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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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2802804 .
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FETISHISED
OBJECTS AND HUMANISED
NATURE:
TOWARDS AN ANTHROPOLOGY
OF TECHNOLOGY
BRYAN

PFAFFENBERGER

University
ofVirginia
oftechnology
becomesusefulonlywhenitstacitpreconceptions
areunpacked.
The concept
Linkedwiththetermin Western
aretwo polesof mythic
discourse
thinking:
technological
determinism
andtechnological
somnambulism.
The former
depictstechnology
as thecauseof
socialformations;
thelatter
deniesa causallink.Both,however,
disguise
thesocialchoicesand
is
thatfigure
inanytechnological
socialrelations
system.
To counter
suchnotions,
technology

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

material,
socialandsymbolic.
To create
andusea technology,
then,is
tohumanise
nature;
itis to
a socialvision,create
a powerful
ina form
andengageourselves
oflife.Thestudy
express
symbol
is wellsuitedtotheinterpretive
toolsofsymbolic
This
oftechnology,
therefore,
anthropology.
ofSriLanka'sirrigation-based
schemes.
pointiS illustrated
ina brief
colonisation
analysis

The studyof technology,Marx wrote, is of paramountimportancefor the


humansciences:it 'disclosesman's mode ofdealingwithnature,theprocessby
whichhe sustainshislife'(Marx 1938). Few anthropologists
would disputethis
view. Yet social and culturalanthropologists
rarelyturnthefullforceof their
toolson thesubject.That,I wishto argue,is a pity,sincetheunique
theoretical
fieldmethodsand holisticorientationof anthropologysituatethefieldadvantageouslyforthestudyoftechnology.
Social and culturalanthropologists,
to be sure,have made valuable contributionsto the studyof subsistenceand extractivestrategiessuch as irrigation
(BeardsleyI964; Downing & Gibson I974; Geertz1972; Gray I973; Hunt &
Hunt 1976; Leach I959), fishing(AchesonI98I), mining(Godoy I985;J. Nash
1979; Taussig I980), industry
(Holzberg& GiovanniniI98I), and theimpactof
on traditionalsocieties(e.g.
technologicalchange(especiallyindustrialisation)
Bodley I982; Mitchell1973; Nash I967; Pelto I973; Sharp1952; Wallace 1978).
thecontributions
thesestudieshave made,however,one can
Withoutbelittling
observein mostof thema curiousoversight.Technologyis onlyrarelyseenin
of interest.On the contrary,
thesestudiesas a subjectthatis itselfintrinsically
anthropologists
frequently
equatetechnologywithmaterialcultureand see itas
a given. Technologyis portrayedas somethingfundamentally
extraneousto
humanlifeand a forceto whichcommunitiesandbeliefsareobligedto adapt.In
in
theanthropologyof mining,forexample,thereis an evident'lack ofinterest
the productiveprocessand workplaceitself',whichin a book-lengthmonographon miningmaybe treatedin a 'page or two' (Godoy I985: 21I). One can
Man (N S ) 23,

236-252

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

237

onlyconcludethat,in theeyesofmostanthropologists,
technologylies beyond
theboundsof disciplinary
interest.
intechnologyis pairedwithan equallymarkedinattention
The lackofinterest
In the1, 25 5 pagesofHonigmann'sHandbookofsocialand
to theterm'sdefinition.
cultural
forinstance,the termis used, peripherally
anthropology,
and without
on onlysixpages. A computersearchofSociological
Abstracts
revealed
definition,
searchforanthropology
and
that,of the 8,355 articlesretrievedby a free-text
containedthe word 'technology'in their
cognate terms,only thirty-eight
abstractsor subjectdescriptorsand only fourcontainedit in theirtitles;none
definedtheterm.
The inattentionto definitionis surprising,to say the least, in a discipline
concernedwith cross-culturaltranslationand the critique of ethnocentric
constructs.And herewe have a termthatstands,arguably,at theverycentreof
whatWesterners
(andWesternised
people)tendto celebrateaboutthemselves.It
indeedifit werenot suffusedthroughoutwithwhatMills
would be surprising
(i963: 435) calledthe'ethnocentricities
of meaning'.The firststeptowardsan
anthropologyof technology,then,is to unpack the culturalbaggage or prethatare tacitlypairedwith the termtechnology.Taking this
understandings
step, as will be seen, illuminatesthe unreliability
of the culturally-supplied
Westernnotionoftechnologyand,in addition,mandatestheterm'sredefinition
foruse by anthropologists.
It also demonstrates
why technologyis in itselfa
subjectofinterestto symbolicand interpretive
anthropology.

Technology
andWestern
ideology
Textbookdefinitions
oftechnologyraiseseriousdoubtsabouttheterm'sutility
in anthropological
discourse.Technologyis frequently
defined,forinstance,as
the sum totalof man's 'rational'and 'efficacious'ways of enhancing'control
over nature'(alternatives:'command over nature','dominationover nature',
etc.); e.g., technologyis 'any tool or technique,any physicalequipmentor
methodof doing or making,by whichhumancapabilityis extended'(Schon
I 967).

The historianLynn White (I967) notes the implicitlinkagebetweensuch


definitionsand the roots of Christianmetaphysics,which dictate human
dominationof thenaturalworld. Accordingto White,thistraditionhas led the
Westto thethresholdofa seriousand self-destructive
ecologicalcrisis.Whether
or not one agrees with White's analysis of the origins of this inherently
reasonto treattheterm
ideologicalnotionof technology,he suppliessufficient
with suspicion.At the minimum,it must be recognisedthatthe conceptof
technologyis normative.
Yet even greaterperilsawait beneaththe surface.The culturally-supplied
notion of 'technology'carrieswith it two tacitmeanings,two implicitand
affect
how
mythicviewsoftheworldin relationto technology,thatprofoundly
we understand
to ourlives.As will
technologyandhow we viewitsrelationship
be seen,thesetwo tacitmeaningsstandinapparentcontradiction
to one another.
themis a deeplyhiddenunity.
Yet underlying

23 8

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

Technological
somnambulism
The firstofthesetacitnotionsis calledtechnological
somnambulism
by thepolitical
scientistLangdon Winner(I986). In the somnambulisticview of technology
providedby Westernculture,thehumanrelationship
to technologyis simply
'too obvious to meritseriousreflection'.This relationshipconsistsmerelyof
'making',whichis ofinterest
onlytoengineersandtechnicians,
and'use', which
amountsonly to an 'occasional,innocuous,[and] nonstructuring
occurrence'.
Use is understoodto be a straightforward
matter:you pickup a tool,use it,and
put it down. The meaningof theuse of technologyis, in thismistakenview,
'nothingmore complicatedthanan occasional,limited,and nonproblematic
interaction'(5-6). In thisview, technologyis morallyand ethically'neutral'.It
is neithergood norbad, and its'impact'dependson how itis used.
What is wrong with this dream-likeorientationto technology,Winner
argues,is its denialof themanyways in whichtechnologyprovidesstructure
and meaningforhumanlife.This pointwas made powerfullyby Marx in the
Germanideology
(Marx & Engels 1976:3I):
The way in whichmenproducetheirmeansofsubsistencedependsfirstofall on thenatureof the
means of subsistencethey actuallyfind in existenceand have to reproduce.This mode of
of thephysicalexistenceof
productionmustnotbe consideredsimplyas beingthereproduction
theseindividuals.Ratherit is a definiteformof activityof theseindividuals,a definiteform
of expressingtheirlife,a definitemodeoflifeon theirpart.As individualsexpresstheirlife,so
theyare.

Technologies,then,are not merelyways of 'making' and 'using'. As technologiesare createdand put to use, Winner(I986: 6) argues,theybringabout
'significant
alterationsin patternsof humanactivityand humaninstitutions'.
Whatmustbe recognised,Winnerinsists,is that:
Individualsare activelyinvolvedin thedailycreationand recreation,productionand reproduction,of theworldin whichtheylive. Thus, as theyemploytools and techniques,workin social
make and consume products,and adapt theirbehavior to the material
labor arrangements,
individualsrealizepossiconditionstheyencounterin theirnaturaland artificial
environment,
bilitiesforhumanexistence.. . . Social activityis an ongoingactivityof world-making(I986:
I4-I

5).

the
Winnerdoes not mean to suggesta simplistictechnologicaldeterminism,
idea thattechnologicalinnovationsare themajordrivingforcesof humanlife
suchthatsocialand culturalformsareinevitablyshapedby them.To takesucha
view, Winner(I986: io) suggests,would be like describing'all instancesof
sexual intercoursebased only on the conceptof rape'. Choices exist in the
process of technologicaldeployment/and
consequentsocietaltransformation
(e.g., Noble I986). Yet technologicalsomnambulismleads us to ignorethem
while, in a trance-likestate,we blindlyaccept whateverimplementationof
technologythosein power choose to foistupon us. Once entrenchedin our
lives,however,thetechnologymakesa new worldforus. We weave itintothe
fabricof daily life (WinnerI986). Yet the human choices and decisionsare
masked,so thetechnologyseemsto operatebeyondhumancontroland appears
to embodytheresultofan automatic,inevitableprocess(Winner1977).

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

239

Technological
determinism
The second tacit notion supplied with the term technology,the one that
contrastsso sharplywith the first,is preciselythis notion of technological
determinism
thatWinneris so carefulto avoid. Here we have no dismissalof
technologyas ways of making and using. On the contrary,technologyis
viewedas a powerfuland autonomousagentthatdictatesthepatternsofhuman
social and culturallife.
oftenoperates
Liketechnologicalsomnambulism,technologicaldeterminism
as a tacit,unexaminedassumptionin scholarlydiscourse.In the grip of this
notion all of historyseems to have been dictatedby a chain of technological
eventsin whichpeoplehavebeenlittlemorethanhelplessspectators.So deeply
encoded is this notion that technology'sautonomyis frequentlyassumed
without comment. Indeed, the idea often operates, in scholarlywriting
about technology'in the elusive mannerof an unquestionedassumption'
(StaudenmaierI985: 143).
Some scholars,however,make thispositionexplicitand defendit, arguing
thattechnologyis appliedscience.Sincescienceis progressing
rapidly,thepace
of technologicaldevelopmentis, in thisview, so rapidthattechnologyis out of
control;we cannotevaluateourown creationsordefendourselvesagainstthem.
Yet thereare amplegroundsto doubtthattechnologyis appliedsciencein this
betweentechnologyand
simplistic,linearsense (Fores I982). The relationship
recent.Many importantinvenscienceis complex,dynamic,and historically
and nineteenth
tionsof theeighteenth
centuries,suchas thesteamengine,were
in no realsensetheresultoftheapplicationofscience.Indeed,muchtwentiethcenturysciencestemsfroman attemptto discoverwhy certaintechnologies
work so well. New technologies,moreover,make new lines of scientific
inquirypossible, and with them,new technologies.And even when a new
itis notdrivenby sciencealone.
technologydoes incorporatescientific
findings,
To createa new technologyis notmerelyto applyscienceto technicalmatters.It
is also, and simultaneously,to deal with economic constraints,to surmount
legal roadblocksand to get politicianson one's side (Hughes I983). A technology's form derives, then, from the interactionof these heterogeneous
elementsas theyare shaped into a networkof interrelated
components(Law
I987). However inhumanour technology
mayseem,itis nonethelessa product
ofhumanchoicesand socialprocesses.
Otherswould arguethatmoderntechnologybecomesan autonomousforce
because,once adopted,itsorganisational
imperativesrequiretheascendanceof
technicalnormsof efficiency
and profitability
over alternative
norms,such as
workerhealthand safety,environmentalpreservation,and aestheticvalues

(EllulI962). Thus,in Chapple'searlyview(I94I),

theveryfactthatindustrial

productionrequires rational organisationdictatesthe ascendancy of such


norms. And further:Salz (I955) argued thatthe technicaland organisational
imperativesof industrialisation
'remainthe same regardlessof who or what
entitiesown, finance,and managea givenindustrial
plant. . . and regardlessof
thewideraimswhichindustrialism
is to serve'(I955: 5). To bringin a plantand
automated equipment,then, is to bring in the efficiencynorms a factory

240

BRYAN

PFAFFENBERGER

requires,and theinevitableresult-even in in a socialistsetting(Goonatilake


1979)-is the exploitationand 'deskilling'of factoryworkers(e.g. Gottfried
I982).
Yet efficient
factorieshave indeed been built thatdo not lead to the
degradationof workingconditions(Noble I979), and theannalsof industrialisationin theThirdWorldtellofnumerousinstancesin whichefficiency
norms
takea back seatto otherones. Even whereautomateddevicesareintroducedin
theWest,thereis no necessary,inevitable'impact'on social relations(Attewell
& Rule I984). On the contrary,the outcome stemsfromsocial and political
choicesmade by engineers,managersand workers(Noble I986).
The relationshipbetweentechnologyand society,to be sure,can be simple
and unproblematicin certaininstances.Givingup a bullock fora tractor,for
instance,irretrievably
forcesa farmerinto an international
economy of petroleum and replacementparts. Beyond obvious points such as this one,
however, the outcome of a given innovationis still subject to substantial
modificationby social, politicaland culturalforces.It is, furthermore,
fundamentallywrong to argue thata technologycarrieswithit any necessaryor
consequentpatternof social and culturalevolution.The literature
on thesocial
impactof GreenRevolutiontechnologyprovidesa tellingcase in point (e.g.
Farmer 1977). Experience shows that the technologydoes not necessarily
producethe higheryieldsforeseenby its proponents.Nor does it necessarily
foreseenby its critics.A new or
produce the socio-economicdifferentiation
introducedtechnologysuchas thisone simplybringsa new setofpossibilitiesto
a situation.Whetherpeople capitaliseon those possibilitiesdependson their
abilityto conceptualisethe restructured
politicalfield,to set new goals for
themselves,and to mobilisepersonneland resourcesin pursuitof thesenew
in whichtheoutcomeis far
goals. We hereconfronta seriesofindeterminacies
frompredictable.
to sustainin comparativestudies.
The determinist
thesis,in sum, is difficult
Yet thisfactis no argumentfora returnto thetenetsof technologicalsomnambulism.The factthattechnologyis sociallyconstructed(Pinch& Bijker I984)
implies thatit has social content;it is far from'neutral'. Pinch and Bijker
describethe social constructionof technologyin the followingway. In its
inception,a new technologyappears in a varietyof forms.The process is
effects
ofan adaptiveradiationofbiologianalogousto thespecies-multiplying
cal formsintoan unoccupiedseriesofniches.Some forms'survive';others'die'.
In this process, the determinantof survival is not merely (or even conspicuously)economic, technicalor rational.On the contrary,the surviving
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 organisedandunorganisedgroupsofindividuals,buttheirfundamental
is that'all membersof [thesocial group] sharethe same set of
characteristic
. . . attachedto a specificartefact'(I984: 30, myemphasis).The social
meanings
constructionof technology,in sum, occurs when one set of meanings
gains
overotherones,and wins expressionin the technicalcontentof the
ascendancy
A technologyis thus,in Noble's words,'hardenedhistory'or a 'frozen
artefact.

ofhumanandsocialendeavor'(I986:
fragment

xi).

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

241

The social vision woven into technologiesis at timespatentlyobvious and


deliberate,as in thenow-famousexampleof Long Island'slow bridges.Their
designer,RobertMoses, intendedthemto obstructbuses, therebyrestricting
the Long Island populationto automobile-owningwhitesof the 'upper' and
'comfortablemiddle' classes (Winner I980: 121-3). And at the end of the
nineteenth
century,theradicalPariscitycouncilused preciselythesame trickto
accomplisha verydifferent
politicalobjective.By makingthe tunnelsof the
Paris Metro verynarrow,too narrowforstandard-gaugerailwaytrains,the
councilpreventedtheprivaterailwaycompaniesfromappropriating
theMetro
fortheirown ends(AkrichI987).
Even where such designs are absent technologiesstill bring with them a
definitesocial content.Any technologyshouldbe seen as a system,notjust of
tools, but also of relatedsocial behavioursand techniques.We meanjust this
when we refer,forinstance,to 'woodworking' or 'irrigation'.One can go
further.
consistsofpracticalknowledgeor knowhow
Technology,necessarily,
to codification
orverbalisation
which,althoughoftenresistant
(Ferguson1977),
just like any otheraspectof culture
mustsomehow be sharedand transmitted
(Layton 1974). Technology can indeed be defi-ned
as a set of operationally
replicablesocialbehaviours:no technologycan be said to existunlessthepeople
who use it can use it over and over again. To the extentthattechnological
ofphysicalelements(e.g., tools,
behavioursarereplicable,theinterpenetration
resources,etc.) and social communication(diffusion,apprenticeship,
etc.) is
presupposed (Tornatzkyet al. I983: 2). And furtherstill: the product of
technology,materialculture,is farmore thana practicalinstrument.Techa social objectendowed withsufficient
nologyis, simultaneously,
meaningto
thosewho becomeinvolvedwithitscreationor use. Technology,then,
mystify
is essentially
social, not 'technical'. When one examines the 'impact' of a
one is obliged to examinetheimpactof the
technologyon society,therefore,
technology'sembeddedsocialbehavioursand meanings.
in short,restson speciousgrounds.Technology
Technologicaldeterminism,
is not an independent,non-socialvariablethathas an 'impact' on societyor
culture.On the contrary,any technologyis a set of social behavioursand a
systemof meanings.To restatethe point: when we examinethe 'impact' of
technologyon society,we are talkingabout theimpactof one kind of social
behaviouron another(MacKenzie & Wajcman I985: 3)-a point thatMarx
graspedwith clarityand subtlety(MacKenzie I984). To thispointthisarticle
will return,but it is possiblenow to disclosetheunitythatunderliestechnologicalsomnambulismand itsapparentopposite,technologicaldeterminism.

Fetishised
objects
What is so strikingabout both naive views of technology,the view that
emphasisesdisembodiedwaysofmakinganddoing(technologicalsomnambulism) and theotherthatassertstechnology'sautonomy(technologicaldeterminism), is thatthey bothgravelyunderstateor disguise the social relationsof
technology.In thesomnambulistic
view, 'making'concernsonlyengineersand

242

BRYAN

PFAFFENBERGER

'doing' concernsonlyusers.Hidden fromview is theentirenetworkof social


and politicalrelationsthataretiedto makingand areinfluenced
by doing. In the
technologicaldeterministview, the technologyitself(usually conceived as
materialculture)is seen as somethingapartfromthisnetwork.Technologyis
thus,in thisview, an independent
variableto whichtheformsofsocialrelations
and politicsstand as dependentvariables.So thereis indeed a hidden unity
underlyingthesepositionsthatseem to standin apparentcontradiction:
technology, underthe sway of Westernculture,is seen as a disembodiedentity,
emptiedofsocialrelations,and composedalmostentirely
oftoolsand products.
It standsbeforeus, in otherwords,in whatMarx would callfetishised
form:what
is in reality
produced
byrelations
amongpeopleappearsbefore
us in afantasticform
as
relations
amongthings.
Marx's conceptoffetishism
stemsfromhisdiscussionof commoditiesin the
capitalistsetting.The worldoffetishised
commodities,Marx argued,is likethe
'mist-enveloped
regionsofthereligiousworld.In thatworldtheproductionsof
thehumanbrainappearas independentbeingsendowedwithlife,and entering
into relationboth withone anotherand thehumanrace' (Marx 1938: 43). As
is
Godelier(1977: xxv) putsit,fetishism
the effectin and for consciousnessof the disguisingof social relationsin and behindtheir
appearances.Now theseappearancesarethenecessary
pointof departureof therepresentations
of
formforthemselves.Such imagesthusconstitute
their. . . relationsthatindividualsspontaneously
thesocial realitywithinwhichtheseindividualslive, and servethemas a meansof actingwithin
and upon thissocialreality.

Marx's discussionwas limitedto thevalue ofcommoditieswhich,he argued,


is inrealitydetermined
bythesurplusvalueextractedfromthewage labourer.It
nevertheless
appearsto us in fetishisedformas a propertyof the commodity
thatproducedit. WhetherMarx's
itself,ratherthanof thesocialrelationships
analysisof surplusvalue is correctin economictermsis of littleconcernhere,
of technologyas a
exceptto statethatit is temptingindeedto see thefetishism
of commodities(and the capitalisteconnaturalconcomitantof thefetishism
omy in general).What is of interestis Marx's extraordinary
anthropological
insight:theWestern
ideology
ofobjects
renders
invisible
thesocialrelationsfrom
which
This invisibility
lies
arisesandinwhichanytechnology
isvitallyembedded.
technology
at theheartof technologicalsomnambulismand determinism.
The taskof the
of
is
to
social
relationsto light.
anthropology technology
bringthesehidden
inanthropological
Technology
discourse
Anthropologists,
unfortunately,
have been slow to detectthehiddeninfluence
of technologicalsomnambulismand determinism(Digard 1979). Under the
sway of the somnambulisticview, forinstance,technologyis simplynot of
muchinterest.Waysofmakingandusingareseento deservedescriptiononlyin
so far as theypreserveevidence of a disappearingway of life. Thus one is
confronted
withdrearycataloguesofsuchthingsas arrowsand potsthatare,as
Spierobserved,'dull, unimaginative,
myopic,and guiltyof generalizingfrom

theparticular'
(I 970: 143).

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

243

A concomitantof thisview is thattechnology,which is afterall a simple


matterofmakingandusing,does notdetermine
socialand culturalformsexcept
in waysthatareso obviousthattheyareoflittleinterest.Horticulture
obviously
precededirrigation,
forinstance,but suchobservationstellus verylittleabout
thecultureswe study.This was a pointmadebyBoas and a whole generationof
Americananthropologists,
who denied thatattemptsto link technologyand
social organisationor culturewould go beyondtheobvious. Whatwas of far
greaterinterestto Boas was the evidence,as he saw it, thatdissimilartechnologiescould be associatedwithsurprisingly
similarculturalforms:'we have
simpleindustriesand complexorganization',he wrote(I940: 266-267), as well
as 'diverse industriesand simple organization'.Ruth Benedict (1948: 589),
concurringwithBoas's radicaldenialof a necessarylinkbetweentechnology
and culture,assertedthat'man can at any stateof technologicaldevelopment
createhisgods in themostdiverseform'.This positionis an old one in American
anthropology,and itis notwithoutitscontemporary
advocates.
Replyingfor technologicaldeterminismare such authorsas L. A. White
who tracemajor developmentsin
(I959), Wittfogel(I959) and Harris(I977),
culturalevolutionto thepatternsof technologicalchange.Technology,in the
determinist
view,is seento evolveaccordingto itsown, autonomouslogic: 'the
had to precede
diggingstickhad to precedethe plow, the flintstrike-a-light
thesafetymatch,and so on' (HarrisI968: 232). In thisview theconsequencesof
this evolutionaryprocess for social organisationand cultureare regularand
predictable:whentheploughreplacesthehoe, forinstance,thesexual division
of labour altersin predictableways (Newton I985: 2I4). Wittfogel,to cite
anotherdeterminist
theorist,believedthatlarge-scaleirrigationsystemsentail
bureaucraticcentralisation
and politicaldespotism.And for Harris, the odd
customsand bizarrepracticesof tribalcultures,such as human sacrificeand
have a readyexplanation:theyhave some hiddentechno-economic
witchcraft,
rationality,
whichis exposed onlyby reducingsuch practicesto their'hidden'
materialaims (e.g. Harris1974). In thisview, thereareno surprisesin thejungle
of ethnographicdata. Every seeminglybizarretraitcan be laid down to its
underlyingtechno-economic
rationality.
Both oftheseanthropological
versionsofWesternculturaltheoryareremarkable for theirinherentdogmatism,itselfa sign of theirideological origin.
Somnambulistsdenyat theoutsetthatthereis a demonstrable
relationbetween
technologyand culture.Determinists
assumesucha relationship
alwaysexists.
Both views, in short,see technologyin fetishisedform.Both disguise the
socialbehavioursin whichpeopleengagewhentheycreateor use
fundamentally
a technology.
Humanised
nature
The anthropologyof technology,must be founded,not on simplisticand
ideologically-shapedpropositions,but ratheron a recognitionof the role of
in disguisingthe deep interpenetration
and dynamic
fetishism-specifically,
interplayof social forms,culturalvalues and technology(Spier 1970: 6-9). To
it is necessaryto see technologyin a
forceof fetishism,
counterthemystifying

244

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PFAFFENBERGER

radicallydifferent
way: to view it, not throughthe fetishismof technological
somnambulismor determinism,
butratheras humanisednature.
To say thattechnologyis humanisednatureis to insistthatit is a fundamenof thenaturearoundus and
tallysocialphenomenon:it is a social construction
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)
would readilycall total:any behaviourthatis technologicalis also, and at the
same time, political,social and symbolic. It has a legal dimension,it has a
and ithas a meaning.
history,itentailsa setofsocialrelationships
So farfromdisguisingthe social relationsand culturaldimensionof techof
nology,thisview logicallynecessitatesa recognitionof theinterpenetration
technologywith social formsand systemsof meaning. Any studyof technology's 'impact' is in consequencethe studyof a complex, intercausalrelationshipbetweenone formofsocialbehaviourandanother.Thereis no question
variableto a
offindinga nice,neatcausalarrowthatpointsfroman independent
dependentone, forthecausalarrowsrunbothways (or everywhichway), even
in what appears to be the simplestof settings.One mightbe tempted,for
Africa,
instance,to regardthecultureofthe!Kung-Sanpeoplesofsouthwestern
dominance
huntersand gathersuntilrecently,as theproductofenvironmental
broughton by a low level oftechnologicaldevelopment-until,however,one
set fireto the grasslands,
learnsthatthe !Kung-Sanregularlyand deliberately
and so shape theenvironment
thatwe mightsuppose shapesthem.'Humans',
foras long as theyhave
Lee observes,'have been cooking theirenvironment

been cookingfood' (I979:

I47).

and interpenetration
of
Dynamicinterplay

variables is to be expected from the theoreticalstandpoint.Assertionsof


one-waycausality,in contrast,aresuspectand requireradicalquestioning.
make
Viewing technologyas humanisednaturedoes not, unfortunately,
it forcesrecognitionofthealmostunbelievable
thingssimple.On thecontrary,
complexitythatis involvedin virtuallyanylinkbetweenhumantechnological
formsand human culture.The questionsthisrelationshipraises,to be sure,
seem simpleenough on the surface(e.g. 'What is theimpactof gravity-flow
irrigationschemeson peasantsin SriLanka?'). Yet, in practice,discoveringthe
effects
ofa giventechnologyon societyis, as MacKenzie and Wajcmannote,an
and problematicexercise'.Consider,forinstance,theimpact
'intenselydifficult
of themicrochipon employment:
It is relatively
easyto guesswhatproportionofexistingjobs couldbe automatedaway by present
or prospectivecomputertechnology.But thatis nottheeffect
ofthemicrochipon employment,
be approachedin isolationlikethis.To know the
preciselybecausethequestioncannotjustifiably
on employmentlevels,one needsto know thedifferent
ratesat whichitwillbe
microchip'seffect
adoptedin different
locations,thenatureof theindustriesproducingcomputertechnology,the
indirecteconomiceffects
ofthecreationanddestruction
ofjobs, thelikelyroleofdevelopmentsin
one countrywithwhatgoes on in othercountries,thegrowthor decline,and changingpatterns,
of theworldeconomy. . . in otherwords,answeringthequestionof theeffects
on societyof a
works.The simplicity
of
particulartechnologyrequiresone to have a goodtheory
ofhowthatsociety
the questionis misleading.Answering
itproperly
will oftenrequirean understanding
oftheoverall
anditisthusoneofthemostdifficult,
rather
thanoneoftheeasiest,
toanswer
questions
dynamics
ofa society,
(MacKenzie & Wajcman i985: 6-7, myemphasis).

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

245

Anthropology,at its best,is uniquelysuitedto the studyof such complex


relationshipsbetween technologyand culture.Anthropologyis distinctive,
afterall, not only forits local-level,small-scalestudiesusing the participantobservationmethod.It is also distinctiveforits holism,an approachthatsees
components.To undertake
any societyas a systemof moreor less interrelated
at
least
a
suchan analysisrequires
workingknowledgeofa society'sbiological
environment,
history,social organisation,politicalsystem,economicsystem,
relations,culturalvaluesand spirituallife.Such analysesareby no
international
to situatebehaviours
meanseasy; theyrequirenothingless thana commitment
and meaningsin theirtotalsocial, historicaland culturalcontext.Yet nothing
less will sufficeif we seek to illuminatethe natureand consequencesof our
attemptsto humanisenature.
settlement
schemes
An example:SriLanka'sirrigation
To illustrate
thisapproachfullyrequiresmorespace thancan be takenhere,but
thebroadoutlinesofa studyphrasedinthetermsdevelopedherecanbe sketched
out forpurposesof illustration.(Referenceswill be omittedforbrevity;see
n.d. fora fullaccount.)
Pfaffenberger
The island nationof Sri Lanka has been much concernedof late with the
settlement
schemes,thelatestofwhich
irrigation
developmentof gravity-flow
is the massiveMahaweli DevelopmentProject.This projectseeks to develop
fullythe irrigationcapabilitiesof the 208-mileMahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka's
longestriver.A major goal of theproject,like its predecessors,is to resettle
landless peasantson newly irrigatedlands withinthe country'sDry Zone.
projecthas raisedSriLanka's riceproductionand
Althoughthestill-unfinished
helped to freethe countryfromdependenceon rice imports,the economic
of thenew rice-growingcommunitieshas fallenshortof expecperformance
tations.Particularlydisappointingis the project'ssocial performance.So far
tenancy,
fromliberatinglandlesspeasantsfromdebtservitudeand agricultural
the Mahaweli settlementsappear to be reproducingthe adverse featuresof
traditional
peasantsocietythattheprojectwas designedto cure.
ofits
The Mahaweli Project'soutcomesecho thedisappointingperformance
predecessors,which were markedby seriousdeficienciesin the management
and distribution
ofwaterresources.The reasons,some argue,are 'technical'in
nature.Since theirinceptiondecades ago, Sri Lanka's irrigationdevelopment
principles,
in whicha riveris dammedand
projectshaveemployedgravity-flow
diverted,via canals, to agriculturalsettlements.The volume and pressureof
watersupplyin gravity-flow
worksis alwaysgreatestat the'top end'
irrigation
of the system.And not surprisingly,
settlersat the top end of the irrigation
projects,where the water supplyis continuousand ample, use fromtwo to
seventimesas muchwateras theyneed. At thesametime,settlersat thetailend
of the projectsreceiveinsufficient
water-or no water at all. The resultis a
in whichtop-enderstendto become
processof socio-economicdifferentiation,
tendto becomepoor and, eventually,lose theirland to
wealthyand tail-enders
and land speculators.
moneylenders
Top-endersuse theextrawaterto freethemselvesfromtheexpenseofhiring

246

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

labourersto clearweeds (thecopious waterdoes thejob instead)and to assure


themselvesan abundantcrop. They investtheirprofitsby encouragingirrigationmanagementofficials(in variedways) to keep thefloodgateswide open
in high-interest
loans (whichoftenresult
settlers
and byinvolvingless fortunate
in thedebtorsbecomingtenantson landstheythemselvesonce owned). In the
end, thesesocial processeslead to thereproductionof some of thefeaturesof
traditionalpeasant society (such as landlessness,sharecropping,and debt
servitude)thattheprojectwas expresslycreatedto circumvent.
That this disparityin income between top-endersand tail-endersshould
emergeis hardlysurprisingwhen one considerswhat one observercalls the
'harshfactsof hydraulics',namely,thepronouncedtendencyof gravity-flow
irrigationtechnologyto rewardtop-endersand punishtail-enders.This tendencycan be combattedby buildingextensivesystemsof fieldchannelsand
automateddeliverysystems,butsuchsystemscanadd so muchto thecostofthe
Ifone buildsan irrigationsystemthat
projectthatit ceasesto be cost-effective.
lacks such features,the seeminglyinevitableresult is economic disparity
betweentop-endersand tail-enders.
a viewpointthat
smacksoftechnologicaldeterminism,
Yet thisinterpretation
oftechnologymistrusts
on theoretical
theanthropology
grounds.And on closer
materialsuppliedby SriLankaitself,itturnsout
inspection,usingethnographic
of social relationsas
thatthe'harshfactsofhydraulics'arenot as determinative
ricefieldsfor
thisview would haveit. SriLankans,afterall,havebeenirrigating
two millennia,and as it happens traditionalSri Lankan villages had devised
severalcustomsthatoperatedto mute,ifnot negate,theeconomicdisparities
implicitin gravity-flow
irrigationsystems.In a village studiedby Leach, for
and
tail-end
landholdingswere alwayslinked,even in propinstance,top-end
so
that
the
benefits
of the top end were balanced out by the
ertytransfers,
This
custom
was accompaniedby a complexsystemof
penaltiesof thetailend.
to
water
that
discouragedtop-endwastage and adjustedthe
rights irrigation
to
the
amountofwateravailable.At theheartofthe
of
scope agricultural
activity
systemwas a clearrecognitionthat,in an irrigatedproductionsystem,what
countsis accessto water,notmerelytoland. Subsequentresearchhas shownthat
such customs are common in traditional,community-basedirrigationsystems. The pointhereis not to romanticisetraditionalirrigationcustoms,but
technologyis notmerelya matterofthings,
simplythis:gravity-flow
irrigation
thatis, dams, canalsand water.This technologyis also a system
ofhumansocial
characterised
behaviours,
by theascription or thenon-ascription-ofrightsto
water. If rightsto land are ascribedinsteadof rightsto water, one possible
outcome (in the absence of countervailingcustoms) is socio-economicdifis thattheneed
settlements
The designflawin SriLanka'sirrigation
ferentiation.
to designwater-allocation
proceduresand rightsintothetechnologyhas been
consistentlyand thoroughlyignored. The reasons for this oversightcan be
underwhichthe
knownonlyby graspingthesocial and culturalcircumstances
technologywas constructed.
The SriLankanprojectplannersenvisionedcommunitiesofsturdy,independent,yeoman farmerswho possess secureland tenure.Thus protectedfrom
exploitationand poverty,suchfarmerswould naturallyregardtheirprotector,

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

247

and loyalty.This idea, obviouslyof European cultural


thestate,withaffection
origin,occurredto SriLanka's conservativepoliticalleadership(with,perhaps,
Britishencouragement)afterthe second world war, when landlessnessand
politicalradicalismwere growingominouslyin the densely-populated
southwesterncoastal plan. The extensionof irrigationfacilitiesinto the sparselyor
populatedDry Zone was expresslyconceptualisedas a way ofdomesticating
ruralproletariat.
Yet thereis
co-optingthisdangerous(andincreasingly
lumpen)
of thistechnologythanthisbrandof Western
more to thesocial construction
politicalsensibility.What made it so usefulis thatit dovetailshandilywith a
SriLankanmodalityofpoliticallegitimation.
particularly
inpart,in anindigenouspolitical
SriLanka'spoliticalelitefindsitslegitimacy,
frameworkthatstemsfromtheancientSinhalacivilisationaltradition(or more
ofthattradition).The ancientSinhala
accurately,frommoderninterpretations
kings legitimatedtheirrule by constructingirrigationworks, and modern
politicians-especially those of the rulingUnited National Party-emulate
theirexample. The earlymovers of irrigationprojects,the United National
PartyleadersD. S. Senanayakeand his son Dudley, claimeddescentfromthe
ancientDry Zone kings.TheirUNP successor,PresidentJ.R. Jayawardene,is
oftendescribedas a Boddhisattvawho, likethekingsof old, is bringingwater,
prosperityand justice (dharma)to the people; in an annual ceremony,he
emulatesthekingofold bydrivingthebuffaloesintothefieldto cuttheseason's
firstfurrow.
The sameelitedrawsitslegitimacyfromanothersource,as well: a politicallyconstructedmyth about the deleteriousimpact of the colonial plantation
economy on peasantsociety.This mythinsiststhatthe foreign-ownedplantations,in collusionwiththeBritishcolonialgovernment,
deprivedtraditional
villagesof land neededforexpansion,and in so doing set offa viciouscycleof
land fragmentation
thatfinallyculminatedin widespreadlandlessness,sharecropping,povertyand moral degradationfor huge masses of peasants. By
seeking independenceand promisingto rightthese wrongs by developing
Sri Lanka's indigenouspoliticalelitefounda successful
irrigationsettlements,
formulaforpoliticallegitimacy.To describethis notion of the plantation's
impactas a 'myth'is notto deny,to be sure,thattheremaybe some truthto it.
But it is to insistthat,likeall myths,thismythtendsto be applieduncritically.
And nowheredid it operatemoreperniciouslythanin thesocial designof the
settlements.
irrigation
The social goals of the irrigationsettlementswere, fromthe beginning,
expresslyintendedto forestallland fragmentation,
which was seen to have
played a major role in the rise of landlessnessduringand afterthe colonial
period. So thesettlement
plots-surveyed and fixedplotsof up to fiveacresof
irrigatedriceland-were notgivento thesettlers
outright,butwereassignedto
themby perpetuallease and made indivisible.A peasantcould pass themon to
hisheirsonlyby nominatinga singlesuccessor.
Althoughthissocial visionmayhave been politicallysatisfying,
it could not
have been more inappropriateforSri Lankan conditions.By focusingon the
politicallymarketableimage of securelandrightsforthepeasantry,it failsto
acknowledgetheimportanceof waterrightsforstableirrigationcommunities,

248

BRYAN

PFAFFENBERGER

and so condemnsthesettlements
topreciselythesocio-economicdifferentiation
thattheprojectswereintendedto avoid. Ruled out in thestrokeof a pen, too,
was the kind of careful,inter-familial
juggling of land holdings that, in
traditionalSri Lankancommunities,help farmersto put togethera holdingof
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
of the settlersthemselves,has militatedagainstthe formationof kin-based
systemsof reciprocityand resourcesharing. In successfulirrigationcommunities,such systems frequentlyfunctionto mute processes of socioeconomic differentiation
by enabling what amounts to a process of
as familieshelpeachotherout (forinstance,by
intracommunity
capitaltransfer,
hiringkinsmenat ratesfarabove theeconomicwage).
Whatwas notruledoutin theprojectdesign,however,was anyeffective
legal
or politicalmechanismto forestallthe'sale' of thesettler'splots to mudalalis,
a
class of 'self-made'landholdersand moneylenderswho have long preyedon
peasantsthroughoutSri Lanka. Such sales areillegalin principle,but common
in practice.Sincetitlesareheldto land,notwater,'tail-end'settlersquicklyfall
theirholdingsto
behindin thecompetitionforwaterand wealth,and surrender
land speculators.Some wind up as tenantson theirown lands,an arrangement
thatmaywell bringthetenantmoreeconomicsecuritythanwas possibleas an
impoverished'owner' of theland in question.Moreover, the prohibitionon
fliesin thefaceofSriLankaninheritance
landfragmentation
customs.Not a few
settlerspreferto 'sell' theirplots(illegally)ratherthanfacethedisconcerting
and
uncomfortable
prospectof favouringone heirover others.Otherfactors,such
in watersupply,thevicissitudesof thericemarket,theriseof
as irregularities
also contributeto the'sale'
and herbicideprices,and mismanagement,
fertiliser
of plots to mudalalis.In one settlement
scheme,a mudalaliwas foundto have
amasseda 'holding'of IOO acresofprimericeland,irrigatedat publicexpense.
Whatis new is themassive
Thereis nothingnew abouttheactivitiesofmudalalis.
public investmentin the settlementschemes,which have createdrich new
opportunitiesfor the mudalalis'activities.Indeed, the schemes create new
mudalalis.They enrichtop-endersso that theymay choose, among several
alternativecareers,the mudalali'sway of money-lending,briberyand land
speculation.
were promotingsocio-economicdifThat the older irrigationsettlements
has been known forsome time,but the new phase of irrigation
ferentiation
developmentundertheAcceleratedMahaweliDevelopmentProgram(AMDP)
soughtto forestallsuch processesby usingtheexpensivetechnicalsolutionof
fieldchannelsto groups of settlers.For reasonsthatare hardly
constructing
does notappearto be working.
surprising
giventheabove analysis,thisstrategy
arewell at workin thenew AMDP
Processesofsocio-economicdifferentiation
in watersupplyand otherprobsettlements.Pricefluctuations,
irregularities
lems frequently
bringthesettlersto themudalaliwho, forall his propensityto
exploitthe peasantand deprivehim of his land, stilloffersthe peasantmore
day-to-daysecuritythan the government-sponsored
arrangements.In the

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

249

communities,thereis nowhere
absenceof kinsmenin theatomisedsettlement
else to turnwhen a child fallsill or new clothesare needed foran important
event.The 'technicalfix' of fieldchannels,in sum, has not workedverywell
because only thematerialcomponentof thetechnologyhas been changed.Its
social, legal and mythiccomponentshave been left alone, and expose the
is
peasantsettlerto a socio-politicalcontextin whicheconomicdifferentiation
virtuallyassured.

Conclusion
is notmaterialculturebutrathera total
Technology,definedanthropologically,
socialphenomenonin thesenseused by Mauss, a phenomenonthatmarriesthe
material,the social and the symbolicin a complex web of associations.A
technologyis farmorethanthematerialobjectthatappearsunderthesway of
thetendencyto unhingehumancreations
theWesternpenchantforfetishism,
fromthe social relationsthatproduce them. Every technologyis a human
world,a formofhumanisednature,thatunifiesvirtuallyeveryaspectofhuman
endeavour.To constructa technologyis not merelyto deploy materialsand
techniques;it is also to constructsocial and economicalliances,to inventnew
legal principlesforsocial relations,and to providepowerfulnew vehiclesfor
technologyon thesociety
myths.The 'impact'ofirrigation
culturally-provided
schemes cannot be
in
settlement
Sri
Lanka's
irrigation-based
taking shape
is
in
a totalitythat
this
seen
its
totality,
until
technology
grasped,therefore,
embracesnotonlythe'harshfactsofhydraulics'(theimplicitdisparitybetween
top-endersand tail-enders),but what is more, the choices that the project
designersmade in definingthecolonies'social relations,and, in particular,the
powerfulpoliticalmythsthatguidedthemto thesechoices.
Thereremainsto concede,however,thata technologicalinnovation'ssocial
and mythicdimensionsmay become starklyapparentwhen it is perceivedto
fail. Afterthe Challengerdisaster,for instance,the Americanspace shuttle
programmecameto be seenas a product,notofscienceandreason,butratherof
politicalcompromise,flawedcommunicationand confusedgoals. If an innovation succeeds, however, the social and mythicdimensions stay in the
background. The innovation's success will be attributedto the project's
unerringnavigationof the true course laid down by the laws of nature,
and reason.
efficiency
Here is yetanothertrapforthe mind,one thatis even more insidiousthan
To arguethatonlya failedtechnologyis sociallyconstructed
(and,by
fetishism.
implication,that successfulones are not socially constructed)violates the
principleof symmetryin sociological explanation:we should use the same
explanatoryprinciplesto account for a successfulinnovationas a failedone
(Latour I987). Many examples-the Americanautomobile,forinstance(Flink
1975)-can indeedbe foundof successfultechnologiesin which the technical
design betraysthe thoroughinterweavingof materialsand techniqueswith
To createa new
socialvisionsand mythicconceptions.Yet we mustgo further.
but also a new world of social
technologyis to createnot only a new artefact,

BRYAN PFAFFENBERGER

250

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 mystifyingforceof 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.

NOTE

My thanksto Mel Cherno,W. BernardCarlsonand H. L. Seneviratne,whose commentson an


earlierdraftof thisarticlehelped me shape its argument,forwhich I alone take responsibility.
Thanksaredue, too, to theSchool ofEngineeringandAppliedScience,UniversityofVirginia,fora
thisessay'scomposition.
summerresearchgrantthatfacilitated

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techniics-out-of-conitrol
Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.
1980.

Do artifacts
havepolitics?
DaedalusI09,

I2I-3.

Technologyas formsoflife.In Thewhaleandthereactor:


a searchfor
limits
inanageofhigh
technology.
Chicago: Univ. Press.
Wittfogel,Karl I957. Orientaldespotism.
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
I986.

Objets feticheset nature humanisee: vers une anthropologie de la


technologie
Resume
tacitessontmises
Le conceptde technologiedevientutileseulementlorsqueses pr6conceptions
au jour. Dans le discoursoccidentalle termetechnologieest 1i6a deux extr6mites
de la pensee
mythique:le d6terminisme
etle somnambulismetechnologiques.Le premierdecritla technologle
comme la cause de la formationsociale; le derniernie ce lien de causalite. Tous les deux,
cependant,occultentles choix soclaux et les relationssocialesqui appartiennent
a toutsysteme
technologlque.Pour rendrede tellesnotionscaduques, la technologieest red6finieici comme
etantun phenomenesocial totaldans le sensutilis6par Mauss; un ph6nomenea la foismat6r&el,
social, et symbolique. Creer et utiliserune technologie,c'est alors humaniserla nature;c'est
exprimerune visionsociale,creerun symbolepuissant,ets'engagersoi-memedansune formede
vie. L'6tude de la technologie,par consequent,s'adapte bien aux outils d'interpr6tation
de
l'anthropologlesymbolique. Ce point est illustr6par une analysebreve des projetscoloniaux
d'irrigationdu SriLanka.