about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “I never really trusted them,” she said, shaking her head sadly.
The moment feels ripe for India’s internet economy to shake off the stranglehold of foreign tech giants, and start sowing the seeds of their own local start-up ideas. Perhaps the time for the emergence of India’s own Google or Facebook really is now?
Back home in London, January has brought the demise of my smartphone. It was a few years old and just turned itself off, forcing me to buy a new model. I apparently fall squarely into the significant part of the population that doesn’t bother with upgrading their phones until they are left with no choice. The enforced clean slate gave me a chance to review my digital hygiene. All year, I’d been reading and writing about free apps trading in our data, with alarming consequences — from who is given a loan to who wins an election. I knew better than most that technology companies can be careless, even reckless, with our information.
I started by sweeping up the cobwebs of my least-used apps, then purged the ones that were mere distractions — video streaming and games, for example. But the social media apps seem impossible to live without. In the past I’ve tried to shed them, but end up reinstalling them in moments of weakness. So far, the mindless tranquility that comes from scrolling feeds of artfully photographed homes and holidays apparently outweighs any harms. But perhaps, like my Indian compatriots, this will be the year I look homeward when I next download an app.
Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European technology correspondent
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