Remarks on Power Over Peoples

Daniel Headrick’s Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism 1400 to the Present fits into the author’s broader explorations on the relationship between technology, social change, and state power as explored in Tools of Empire (1981), Tentacles of Progress (1988), and The Invisible Weapon (1991). Collectively, these works help us to better understand the ways technology shapes state power and impacts the relationship between technocratic elites and those that they seek to subdue.

In this work, Headrick approaches the subject of how the power of technology over environment translates into Western efforts to expand and subjugate populations lacking the tools to fend off these incursions. Relying largely on themes characteristic of the anti-deterministic camp, Headrick makes a strong case against viewing technology as the sole reason for Western power over colonial subjects. In summary, Headrick argues that technological mastery translates into control over environment–and by extension people–who resisted Western hegemony using innovated, borrowed, and emulated technological responses.

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Using a narrative approach, Headrick is responding to hubris regarding the technological achievement of the ‘West over the rest’. He urges the reader not to make the conclusion that all technological showdowns were predetermined in the West’s favor but rather he engages several patterns that challenge popular misconceptions about the historical role of technology.

First, he counters how readers tend to take a presentist approach to Western technological superiority, forgetting that technological advances in the present are a relatively recent phenomenon (mid-fifteenth century) in the long narrative of human history. Secondly, he urges us to consider that technologies are rarely evenly distributed but that their asymmetrical accumulation yield advantages of power over environment and by extension people. These powers are compounded by time and become important historical force because they tend to compel the extension of power and further development of new technologies. However, in Headrick’s assessment, technological advancement can present the illusion of self-fulfilling prophecies of cultural, ethnic, and or racial superiority damning those blessed with technological might to the path of eternal escalation. Lastly, he urges us to consider a connection between Western arrogance (relying on the work of Michael Adas) in the search for technological advantage and motives for imperialism.

This work relies largely on existing secondary sources to support these claims. Periodically there are important vignettes, that taken in the context of the original writer do not present the same perspective as when intertwined in Headrick’s narrative. For example, the first two chapters are largely reassessments of previously existing work on the role of naval exploration and navigation in Western imperialism. These chapters present no new factual information per se but they do create a new narrative that challenges what many have thought about as a simple explanation for European mastery of the seas. They get the reader to consider the possibilities of alternative futures based on the presence of advanced navigation technologies in many nations who are considered technologically irrelevant today.  Importantly, he takes up the complex issue of why European navigational technologies translated into the extension of state power over foreign lands and people.  For Headrick, Western Imperialism is not a matter of destiny but something more complex.

Towards the middle and end of the book, Headrick picks up themes addressing how Western nations often came to equate technological superiority with cultural superiority. Importantly, he illustrates how these views can be misleading as technology does not emerge in a vacuum but in a shared process of innovation. He demonstrates how people who were thought to be technologically and culturally inferior were often quite adept at using new technologies to thwart their more technologically advanced adversaries. For example, in Chapter 3 and 4, Headrick’s discussion of the uses of horses as a military technology against Native Americans and the complete failure of horses in colonial projects in Africa are two examples that contradict popular belief.

His interpretations of technology are supported by the evidence used but because the sources tend to be secondary sources based on primary state accounts, we tend to see very little from the perspective of those who were the victims of Western technology. For example, in addressing the problem of a self-perpetuating cycle of arrogance and conquest, Headrick urges us to consider the British invasion of Afghanistan by Lord Auckland. He narrates how the failed attempt to hold Kabul was not only a question of incompetence on the side of the British but an example of how technological might is not generally transferable to different environmental contexts and particularly how ineffective it is in asymmetrical warfare. We see brief profiles of the technologically-besieged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

We see brief profiles of the seiged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

We see brief profiles of the seiged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

Before we are too critical of this shortcoming, Headrick’s selection of events and perspectives can be better understood by examining the kinds of sources he employed. As previously mentioned, the most important sources to his argument are established secondary accounts of primary sources that are definitely skewed toward the powerful. However, Power Over Peoples is quite effective at examining these perspectives in light of a broader history to pull out paradoxes that complicate previous interpretations if taken at face value. Headrick is quite adept at this process, making the sources consulted adequate for this study.

This work largely challenges the conventional wisdom of many political scientists and technocrats who seek the salvation of humanity through technological superiority alone. Power Over Peoples is a warning against Western pride in technological might, implying that those who seek to extend their power through technological advantage alone may witness their own tools become useless to master the new environment those tools have created.

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