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.


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.

Relationship Between Race and Technology: How Society Uses You (Part 1)

At the risk of oversimplification: race is how society defines and reacts to you; ethnicity is how you define and react to others most like yourself. During the last six years there has been a lot of reaction and little time to reflect on what this means for our emerging ideas of race and culture.

Today it is very popular to argue that race is irrelevant and it has become equally fashionable to embrace one’s ethnicity while denying one’s whiteness. I think both of these practices are quite dangerous and counterproductive for variety of reasons. Largely, they underscore a widespread denial of the ongoing impact of race in American society and its relevance to every major question of social and economic justice today. I argue that there are major differences between race and ethnicity that we really ought to think more carefully about because they affect us in a variety of important ways.

One of the reasons this must be is there is no biological or genetic rationale for racial identity. Race is a result of how populations have historically and socially constructed delimiters based on perceived physical and cultural assumptions. Whether these differences are accurate or not, as dominant perceptions they reflect how a society is structured.

People of different races often share the same cultural traditions, homeland, and language but have very different normative assumptions, experiences, and expectations. So for example, if you take two groups of people who occupy the same Caribbean island, formally known as Hispaniola– today we refer to it as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The racial concepts at play in this island are often imported to the United States by Latino immigrants who find that their understanding of who they perceive themselves to be is superseded by how people assign meaning to them. We see this played out between Latinos but more pointedly in the discussions following President Obama’s executive order on immigration

Another reason this question is important is because ethnicity is largely how people culturally orient themselves in a society. Whereas race is determined mostly from the outside to the inside, ethnicity reflects how communities identify themselves from the inside to the outside.

Lastly, we should consider this carefully because ethnic and racial designations often do overlap so these designations can become quite complex. In someways it can be analogous to they way society views the relationship between gender and sexuality. Gender (race) is how society assigns meaning to you while sexuality (ethnicity) is more about how you express your own identity.

This is important because technology to some great extent is an amalgamation of both race and ethnicity. It is how society uses you and how you use yourself.  Although human beings create technology (like race) we lack control over how it is used and develops.  Although we all use technology on some scale, we interpret our experiences differently via the tools we employ. One some scale, technology is an extrinsic categorical tool like race but also intrinsically significant like ethnicity.

Instead of accepting technologies as extensions of human control of the environment or tools, I prefer to think of technology equally as a product and byproduct of human experiences. The future of the United States (and the world) depends to a degree on what extent the history of race is understood and integrated into our consciousness but it is also how we perceive our role and complicity in that process.

After all, race is a form of technology. It is using us as we use it.

What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)

What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)

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Norman Kelly’s What Technology Wants (2010) argues that technology is falsely understood as physical outgrowth of human ingenuity.  Instead, says Kelly, technology is a living force that predates human innovation and is somewhat of a cosmic sibling also spawned from life.  For Kelly, the technium (the term he uses to describe technology’s autonomous attributes) is capable of not only fulfilling human desires but also to desiderate on its own terms.

I took liberty here to push Kelly’s line of reasoning into a realm of thought regarding exploitation that some would find absurd.  Nonetheless, if the technium sent an email to oppressed people, what would it say?

Dear Species So Enthralled with Selfies That You Are Willing to Destroy Thousands of Lives to Procure Precious Metals and Millions More Through Narcissism and Snark:

  1. The technium wants oppressed people to understand that I prey on resources; I will aid in ‘progress’ as you call it but by my nature I must exploit the weaker. This is not personal though you may believe so.  The technium needs resources to expand and simply follows “the path of least resistance” as you would put it.  The rationale is a bit more complex but this simple heuristic will do.  It’s not about you.  It’s about me and my cronies.
  2. The technium wants oppressed people to understand that although it is used by the powerful, it also uses the powerful. The powerful claim that their particular genius and their scientific superiority is why they command wealth.  This falsity is accepted as truth by both the strong and the weak.  You should understand that the sole basis of power is consent.  Is this not evidenced in how your cultures so willingly accept prevailing doctrines of wealth?  In how you so willingly adopt every new innovation I deliver while accepting the loss of your own autonomy, resources, and sense of humanity in the process?  The technium does not think of money as wealth but rather the ability to survive, to evolve, and to expand.  While most humans, particularly the powerful, have signified money alone as a measure of these traits, technology wants more of the following: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. (270)  Both the oppressed and the powerful base their faith in monetary instruments to achieve freedom.  However, all living things that use me–including human beings–are my currency because they consent to allow my influence to reign.  In this way, you can think of your powerful as larger denominations ($100) that I use to purchase my will as they help me to constitute the masses of lesser units ($1s, $5s, $10s) and the billions of pennies.  Neither powerful nor weak have any inherent value to me beyond the ability for coordinate my will–to be my tools even as they use me.
  3. The technium wants oppressed people to listen to the insight of Max More’s  philosophy but without abandoning the psycho-social inquiries of W.E.B. Du Bois.  As Amilcar Cabral wrote: “…however fine and attractive the reality of others may be — can only be transformed by detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices.”

P.S. Stop wasting so much time on twitter.


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).

Is Socioeconomic Inequality a Practical Concern?


We have defined technology as many things, perhaps most generally as: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Is socioeconomic inequality a practical purpose?  If so, why in fact have generations of our brightest engineers failed so marvelously to eliminate the scourge of social injustice and to vanquish racial prejudice?

How one answers this question depends on how one defines technology and its purpose but also how one defines the evolution of human history. If human history is perceived as linear and progressive, as technologists often assume, it is natural to understand the role of technology as factoring into greater advancement of human ideals.  However, if one sees change over time as erratic, irrational, and intractable, one would see technology much more as an expression of human angst than a vehicle of humanity’s salvation.

Regardless of one’s view, technologists have often failed to account for how technology can equally be a force that generates disparate outcomes and reifies existing social hierarchies.  It appears that for every disruptive technology, there are three hegemonic innovations.  Humankind is much more a captive of convention than an engine of revolution.

These tendencies beg the question of whether technology is universally practical at all.  The uses to which the powerful employ innovation are often contrary to the most practical and rudimentary of human needs.  Technological innovation defines practical by vicariously transforming the demands of the powerful to overshadow the longings of the weak.  In education and application, technology often urges us to redefine not only what is possible but also what is meaningful.