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 or other, eating more than I strictly needed to for lunch, picking up a ‘review unit’ of said shiny gadget, and returning home by the evening flight.
The flights were free, the lunch was free, and so was the gadget. All paid for by the company launching the gadget, through a PR agency, in the hope that it might reflect positively on the article I would write about said gadget. 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 covered in this country.
Almost every article about consumer tech — whether it is a news 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 very bluntly, consumer tech journalism in this country is, for the most part, a glorified messenger service for the constant barrage of launches and announcements made by companies.
And with the content sourced largely from the very companies that the publications are meant to be analysing and critiquing, punches inevitably tend to get pulled to ensure that the invite to the next event doesn’t. After all, the news cycle of a tech publication knows no other fury like a PR agenda scorned.
There are a few outlets that have the clout to piss on the proverbial parade expected by the PR agency — if the article demands it — and still get invited back for the next event. Luckily for me, my employer was among them. But even within this select group of publications immune to the dark arts of PRgiri, the field of view is severely restricted. They are, for the most part, still only writing about what is put in front of them by the hype machine.
The fallout of this approach to consumer tech is that there is an inexplicable focus on high-end tech in a country that is largely poor and obsessed with value for money. This means that a shift in tech, such as the industry-wide move towards higher-definition displays and faster processors in smartphones is implicitly assumed to be a good thing because, well, all the press releases sounded really happy about it. Nobody stops to ask whether the average Indian consumer might be better served by longer battery life, which these advancements sacrifice. Or whether there is any point to the existence of smartwatches whose most common use-case is to transmit notifications from your phone to a smaller display. Or why anybody would bother launching a 4K TV in a country where the vast majority of the content available isn’t even in HD yet.
The most egregious example of this phenomenon is the incredible amounts 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 released today are almost exactly the same. There have been no major technological breakthroughs since the industry standardised around the rectangular bar with a full touchscreen and two cameras. So the latest and greatest iPhone, the XS, which costs about a lakh INR, isn’t fundamentally very different from the Xiaomi Redmi 5, which is a full 90k cheaper.
To really appreciate the incredible sameness of today’s mobile devices, cast your mind back a decade 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; it could be small, big, tall, wide, black and white, or full colour. They all had vastly different feature sets and unique strengths and weaknesses. That era of experimentation is over. What we are left with is an age of incremental upgrades, with companies increasingly reliant on marketing to make the difference that drives sales. And having pliable publications is key to this strategy.
The vast majority of consumer tech is designed and built with the first world in mind. India is merely an afterthought, albeit a lucrative one. And the subjugation of Indian consumer tech journalism to the PR agenda means that instead of focusing on building products that would actually be useful to Indians, companies can simply use publications as an extension of their advertising strategy to get consumers to aspire to crap they don’t really need at prices they probably can’t afford.
We are bombarded with so much information about these devices from so many sources that we our minds are eventually forced to accept that they are the ‘new normal’. And before you know it, we’re trying to imitate the American accent just 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 sycophancy and 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.
– – –
A version of this article was published by Arre.