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Fetishised Objects and Humanised Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology Author(s): Bryan Pfaffenberger Source: Man, New Series,

Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 236-252 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Stable URL: Accessed: 19/09/2010 23:29
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University ofVirginia oftechnology becomes when itstacit areunpacked. The concept useful only preconceptions in Western Linked withtheterm aretwo polesof mythic discourse thinking: technological determinism andtechnological somnambulism. The former depicts technology as thecauseof a causal socialformations; thelatter denies link. Both, however, disguise thesocialchoices and is that inanytechnological socialrelations figure system. To counter suchnotions, technology

material, social andsymbolic. To create andusea technology, then,is tohumanise nature; itis to a social a powerful ina form create andengage ourselves oflife. Thestudy express vision, symbol is wellsuited tools ofsymbolic This oftechnology, tothe therefore, interpretive anthropology. ofSriLanka's schemes. point ina brief colonisation iS illustrated analysis irrigation-based

redefined here as a totalsocial phenomenonin the sense used by Mauss; it is simultaneously

Marx wrote, is of paramountimportance The studyof technology, for the it 'disclosesman's mode ofdealingwithnature, theprocessby humansciences: whichhe sustains hislife'(Marx 1938). Few anthropologists would disputethis view. Yet social and cultural turnthefullforceof their anthropologists rarely toolson thesubject.That,I wishto argue,is a pity,sincetheunique theoretical fieldmethodsand holisticorientation of anthropology situatethefieldadvanforthestudyoftechnology. tageously Social and cultural to be sure,have made valuable contrianthropologists, butionsto the studyof subsistence such as irrigation and extractive strategies (BeardsleyI964; Downing & Gibson I974; Geertz1972; Gray I973; Hunt & Hunt 1976; Leach I959), fishing (AchesonI98I), mining(Godoy I985;J. Nash and theimpactof 1979; Taussig I980), industry (Holzberg& Giovannini I98I), on traditional societies(e.g. technological change(especially industrialisation) Bodley I982; Mitchell1973; Nash I967; Pelto I973; Sharp1952; Wallace 1978). have made,however,one can thecontributions thesestudies Without belittling observein mostof thema curiousoversight. seenin Technologyis onlyrarely of interest. thesestudiesas a subjectthatis itself On the contrary, intrinsically withmaterial culture anthropologists frequently equatetechnology and see itas a given. Technologyis portrayed as something extraneousto fundamentally humanlifeand a force to whichcommunities areobligedto adapt.In andbeliefs in theanthropology of mining, forexample,there is an evident'lack ofinterest the productive monoprocessand workplaceitself',whichin a book-length in a 'page or two' (Godoy I985: 21I). One can graphon mining maybe treated
Man (N S ) 23,



onlyconcludethat, in theeyesofmostanthropologists, technology lies beyond theboundsof disciplinary interest. intechnology The lackofinterest is pairedwithan equallymarked inattention In the1, 25 5 pagesofHonigmann's Handbook and to theterm's definition. social of cultural forinstance,the termis used, peripherally anthropology, and without on onlysixpages. A computer search ofSociological Abstracts revealed definition, searchforanthropology retrieved and that,of the 8,355 articles by a free-text containedthe word 'technology'in their cognate terms,only thirty-eight or subjectdescriptors it in theirtitles;none abstracts and only fourcontained defined theterm. to definition is surprising, to say the least, in a discipline The inattention translation and the critique of ethnocentric concernedwith cross-cultural of at theverycentre constructs. thatstands, And herewe have a term arguably, aboutthemselves. It whatWesterners (andWesternised people)tendto celebrate indeedifit werenot suffused withwhatMills would be surprising throughout (i963: 435) calledthe'ethnocentricities of meaning'.The first steptowardsan of technology, anthropology then,is to unpack the cultural baggage or prethatare tacitly understandings pairedwith the termtechnology.Taking this step, as will be seen, illuminates of the culturally-supplied the unreliability mandates theterm's Western notionoftechnology and,in addition, redefinition is in itself foruse by anthropologists. It also demonstrates a why technology to symbolic and interpretive subjectofinterest anthropology.

Technology andWestern ideology Textbookdefinitions oftechnology raiseseriousdoubtsabouttheterm's utility in anthropological discourse.Technologyis frequently forinstance, as defined, the sum totalof man's 'rational'and 'efficacious' 'control ways of enhancing over nature'(alternatives: 'command over nature','dominationover nature', is 'any tool or technique,any physicalequipmentor etc.); e.g., technology is extended'(Schon methodof doing or making,by whichhumancapability The historian Lynn White (I967) notes the implicitlinkagebetweensuch definitions which dictate human and the roots of Christianmetaphysics, of thenatural domination world. According to White,thistradition has led the Westto thethreshold ofa seriousand self-destructive ecologicalcrisis.Whether or not one agrees with White's analysis of the origins of this inherently he suppliessufficient reasonto treat ideologicalnotionof technology, theterm with suspicion.At the minimum,it must be recognisedthatthe conceptof is normative. technology Yet even greater perilsawait beneaththe surface.The culturally-supplied notion of 'technology'carrieswith it two tacitmeanings,two implicitand viewsoftheworldin relation to technology, that affect how mythic profoundly we understand andhow we viewitsrelationship to ourlives.As will technology inapparent be seen,these two tacit stand to one another. contradiction meanings themis a deeplyhiddenunity. Yet underlying
I 967).

23 8


Technological somnambulism The first ofthesetacit notions is calledtechnological somnambulism by thepolitical scientist Langdon Winner(I986). In the somnambulistic view of technology providedby Western culture, thehumanrelationship to technology is simply This relationship 'too obvious to meritseriousreflection'. consistsmerelyof 'making',whichis ofinterest onlytoengineers andtechnicians, and'use', which amountsonly to an 'occasional,innocuous,[and] nonstructuring occurrence'. Use is understood to be a straightforward matter: you pickup a tool,use it,and put it down. The meaningof theuse of technology is, in thismistaken view, 'nothingmore complicatedthanan occasional,limited,and nonproblematic interaction' (5-6). In thisview, technology is morally and ethically 'neutral'.It is neither good norbad, and its'impact'dependson how itis used. What is wrong with this dream-likeorientation to technology,Winner argues,is its denialof themanyways in whichtechnology providesstructure and meaningforhumanlife.This pointwas made powerfully by Marx in the German ideology (Marx & Engels 1976:3I):
of the The way in whichmenproducetheir meansofsubsistence ofall on thenature dependsfirst means of subsistencethey actuallyfind in existenceand have to reproduce.This mode of mustnotbe considered of thephysical existence production simplyas beingthereproduction of theseindividuals.Ratherit is a definite formof activity of theseindividuals,a definite form of expressing their life,a definite mode oflifeon their part.As individuals expresstheir life,so theyare.

Technologies,then,are not merely ways of 'making' and 'using'. As technologiesare created and put to use, Winner(I986: 6) argues,theybringabout in patterns 'significant alterations of humanactivity and humaninstitutions'. is that: Whatmustbe recognised, Winner insists,
and recreation, are actively involvedin thedailycreation and reproducIndividuals production live. Thus, as theyemploytools and techniques, workin social tion,of theworldin whichthey make and consume products,and adapt theirbehavior to the material labor arrangements, in theirnaturaland artificial individuals realizepossiconditions theyencounter environment, is an ongoingactivity of world-making bilitiesforhumanexistence.. . . Social activity (I986:
I4-I 5).

the Winnerdoes not mean to suggesta simplistic technological determinism, innovations are themajordriving forcesof humanlife idea thattechnological forms suchthat socialand cultural areinevitably shapedby them.To takesucha 'all instancesof view, Winner(I986: io) suggests,would be like describing based only on the conceptof rape'. Choices exist in the sexual intercourse process of technological consequentsocietaltransformation deployment/and somnambulism leads us to ignorethem (e.g., Noble I986). Yet technological of while, in a trance-like state,we blindlyaccept whateverimplementation in our thosein power choose to foistupon us. Once entrenched technology makesa new worldforus. We weave itintothe lives,however,thetechnology fabricof daily life (WinnerI986). Yet the human choices and decisionsare seemsto operate and appears masked,so thetechnology beyondhumancontrol inevitable to embodytheresult ofan automatic, process(Winner1977).



Technological determinism The second tacit notion supplied with the term technology,the one that is preciselythis notion of technological contrasts so sharplywith the first, is so careful to avoid. Here we have no dismissalof determinism thatWinner technologyis technologyas ways of making and using. On the contrary, thepatterns ofhuman dictates and autonomousagentthat viewedas a powerful life. social and cultural determinism often operates Liketechnological somnambulism, technological in scholarly discourse.In the grip of this as a tacit,unexaminedassumption seems to have been dictatedby a chain of technological notion all of history morethanhelplessspectators. in whichpeoplehavebeenlittle So deeply events assumed encoded is this notion that technology'sautonomyis frequently without comment. Indeed, the idea often operates, in scholarlywriting about technology'in the elusive mannerof an unquestionedassumption' (Staudenmaier I985: 143). Some scholars,however,make thispositionexplicitand defend it, arguing thepace thattechnology is appliedscience.Sincescienceis progressing rapidly, is out of of technological development is, in thisview, so rapidthattechnology ourown creations ordefend ourselves them. against control; we cannot evaluate is appliedsciencein this Yet there are amplegroundsto doubtthattechnology betweentechnology linearsense (Fores I982). The relationship and simplistic, recent.Many important invenscienceis complex,dynamic,and historically suchas thesteamengine,were and nineteenth tionsof theeighteenth centuries, in no realsensetheresult oftheapplication ofscience.Indeed,muchtwentiethsciencestemsfroman attempt to discoverwhy certaintechnologies century work so well. New technologies,moreover,make new lines of scientific inquirypossible, and with them,new technologies.And even when a new itis notdriven does incorporate scientific by sciencealone. technology findings, To create a new technology is notmerely to applyscienceto technical matters. It is also, and simultaneously, to surmount to deal with economic constraints, on one's side (Hughes I983). A techlegal roadblocksand to get politicians of these heterogeneous nology's form derives, then, from the interaction elementsas theyare shaped into a networkof interrelated components(Law our technology a product I987). However inhuman mayseem,itis nonetheless ofhumanchoicesand socialprocesses. becomesan autonomousforce Otherswould arguethatmoderntechnology of requiretheascendance because,once adopted,itsorganisational imperatives normsof efficiency technical and profitability over alternative norms,such as workerhealthand safety,environmental and aestheticvalues preservation, productionrequires rational organisationdictatesthe ascendancy of such norms. And further: and organisational Salz (I955) argued thatthe technical imperatives of industrialisation 'remainthe same regardless of who or what entities of plant. . . and regardless own, finance, and managea givenindustrial thewideraimswhichindustrialism is to serve'(I955: 5). To bring in a plantand norms a factory automated equipment,then, is to bring in the efficiency

view(I94I), (EllulI962). Thus,in Chapple's early

thevery fact that industrial




requires,and theinevitable result-even in in a socialistsetting(Goonatilake and 'deskilling'of factory 1979)-is the exploitation workers(e.g. Gottfried I982). Yet efficient factories have indeed been built thatdo not lead to the degradation of workingconditions (Noble I979), and theannalsof industrialisationin theThirdWorldtellofnumerous instances in whichefficiency norms takea back seatto otherones. Even whereautomated devicesareintroduced in theWest,there is no necessary, inevitable 'impact'on social relations (Attewell & Rule I984). On the contrary, the outcome stemsfromsocial and political and workers choicesmade by engineers, managers (Noble I986). betweentechnology The relationship and society,to be sure,can be simple in certain instances.Givingup a bullock fora tractor, for and unproblematic instance,irretrievably forcesa farmer into an international economy of petroleum and replacement parts. Beyond obvious points such as this one, however, the outcome of a given innovationis still subject to substantial modification by social, politicaland culturalforces.It is, furthermore, funcarries withit any necessary or damentally wrong to argue thata technology of social and cultural consequent pattern evolution.The literature on thesocial impactof GreenRevolutiontechnology providesa tellingcase in point (e.g. Farmer 1977). Experience shows that the technologydoes not necessarily Nor does it necessarily producethe higheryieldsforeseen by its proponents. foreseen produce the socio-economicdifferentiation by its critics.A new or suchas thisone simply a new setofpossibilities introduced technology brings to a situation.Whether people capitaliseon those possibilities dependson their the restructured abilityto conceptualise politicalfield,to set new goals for in pursuitof thesenew and to mobilisepersonneland resources themselves, in whichtheoutcomeis far a seriesofindeterminacies goals. We hereconfront from predictable. in sum, is difficult to sustainin comparative studies. The determinist thesis, of technological is no argument fora return to thetenets somnamYet thisfact is sociallyconstructed bulism.The factthattechnology (Pinch& Bijker I984) implies thatit has social content;it is far from'neutral'. Pinch and Bijker of technologyin the followingway. In its describethe social construction inception,a new technologyappears in a varietyof forms.The process is effects ofan adaptiveradiation ofbiologianalogousto thespecies-multiplying ofniches.Some forms cal forms series 'die'. intoan unoccupied 'survive';others In this process, the determinant of survival is not merely (or even conthe surviving spicuously)economic, technicalor rational.On the contrary, formis theone selectedby a social groupthatsucceedsin imposingits choice over competingforms(and againstthe objectionsof weaker groups). Such social groups,as Pinchand Bijkerstress, includeinstitutions and organisations, as well as organised andunorganised buttheirfundamental groupsofindividuals, is that'all membersof [thesocial group] sharethe same set of characteristic . . . attached artefact' to a specific meanings (I984: 30, myemphasis).The social of technology,in sum, occurs when one set of meanings construction gains in the technical overother contentof the ascendancy ones,and wins expression A technology artefact. is thus,in Noble's words,'hardened or a 'frozen history'

ofhuman andsocial endeavor' fragment (I986:




The social vision woven into technologies is at timespatently obvious and as in thenow-famous deliberate, exampleof Long Island'slow bridges.Their RobertMoses, intended themto obstruct designer, buses, thereby restricting whitesof the 'upper' and the Long Island populationto automobile-owning 'comfortable middle' classes (Winner I980: 121-3). And at the end of the nineteenth century, theradicalPariscitycouncilused precisely thesame trick to accomplisha verydifferent politicalobjective.By makingthe tunnelsof the Paris Metro verynarrow,too narrowforstandard-gauge railwaytrains,the councilprevented theprivate theMetro railwaycompaniesfrom appropriating fortheir own ends(AkrichI987). still bring with them a Even where such designs are absent technologies definite social content. shouldbe seen as a system, notjust of Any technology tools, but also of relatedsocial behavioursand techniques.We meanjust this when we refer, forinstance,to 'woodworking' or 'irrigation'.One can go ofpractical further. consists Technology,necessarily, knowledgeor knowhow to codification often resistant orverbalisation which,although (Ferguson1977), just like any otheraspectof culture mustsomehow be sharedand transmitted (Layton 1974). Technology can indeed be defi-ned as a set of operationally can be said to existunlessthepeople replicable socialbehaviours: no technology who use it can use it over and over again. To the extentthattechnological arereplicable, theinterpenetration ofphysical behaviours elements (e.g., tools, resources,etc.) and social communication (diffusion, apprenticeship, etc.) is still: the product of presupposed (Tornatzkyet al. I983: 2). And further Techtechnology,materialculture,is farmore thana practicalinstrument. a social objectendowed withsufficient nologyis, simultaneously, meaningto thosewho becomeinvolvedwithitscreation or use. Technology,then, mystify is essentially social, not 'technical'. When one examines the 'impact' of a on society,therefore, one is obliged to examinetheimpactof the technology embeddedsocialbehaviours and meanings. technology's in short, on speciousgrounds.Technology Technologicaldeterminism, rests is not an independent, non-socialvariablethathas an 'impact' on societyor is a set of social behavioursand a culture.On the contrary, any technology the point: when we examinethe 'impact' of systemof meanings.To restate on society,we are talkingabout theimpactof one kind of social technology behaviouron another(MacKenzie & Wajcman I985: 3)-a point thatMarx graspedwith clarity and subtlety (MacKenzie I984). To thispointthisarticle will return, but it is possiblenow to disclosetheunitythatunderlies technologicalsomnambulism and itsapparent opposite,technological determinism.

Fetishised objects What is so striking about both naive views of technology,the view that disembodied emphasises waysofmaking anddoing(technological somnambulthatasserts ism) and theother technology's autonomy (technological determinism), is thatthey bothgravelyunderstate or disguise the social relationsof In thesomnambulistic technology. view, 'making'concerns onlyengineers and




'doing' concerns onlyusers.Hidden fromview is theentire networkof social and political relations that aretiedto makingand areinfluenced by doing. In the technologicaldeterminist view, the technologyitself(usually conceived as material is seen as something culture) apartfromthisnetwork.Technologyis thus,in thisview, an independent variableto whichtheforms ofsocialrelations and politicsstand as dependentvariables.So thereis indeed a hidden unity underlying thesepositionsthatseem to standin apparent contradiction: technology, underthe sway of Westernculture, is seen as a disembodiedentity, ofsocialrelations, and composedalmostentirely emptied oftoolsand products. It stands before us, in other form: what words,in whatMarx would callfetishised is in reality produced byrelations among peopleappears before us in afantasticform as relations among things. hisdiscussion Marx's conceptoffetishism stemsfrom of commodities in the The worldoffetishised Marx argued,is likethe capitalist setting. commodities, ofthereligious world.In that of worldtheproductions 'mist-enveloped regions thehumanbrainappearas independent beingsendowedwithlife,and entering both withone another and thehumanrace' (Marx 1938: 43). As into relation is Godelier (1977: xxv) puts it,fetishism
the effectin and for consciousnessof the disguisingof social relationsin and behind their arethenecessary Now theseappearances appearances. of therepresentations pointof departure of that individuals form forthemselves. their . . . relations spontaneously Such imagesthusconstitute whichtheseindividuals within within thesocial reality live, and servethemas a meansof acting and upon thissocialreality.

Marx's discussion was limited to thevalue ofcommodities which,he argued, is inreality from determined bythesurplus valueextracted thewage labourer.It formas a property of the commodity nevertheless appearsto us in fetishised thanof thesocialrelationships thatproducedit. Whether Marx's itself, rather in economictermsis of littleconcernhere, analysisof surplusvalue is correct of technology as a indeedto see thefetishism exceptto statethatit is tempting of thefetishism of commodities naturalconcomitant econ(and the capitalist is Marx's extraordinary omy in general).What is of interest anthropological insight: theWestern ideology ofobjects renders invisible the socialrelationsfrom which This invisibility lies arises andinwhich isvitally embedded. technology anytechnology at theheartof technological somnambulism and determinism. The taskof the of is to social to light. relations anthropology technology bringthesehidden inanthropological Technology discourse Anthropologists, unfortunately, have been slow to detectthehiddeninfluence of technological somnambulism and determinism (Digard 1979). Under the sway of the somnambulistic view, forinstance,technology is simplynot of muchinterest. andusingareseento deserve Waysofmaking description onlyin so far as theypreserveevidence of a disappearing way of life. Thus one is confronted withdreary cataloguesofsuchthings as arrowsand potsthatare,as Spierobserved,'dull, unimaginative, myopic,and guilty of generalizing from

the particular' (I 970: 143).



A concomitant of thisview is thattechnology, all a simple which is after andusing,does notdetermine matter ofmaking socialand cultural forms except in waysthat areso obviousthat they areoflittle interest. Horticulture obviously precededirrigation, forinstance, but suchobservations tellus verylittle about thecultures we study.This was a pointmadebyBoas and a whole generation of Americananthropologists, who denied thatattempts to link technology and or culture social organisation would go beyondtheobvious. Whatwas of far greater interest to Boas was the evidence,as he saw it, thatdissimilar tech'we have nologiescould be associatedwithsurprisingly similar cultural forms: and complexorganization', he wrote(I940: 266-267), as well simpleindustries as 'diverse industries and simple organization'.Ruth Benedict (1948: 589), linkbetweentechnology concurring withBoas's radicaldenialof a necessary and culture, asserted that'man can at any stateof technological development hisgods in themostdiverse form'.This position is an old one in American create anthropology, and itis notwithout itscontemporary advocates. determinism are such authorsas L. A. White Replyingfor technological in and Harris(I977), who tracemajor developments (I959), Wittfogel (I959) cultural evolutionto thepatterns of technological change.Technology,in the to itsown, autonomouslogic: 'the determinist view,is seento evolveaccording had to precede diggingstickhad to precedethe plow, the flint strike-a-light thesafety of match, and so on' (HarrisI968: 232). In thisview theconsequences this evolutionary process for social organisation and cultureare regularand predictable: whentheploughreplaces thehoe, forinstance, thesexual division of labour altersin predictable to cite ways (Newton I985: 2I4). Wittfogel, another determinist believedthatlarge-scale theorist, irrigation systems entail bureaucratic centralisation and politicaldespotism.And for Harris, the odd customsand bizarrepracticesof tribalcultures, such as human sacrifice and a have have some hiddentechno-economic witchcraft, readyexplanation: they rationality, whichis exposed onlyby reducing such practices to their'hidden' material aims (e.g. Harris1974). In thisview, there areno surprises in the jungle of ethnographic data. Every seeminglybizarretraitcan be laid down to its techno-economic underlying rationality. Both ofthese versions ofWestern cultural areremarkanthropological theory able for theirinherent dogmatism,itselfa sign of theirideological origin. Somnambulists denyat theoutsetthatthere is a demonstrable relation between and culture. technology Determinists assumesucha relationship alwaysexists. Both views, in short,see technologyin fetishised form.Both disguise the social behaviours in whichpeopleengagewhenthey or use fundamentally create a technology. Humanised nature must be founded,not on simplisticand The anthropologyof technology, on a recognition of the role of but rather ideologically-shaped propositions, in disguisingthe deep interpenetration and dynamic fetishism-specifically, cultural values and technology of social forms, interplay (Spier 1970: 6-9). To in a to see technology it is necessary forceof fetishism, counter themystifying




of technological radically different way: to view it, not through the fetishism or determinism, as humanised nature. somnambulism butrather nature is to insistthatit is a fundamenTo say thattechnology is humanised it is a social construction of thenaturearoundus and tallysocialphenomenon: withinus, and once achieved,it expressesan embeddedsocial vision, and it of engages us in what Marx would call a formof life. The interpenetration cultureand naturehere describedis, in short,of the sort thatMauss (I967) is also, and at the would readilycall total: any behaviourthatis technological same time, political,social and symbolic. It has a legal dimension,it has a a setofsocialrelationships and ithas a meaning. history, itentails and culturaldimensionof techSo farfromdisguisingthe social relations a recognition of theinterpenetration of nology,thisview logicallynecessitates technologywith social formsand systemsof meaning. Any studyof techrelanology's 'impact' is in consequencethe studyof a complex, intercausal Thereis no question one form ofsocialbehaviour between andanother. tionship an independent variable to a offinding a nice,neatcausalarrowthat pointsfrom dependent one, forthecausalarrowsrunbothways (or everywhichway), even in what appears to be the simplestof settings.One mightbe tempted,for theculture ofthe!Kung-Sanpeoplesofsouthwestern Africa, instance, to regard untilrecently, as theproductofenvironmental dominance hunters and gathers on by a low level oftechnological brought development-until,however,one and deliberately set fireto the grasslands, learnsthatthe !Kung-Sanregularly and so shape theenvironment thatwe mightsuppose shapesthem.'Humans', foras long as theyhave Lee observes,'have been cooking theirenvironment

variables is to be expected from the theoretical standpoint.Assertionsof in contrast, aresuspectand require radicalquestioning. one-waycausality, make Viewing technologyas humanisednaturedoes not, unfortunately, it forces ofthealmostunbelievable things simple.On thecontrary, recognition thatis involvedin virtually complexity anylinkbetweenhumantechnological formsand human culture.The questionsthisrelationship raises,to be sure, seem simpleenough on the surface(e.g. 'What is theimpactof gravity-flow in SriLanka?'). Yet, in practice, discovering the irrigation schemeson peasants on society effects ofa giventechnology is, as MacKenzie and Wajcmannote,an and problematic exercise'.Consider,forinstance, theimpact 'intensely difficult on employment: of themicrochip
ofexisting It is relatively away by present easyto guesswhatproportion jobs couldbe automated or prospective But thatis nottheeffect ofthemicrochip on employment, computer technology. be approached in isolation likethis.To know the becausethequestioncannot precisely justifiably on employment ratesat whichitwillbe effect microchip's levels,one needsto know thedifferent of theindustries technology, the adoptedin different locations,thenature producingcomputer indirect economiceffects ofthecreation anddestruction roleofdevelopments in ofjobs, thelikely withwhatgoes on in othercountries, one country thegrowth or decline,and changing patterns, of theworldeconomy. . . in otherwords,answering thequestionof theeffects on societyof a one to have a goodtheory works. The simplicity of society particular technology requires ofhowthat the questionis misleading.Answering itproperly will often an understanding oftheoverall require anditisthus rather oneofthe most than oneofthe toanswer easiest, questions dynamics ofa society, difficult, (MacKenzie & Wajcman i985: 6-7, myemphasis).

food' (I979: been cooking


and interpenetration of Dynamic interplay



at its best,is uniquelysuitedto the studyof such complex Anthropology, is distinctive, between technologyand culture.Anthropology relationships after all, not only forits local-level,small-scalestudiesusing the participantforits holism,an approachthatsees method.It is also distinctive observation To undertake of moreor less interrelated components. any societyas a system ofa at least a suchan analysis society'sbiological workingknowledge requires economicsystem, social organisation, politicalsystem, environment, history, areby no life.Such analyses valuesand spiritual cultural relations, international behaviours to situate less thana commitment nothing meanseasy; theyrequire and cultural context.Yet nothing in their totalsocial, historical and meanings the natureand consequencesof our if we seek to illuminate less will suffice nature. to humanise attempts settlement schemes SriLanka'sirrigation An example: morespace thancan be takenhere,but To illustrate thisapproachfully requires intheterms developedherecanbe sketched ofa study phrased thebroadoutlines will be omittedforbrevity; see out forpurposesof illustration. (References n.d. fora fullaccount.) Pfaffenberger The island nationof Sri Lanka has been much concernedof late with the settlement of gravity-flow schemes,thelatestofwhich irrigation development is the massiveMahaweli DevelopmentProject.This projectseeks to develop of the 208-mileMahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka's capabilities fullythe irrigation is to resettle longestriver.A major goal of theproject,like its predecessors, lands withinthe country'sDry Zone. landless peasantson newly irrigated and projecthas raisedSriLanka's riceproduction Althoughthestill-unfinished helped to freethe countryfromdependenceon rice imports,the economic has fallenshortof expeccommunities of thenew rice-growing performance So far is the project'ssocial performance. tations.Particularly disappointing and agricultural tenancy, landlesspeasantsfromdebtservitude from liberating of the adverse features appear to be reproducing the Mahaweli settlements traditional peasantsocietythattheprojectwas designedto cure. ofits The Mahaweli Project'soutcomesecho thedisappointing performance in the management which were markedby seriousdeficiencies predecessors, in and distribution ofwaterresources. The reasons,some argue,are 'technical' development decades ago, Sri Lanka's irrigation inception nature.Since their is dammedand principles, in whicha river haveemployedgravity-flow projects via canals, to agricultural settlements. The volume and pressureof diverted, at the'top end' watersupplyin gravity-flow worksis alwaysgreatest irrigation of the system.And not surprisingly, settlers at the top end of the irrigation projects,where the water supplyis continuousand ample, use fromtwo to at thetailend need. At thesametime,settlers seventimesas muchwateras they of the projectsreceiveinsufficient water-or no water at all. The resultis a tendto become in whichtop-enders differentiation, processof socio-economic lose their land to and tail-enders tendto becomepoor and, eventually, wealthy and land speculators. moneylenders themselves from theexpenseofhiring Top-endersuse theextrawaterto free



labourers to clearweeds (thecopious waterdoes thejob instead)and to assure an abundantcrop. They investtheirprofits irriby encouraging themselves officials wide open gationmanagement (in variedways) to keep thefloodgates in high-interest less fortunate loans (whichoften result settlers and byinvolving on landstheythemselves once owned). In the in thedebtors becomingtenants of some of thefeatures of end, thesesocial processeslead to thereproduction and debt traditional peasant society (such as landlessness,sharecropping, created to circumvent. servitude) thattheprojectwas expressly in income between top-enders and tail-enders should That this disparity when one considerswhat one observercalls the emergeis hardlysurprising of gravity-flow 'harshfactsof hydraulics', namely,thepronouncedtendency This tento rewardtop-enders and punishtail-enders. irrigation technology dencycan be combattedby buildingextensivesystemsof fieldchannelsand butsuchsystems canadd so muchto thecostofthe automated delivery systems, systemthat Ifone buildsan irrigation projectthatit ceasesto be cost-effective. lacks such features,the seeminglyinevitableresult is economic disparity and tail-enders. betweentop-enders a viewpoint smacksoftechnological determinism, that Yet this interpretation oftechnology mistrusts on theoretical theanthropology grounds.And on closer itturns material out suppliedby SriLankaitself, inspection, usingethnographic of social relations ofhydraulics' arenot as determinative as thatthe'harshfacts ricefields for thisview would haveit. SriLankans,after all,havebeenirrigating Sri Lankan villages had devised two millennia, and as it happens traditional severalcustomsthatoperatedto mute,ifnot negate,theeconomicdisparities in gravity-flow systems.In a village studiedby Leach, for implicit irrigation were alwayslinked,even in propand tail-end landholdings instance, top-end so that the benefits of the top end were balanced out by the ertytransfers, This custom was of of thetailend. accompanied by a complexsystem penalties and the to water that adjusted discouragedtop-endwastage rights irrigation to theamountofwateravailable.At theheart ofthe scope ofagricultural activity that,in an irrigated productionsystem,what systemwas a clearrecognition research has shownthat is accessto water, notmerely toland. Subsequent counts irrigation syssuch customs are common in traditional, community-based traditional tems. The pointhereis not to romanticise customs,but irrigation is notmerely a matter ofthings, technology simplythis:gravity-flow irrigation is also a system social thatis, dams, canalsand water.This technology ofhuman to characterised behaviours, by theascription or thenon-ascription-ofrights water. If rightsto land are ascribedinsteadof rightsto water, one possible outcome (in the absence of countervailing customs) is socio-economicdifis that settlements The designflawin SriLanka'sirrigation theneed ferentiation. and rights intothetechnology has been to designwater-allocation procedures and thoroughly consistently ignored. The reasons for this oversightcan be underwhichthe thesocial and cultural circumstances knownonlyby grasping was constructed. technology communities ofsturdy, The SriLankanproject envisioned indepenplanners who possess secureland tenure.Thus protected from dent,yeoman farmers suchfarmers would naturally and poverty, protector, regardtheir exploitation



and loyalty.This idea, obviouslyof European cultural thestate,withaffection to SriLanka's conservative origin,occurred political leadership (with,perhaps, Britishencouragement) afterthe second world war, when landlessnessand were growingominouslyin the densely-populated politicalradicalism southfacilities into the sparselywesterncoastal plan. The extensionof irrigation as a way ofdomesticating or populatedDry Zone was expressly conceptualised is thisdangerous rural Yet there co-opting (andincreasingly lumpen) proletariat. of thistechnology more to thesocial construction thanthisbrandof Western What made it so usefulis thatit dovetailshandilywith a politicalsensibility. SriLankanmodality ofpolitical particularly legitimation. elitefinds itslegitimacy, inpart, in anindigenous SriLanka'spolitical political Sinhalacivilisational tradition framework thatstemsfrom theancient (or more ofthattradition). The ancientSinhala frommoderninterpretations accurately, theirrule by constructing kings legitimated irrigation works, and modern politicians-especially those of the rulingUnited National Party-emulate theirexample. The earlymovers of irrigation projects,the United National and his son Dudley, claimeddescentfromthe PartyleadersD. S. Senanayake R. Jayawardene, is PresidentJ. ancient Dry Zone kings.TheirUNP successor, as a Boddhisattva often described who, likethekingsof old, is bringing water, prosperity and justice (dharma) to the people; in an annual ceremony,he to cuttheseason's emulates thekingofold bydriving thebuffaloes intothefield first furrow. from The sameelitedrawsitslegitimacy another source,as well: a politicallyabout the constructed deleterious myth impact of the colonial plantation economy on peasantsociety.This mythinsiststhatthe foreign-owned planin collusionwiththeBritish colonialgovernment, tations, deprivedtraditional villagesof land neededforexpansion,and in so doing set offa viciouscycleof in widespreadlandlessness, land fragmentation thatfinally culminated sharecropping,povertyand moral degradationfor huge masses of peasants. By seeking independenceand promisingto rightthese wrongs by developing Sri Lanka's indigenouspoliticalelitefounda successful irrigation settlements, formulaforpoliticallegitimacy.To describethis notion of the plantation's impactas a 'myth'is notto deny,to be sure,thatthere maybe some truth to it. But it is to insistthat, likeall myths, thismyth tendsto be applieduncritically. And nowheredid it operatemoreperniciously thanin thesocial designof the settlements. irrigation The social goals of the irrigation settlements were, fromthe beginning, land fragmentation, expresslyintendedto forestall which was seen to have played a major role in the rise of landlessness duringand afterthe colonial period. So thesettlement plots-surveyed and fixedplotsof up to fiveacresof riceland-were notgivento thesettlers irrigated butwereassignedto outright, themby perpetual lease and made indivisible. A peasantcould pass themon to hisheirsonlyby nominating a singlesuccessor. Althoughthissocial visionmayhave been politically satisfying, it could not have been more inappropriate forSri Lankan conditions.By focusingon the marketable forthepeasantry, politically image of securelandrights it failsto of water forstableirrigation acknowledgetheimportance rights communities,




and so condemns thesettlements toprecisely thesocio-economic differentiation to avoid. Ruled out in thestrokeof a pen, too, thattheprojectswereintended was the kind of careful,inter-familial juggling of land holdings that, in a holdingof traditional Sri Lankancommunities, help farmers to put together lens of the project's design, such economic size. In the politically-focused and are branded-often wrongly-as jugglings appear as 'fragmentation', undesirableindices of communitydegradation.Finally,the atomisticindividualismof theproject'ssocial design,coupledwiththediversesocial origins has militated of kin-based of the settlers themselves, againstthe formation and resourcesharing. In successfulirrigation comsystemsof reciprocity functionto mute processes of sociomunities,such systems frequently economic differentiation by enabling what amounts to a process of as families intracommunity capitaltransfer, helpeachother out (for instance, by kinsmen at ratesfarabove theeconomicwage). hiring Whatwas notruledoutin theproject design,however,was anyeffective legal to forestall the'sale' of thesettler's or politicalmechanism plots to mudalalis, a and moneylenders class of 'self-made'landholders who have long preyedon Sri Lanka. Such sales areillegalin principle, but common peasantsthroughout in practice. areheldto land,notwater,'tail-end'settlers Sincetitles quicklyfall forwaterand wealth,and surrender their behindin thecompetition holdingsto Some wind up as tenants on their own lands,an arrangement land speculators. moreeconomicsecurity thanwas possibleas an thatmaywell bringthetenant 'owner' of theland in question.Moreover, the prohibition impoverished on in thefaceofSriLankaninheritance flies landfragmentation customs.Not a few rather thanfacethedisconcerting to 'sell' their settlers prefer plots(illegally) and of favouring one heirover others.Otherfactors, such uncomfortable prospect in watersupply,thevicissitudes of thericemarket, theriseof as irregularities also contribute and herbicide to the'sale' fertiliser prices,and mismanagement, In one settlement was foundto have of plots to mudalalis. scheme,a mudalali at publicexpense. amasseda 'holding'of IOO acresofprimericeland,irrigated ofmudalalis. Whatis new is themassive new abouttheactivities Thereis nothing in the settlement public investment schemes,which have createdrich new activities.Indeed, the schemes create new for the mudalalis' opportunities so that theymay choose, among several mudalalis. They enrichtop-enders alternative careers,the mudalali's way of money-lending, briberyand land speculation. settlements were promotingsocio-economicdifThat the older irrigation has been known forsome time,but the new phase of irrigation ferentiation undertheAccelerated MahaweliDevelopmentProgram(AMDP) development such processesby usingtheexpensivetechnical solutionof soughtto forestall fieldchannelsto groups of settlers. For reasonsthatare hardly constructing thisstrategy does notappearto be working. surprising giventheabove analysis, differentiation arewell at workin thenew AMDP Processesofsocio-economic in watersupplyand otherprobPricefluctuations, settlements. irregularities to themudalali to lems frequently bringthesettlers who, forall his propensity the peasantmore exploitthe peasantand deprivehim of his land, stilloffers In the day-to-daysecuritythan the government-sponsored arrangements.



is nowhere there in theatomisedsettlement communities, absenceof kinsmen else to turnwhen a child fallsill or new clothesare needed foran important in sum, has not workedverywell fix' of fieldchannels, event.The 'technical has been changed.Its componentof thetechnology because only thematerial social, legal and mythiccomponentshave been left alone, and expose the in whicheconomicdifferentiation is to a socio-political context peasantsettler virtually assured.

Conclusion is notmaterial butrather a total culture anthropologically, Technology,defined in thesenseused by Mauss, a phenomenon thatmarries the socialphenomenon material,the social and the symbolicin a complex web of associations.A is farmorethanthematerial objectthatappearsunderthesway of technology thetendency to unhingehumancreations forfetishism, theWestern penchant fromthe social relationsthatproduce them. Every technologyis a human that unifies ofhumanised virtually everyaspectofhuman nature, world,a form and is a technology not merelyto deploy materials endeavour.To construct invent new social and economicalliances,to it is also to construct techniques; forsocial relations, and to providepowerfulnew vehiclesfor legal principles on thesociety The 'impact'ofirrigation technology myths. culturally-provided schemes cannot be in settlement Sri Lanka's irrigation-based taking shape is in a that this seen its totality totality, until technology grasped,therefore, between ofhydraulics' disparity (theimplicit embraces notonlythe'harshfacts but what is more, the choices that the project top-endersand tail-enders), the in the made and, in particular, defining colonies'social relations, designers these choices. that them to guided politicalmyths powerful innovation's social to concede,however,thata technological Thereremains is when it to dimensions become perceived and mythic starkly apparent may fail. Afterthe Challengerdisaster,for instance,the Americanspace shuttle of cameto be seenas a product, notofscienceandreason,butrather programme and confusedgoals. If an innoflawedcommunication politicalcompromise, vation succeeds, however, the social and mythicdimensions stay in the to the project's background. The innovation's success will be attributed unerringnavigationof the true course laid down by the laws of nature, and reason. efficiency Here is yetanother trapforthe mind,one thatis even more insidiousthan is sociallyconstructed To arguethat (and,by fetishism. technology onlya failed implication,that successfulones are not socially constructed)violates the in sociological explanation:we should use the same principleof symmetry innovationas a failedone to account for a successful principles explanatory (Flink automobile,forinstance (Latour I987). Many examples-the American in which the technical technologies 1975)-can indeedbe foundof successful of materialsand techniqueswith design betraysthe thoroughinterweaving To create a new Yet we mustgo further. socialvisionsand mythic conceptions. is to createnot only a new artefact, but also a new world of social technology



relations and myths in which definitionsof what 'works' and is 'successful' are constructed by the same political relations the technology engenders. It could be objected, to be sure, that a technology either 'works' or it doesn't, but this objection obscures the mounting evidence that creating a 'successful' technology also requires creating and disseminating the very norms that define it as successful (MacKenzie I987). In Sri Lanka, for instance, the web of political associations created along with the dams and canals-a web that includes the influx of foreign economic assistance, the provision of lucrative construction contracts,and the creation of politically indebted communities-is of such vital significanceto the ruling United National Party government that the project's 'failings' cannot be admitted, save in private and offthe record. The project may have plunged generationsof Sri Lankans into debt, damaged the ecology of river valleys and created dangerous new contexts forpolitical violence, but none of this can be conceded without undermining a political edifice of impressive dimensions and complexity. So far as Sri Lankan government officials are concerned, the AMDP project is a great success. To put it another way, these officialsare part of a huge enterprisewhose stabilityand endurance depends, in part, on constructingnew norms of 'success' and, equally, resistingthe intrusions of external and unwanted norms of 'failure'. If they succeed, the technology becomes a 'black box': few question its design or the norms thatdefineit as a success (MacKenzie I987). And its social origins disappear from view. Technology, in short, is a mystifying forceof the firstorder, and it is rivalled only by language in its potential (to paraphrase Geertz) for suspending us in webs of significance that we ourselves create. That is why it is an appropriate -indeed crucial-subject foranthropological study.


on an whose comments My thanks to Mel Cherno,W. BernardCarlsonand H. L. Seneviratne, forwhich I alone take responsibility. of thisarticlehelped me shape its argument, earlierdraft ofVirginia, fora andAppliedScience,University Thanksaredue, too, to theSchool ofEngineering thisessay'scomposition. thatfacilitated summer research grant


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Do artifacts have Daedalus politics? I09,


Objets feticheset nature humanisee: vers une anthropologie de la technologie

Resume sontmises devient utileseulement lorsqueses pr6conceptions tacites Le conceptde technologie au jour. Dans le discoursoccidental est 1i6a deux extr6mites le termetechnologie de la pensee mythique: le d6terminisme etle somnambulisme technologiques. Le premier decrit la technologle comme la cause de la formation sociale; le derniernie ce lien de causalite. Tous les deux, cependant, occultent les choix soclaux et les relations socialesqui appartiennent a toutsysteme ici comme technologlque.Pour rendrede tellesnotionscaduques, la technologie est red6finie dans le sensutilis6 etantun phenomenesocial total par Mauss; un ph6nomene a la foismat6r&el, social, et symbolique. Creer et utiliser la nature;c'est une technologie, c'est alors humaniser un symbolepuissant, une visionsociale,creer ets'engager soi-memedansune forme exprimer de vie. L'6tude de la technologie,par consequent,s'adapte bien aux outils d'interpr6tation de l'anthropologle symbolique. Ce point est illustr6 par une analysebreve des projetscoloniaux du SriLanka. d'irrigation