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Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam

  • David Arnold (a1) and Erich DeWald (a2)

In recent years, discussion of technology in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonial world has moved away from earlier insistence on the centrality of imperial agency and the instrumentality of empire's technological “tools” of conquest and exploitation. There has been a broad shift from diffusionist preoccupations with a one-way traffic in “technology transfers” that privileged Euro-American innovation and entrepreneurship, to consideration of the “social life of things” within the colony. This has corresponded with a move away from understanding technology through European representations of machines as the measure of the imperial self and colonized other, to rethinking technology's role in reconfiguring social hierarchies and cultural practices in colonized or semi-colonized non-Western societies. Without ignoring empire's importance in facilitating change or restricting the socio-economic parameters within which innovative technologies might operate, there has been a growing tendency to identify colonialism as a conduit for technological modernity rather than its primary embodiment. The colony is understood as a locally constituted, rather than merely imperially derivative, site for engagement with techno-modernity and its discontents. Scholars now commonly eschew emphasis on the implanting of “big technologies” such as railroads, telegraphs, steamships, modern weaponry, major irrigation works, and electrification systems (capital-intensive, often state-managed technologies that figured proudly in the rhetoric of imperial achievement), in favor of the ways in which these were understood, assimilated, and utilized by local agency. There has also been growing interest in small-scale, “everyday technologies,” from the sewing machine, wristwatch, and radio, to the typewriter, camera, and bicycle. Colonial regimes were unable to monopolize or disinclined to control these, and they passed with relative ease into the work-regimes, recreational activities, social life, and cultural aspirations of colonized and postcolonial populations.

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Andrew Godley , “The Global Diffusion of the Sewing Machine, 1850–1914,” Research in Economic History 20 (2001): 145

John Krige , ed., “Choosing Big Technologies”, special issue of History and Technology 9, 14 (1992)

Nancy Rose Hunt , A Colonial Lexicon of Birth Ritual, Medicalization and Mobility in the Congo (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999)

John Rosselli , “The Self-Image of Effeteness: Physical Education and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Bengal,” Past & Present 86 (1980): 121–48

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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