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The History of Technology After the Global Turn

What has been the role of technology in world history? A possible answer to such a general question may be that technological change has been an unstoppable globalising force as well as an inevitable source of cultural and institutional homogenisation at the international level. World history is replete with instances supporting such a claim — from the diffusion of railways to today’s worldwide use of the internet, from the transnational unification of technical standards to international agreements on patents protecting new inventions. In such examples, the ascension of global technologies and international institutions presumably has gone hand in hand with the unprecedented expansion of the world economy since the mid-nineteenth century. True as it may be, this linear narrative is also the result of the global turn that has transformed the way scholars think about the history of knowledge. For a few decades already, the study of globalisation has been a hot historical topic attracting practitioners and funding — and remains so even with anti-globalisation sentiments and nationalist policies on the rise. Yet an increasing number of historians are stressing not just the international diffusion of technologies and institutional structures but instead turning their attention to the plurality of histories of technology. For this latter purpose, the most promising studies are those tracing connections around the globe through a combination of very detailed local histories and a comprehensive analysis of large and heterogeneous historical processes. This ‘new’ narrative is concerned less with the diffusion of mainstream global technologies than with the historicising of technological encounters, indigenous knowledge and hybrid or creole technologies. A number of historians are making clear that the modern history of technology is one of multiplicity, divergence, de-globalisation, contestation, resistance, appropriations and adaptation as much as it is one of globalisation and convergence.

Take for instance the ubiquitous role of engineering since the mid-nineteenth century, which is characterised by a tension between national and global endeavours. At the international level, engineers have been, in many cases, active globalising agents and reliable technocratic diplomats. Expert networks have facilitated technological trade and the building of large technological projects crossing continents and oceans. Of course, sometimes these projects have had disastrous results or been driven by imperialism. At the same time, engineers have erected and maintained infrastructure or produced technologies with the potential to divide societies. Trump’s project of constructing a massive wall at the Mexican-US border would be a telling example of this. Still other engineering projects have resulted in disintegration, from military systems to surveillance technologies. It would therefore be inappropriate to adopt a purely international — or, worse, an ‘internationalist’ — approach to the history of engineering. It is clear that engineers have also been bound to nations and national projects. Numerous historical accounts show the instrumental role of engineers in the development of national economies and institutions in both democratic and authoritarian countries. This technocratic class has consolidated state control through, for example, national public infrastructures. Indeed, there has not been a unique global culture of engineering. Engineers’ professional identities, status, training, means and ideologies have varied from one country to another, often responding to national needs and local economic contexts. In short, engineers have been agents of globalisation but in many cases also of nationalism and de-globalisation.

The history of intellectual property rights is another topic that can benefit from a discussion of international dynamics and actors. From the late nineteenth century, technological innovation and patenting have been a fundamentally global dynamic. Much of the institutional diversity among national patent systems — specifically among industrial powers, latecomers and developing countries — can be explained by international connections, dependencies and failed economic convergence. The unbalanced structure of the world economy explains much of the asymmetric level of patents issued around the world. In this context, international patenting has involved not just the international transfer of rights, and eventually technologies, but also institutional transfers, from bureaucratic practices to ideals. The global imperatives are apparent when we consider the making of the ‘international patent system’ from the Paris Union of 1883. At that point, national patent institutions became increasingly interdependent, but the imperfection of the international system left room for institutional diversity. The pressures towards patent harmonisation continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, creating further dissatisfaction and contestation among developing countries as the domain of patent protection expanded to include, among other things, indigenous peoples’ knowledge, medicines and biotechnologies. Multinationals’ monopolistic control of technologies worldwide is another example of the pervasive consequences of the international convergence of patent issues.

Looking at just these two topics — engineers and patents — many would agree that the international dimension of the history of technology is not just important in itself but can illuminate broader issues of world history. Three strategies seem especially valuable for a global history of technology that appeals to wider audiences. First, an encompassing study of global circulations, exchanges and networks, stressing the centrality of Latin America, Asia or Africa’s own histories of technology. The distinctive feature of this approach is that through the study of worldwide connections among specific localities we can tease out the history of the world. Of course, any study of global connections first requires a close examination of the local practices and technologies-in-use at different places around the world. The clearest example of such an approach is the international history of global commodity chains — that is, the history of the production, processing, trade and consumption of tropical raw materials such as sugar, cotton, camphor or indigo, to name a few. Second, the addition of an international dimension to well-established and more conventional narratives of national technological progress, economic backwardness and industrialisation. Such a study requires placing national experiences in their international and colonial contexts through, for example, investigating how local technologies and scientific institutions were given global or imperial reach. Third, true interdisciplinary research and discussion of global technological dynamics, particularly at the intersection of economic history, environmental history, cultural anthropology and science and technology studies. A global history of technology needs to take seriously cultural diversity, ecological forces, hybrid knowledge and the social embeddedness of technologies-in-use.

It is certainly not easy to write more plural — and at the same time ambitious and critical — world histories in which Latin American, Asian and African technologies are at the centre of the story. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of less conventional global histories of technology out there to inspire us to rethink old debates.

David Pretel is Research Fellow at the Centre for Historical Studies, Colmex, The College of Mexico, Mexico. He is editor of Technology and Globalisation and author of Institutionalising Patents in Nineteenth-Century Spain, both within Palgrave Studies in Economic History.

P_Pretel_Technology and Globalisation