No Place for Aam Janta: Why You Need to Stop Believing Tech Reviews

Technology

No Place for Aam Janta: Why You Need to Stop Believing Tech Reviews

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

used to be a consumer tech reporter. And I have the frequent flyer miles to prove it. A routine part of my workweek involved flying halfway across the country to attend press conferences about some shiny new gadget, eating more than I needed for lunch, picking up a “review unit” of said shiny gadget, and returning home by the evening flight.

The flights were funded, the lunch was free, and so were the gadgets. All paid for by the company launching the device, in the hope that it might reflect positively on the report I’d write. Now consider the cost of filling a reasonably large room with journalists like me, and it becomes obvious that there’s something wrong with the way consumer technology is written about in India.

Almost every article about consumer tech – whether it is a reported piece about the launch of a new phone or a review of a laptop or a comparison of the best cameras available in the market – can be traced back to a prompt from a public relations agency.

To put it bluntly, consumer tech journalism in this country, for the most part, is a glorified messenger service. The content, often reduced to a constant barrage of launch announcements, is sourced largely from the companies making the products. How are you then equipped to analyse and critique a device?

Don’t believe what we write, and don’t buy what we tell you to. And no, you don’t need a smartphone you can unlock with a blink of an eye.

Moreover, the news cycle of a tech publication is heavily dependent on the PR machinery. And it knows no fury like a PR agenda scorned. But even though a few publications are immune to the dark arts of PRgiri – which means they get invited to the next launch despite a bad review – the field of view is restricted. Tech content firms are still writing about what is put in front of them by the hype machine. There are no undercover investigations, no “off-the-record conversations”.

The fallout of creating this near-perfect consumer tech bubble in a country that can’t afford to live beyond its means, is that the focus then remains inexplicably on high-end tech. As a result the industry-wide move toward higher-definition displays and faster processors in smartphones, is assumed to be a good thing.

But nobody stops to ask the pertinent questions: Whether the average Indian consumer might be served better by longer battery life, which these advancements sacrifice. Or if smartwatches, commonly used to transmit notifications from your phone to a smaller display, are of any use here? Or why bother launching a 4K TV in a country where most of the content available isn’t even in HD yet?

The most egregious example of this phenomenon – the disconnect with consumer needs – is the incredible amount of time and energy publications spend every year preaching the quasi-religious sermons delivered at the Church of Steve Jobs. Despite Apple’s annual reiteration of the iPhone’s hallowed status, the truth is that the majority of smartphones available today are no different from each other. There have been no major technological breakthroughs since the industry standardised the rectangular bar with a full touchscreen and two cameras. So the latest and greatest iPhone, the XS, which costs about a lakh, isn’t fundamentally very different from the Xiaomi Redmi 5, which is a good 90,000 bucks cheaper.

To really understand the incredible sameness of today’s mobile devices, cast your mind back to a decade ago – to the Wild West era of the industry. Back then a phone could be a candybar, a slider, or a flipper; it could have a qwerty keyboard, a stylus. Every new phone then boasted of a different set of features. That era of experimentation is long gone. What we are left with is an age of incremental upgrades, with companies relying on their marketing strategies to drive sales, and having pliable publications is a key part of this strategy.

A vast majority of consumer tech today, is designed and built with the First World in mind. India is merely an afterthought, albeit a lucrative one. And the subjugation of Indian tech journalism to the PR lords means that instead of focusing on building products that would be useful to the aam aadmi, companies simply use publications as an extension of their advertising strategy, luring consumers to purchase stuff they don’t really need at prices they can’t really afford. We are bombarded with so much information about these devices from so many sources that our minds are eventually coerced into accepting that having a phone with a face recognition technology is the new normal. And before you know it, we’re trying to pull off the American accent so that Siri can understand us.

Nothing short of a total reconfiguration of the news cycles of technology publications will fix this systemic issue. That’s extremely unlikely because the rot in consumer tech journalism is not isolated. It is merely a symptom of the far-reaching malaise of mutual back-scratching that afflicts business journalism at large.

Where does that leave the unsuspecting aam janta? As a former tech reporter, my advice would be to be extremely suspicious of tech reporting. Don’t believe what we write, and don’t buy what we tell you to. And no, you don’t need a smartphone you can unlock with a blink of an eye.

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