Polarity and Power in Colonial Discourse


In Networks of Power (1993),  using the example of electric power systems introduced during World War I, the late Thomas P. Hughes (1923-3014) argues that war drove technological development in the United States, Britain, and Germany by removing political and cultural obstacles prerequisite for technological change.  If this statement is true, what does this tell us about the pace of development in colonies of these metropoles?

War is a powerful prerequisite for technological momentum. Assuming all other things being equal, non-aggressive or non-agressed entities would experience a lack of technological development because they had not sufficiently removed cultural barriers to technological innovation that the emergency of war so often provide for Western societies.

The roles of international activists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois included an important but often understated indictment of the technological imperative. Black anti-colonial challenges to imperial ventures (driven by technological competition) were perceived as contrary to progress because they exposed inconsistencies in the convoluted development of ideas of racial superiority, economic exploitation, and technological hegemony.  To stand in defense of the underdeveloped nations of the world, even on the premise of cultural ideals of racial equality and self-determinism, was to hold back the progress of the developed nations in the march of history throughout the world. Du Bois and Robeson both provide critical examples of why this rationale was problematic but also anti-democratic. New works by scholars like Mhoze Chikowero (2007) revisit and reinterpret theoretical frameworks echoed in Du Bois, Padmore, Nzikiwie and Rodney in specific regional contexts.  Additionally, Ronen Shamir’s Current Flow: The Electrification of Palestine (2013) examines how electrification (re)produced economic, social, and political inequalities among Jews and Arabs along such lines in Palestine.  Electrification is not only about the physical infrastructure of power supply but is also about power relations in the ability of technological change to transform culture, landscapes, and interactions between people. More pointedly, Shamir argues electrification can and does “make politics” when one dominant group uses “power” (pun intended) to further consolidate their control (p.5).

Paradoxically, it was following World War II that the employment of new technology and communications developed a international coalition of international black anti-colonial discourse.  Penny M. Von Eschen discusses such developments in her work, Race Against Empire. Traditionally we think of this work as exclusive to political developments but read through technological lenses we can see how anti-colonial projects were framing the discourse of modernization and the hegemony of the assumed objectivity of technological superiority (p.152,157-8).