Popular histories of technology are usually histories of successful inventors. Often, it involves a lone male maverick at work, far from the machinations of the world. This entrepreneurial streak in our narratives of technology is unsatisfactory because it elides what is most fascinating about such stories: the political life of technologies. Arun Mohan Sukumar‘s book Midnight’s Machines is unequivocal in its intent: it offers a lucid critique of India’s fraught relationship with machines. Significantly, it is a story marked by failures.
After 1947, a fledgling Indian state was grappling with the bloodbath of the partition, the post-war reconstruction of its economy and its newfound political autonomy. Technology, as Sukumar shows, was an integral part of the Nehruvian script for national development. Jawaharlal Nehru has been lionised by scientists and historians as a cultivator of ‘scientific temper’ and as an institution builder for science. Sukumar, while conceding as much, points to Nehru’s vision of modern technology as largely responsible for the lack of technological diffusion in India. He illustrates this through a close reading of Nehru’s own words and the failures of the government’s cherished schemes.
The Nehruvian years were characterised by limited foreign trade, with imports restricted to basic machinery. Nehru, in a bid to democratise modern machines in a predominantly agrarian economy, launched the Community Development Scheme (CDS) in 1952. Sukumar notes that this scheme, with its focus on rural infrastructure and food production, was also an exercise in familiarising people with the “higher techniques” (in Nehru’s words) of modern civilisation. By the government’s own estimation, this scheme of rural mobilisation was a failure. The nature of this scheme occupies historians even today, but Sukumar underscores Nehru’s outlook on technology as culpable in its demise. The Nehruvian state is portrayed as deeply skeptical of modern technology’s ability to liberate society, evidenced in the CDS’s lack of investment in crucial innovations like tractors and synthetic fertilisers.
”Nehru”, notes Sukumar, “wanted Indians to be arbiters of their material progress”, but the reality of a “control and command” economy meant that the state was the true arbiter in this process. The pressure of import substitution industrialisation was also felt by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who were called upon to “nativise technology” aimed at domestic markets. As Sukumar recounts, Nehru was frustrated by the scientists’ inability to aid industry, a fact that sits uncomfortably with the many hagiographies of Indian scientists.
Nehru’s preference for capital goods over imported consumer goods leads Sukumar to conclude that the private sector was “kept at arm’s length”. There is a danger here of too reductive a reading of Nehruvian planning, one that obscures the role of industrialists in independent India’s technological narrative. While the Indian state underwrote the capitalist enterprise, private firms did partake in the technological project. The nature of this participation and the capital-caste nexus that undergirded the Nehruvian state goes unexamined in this book.
Sukumar excels in tracing the effects of geopolitical pressures on the state’s ability to industrialise. The insufficiency of the military infrastructure brought to bare by the 1962 war with China, the impact of the Cold War on non-aligned India and the political fallout of the 1965 war on US-India relations are all handled with exceptional clarity. This is equally true of Sukumar’s study of the Indira Gandhi government’s ‘appropriate technology’ movement, with its investment in low-cost and smaller scale technologies. He effectively brings out the duplicity of Gandhi’s scheme that enforced increased regulations on import technologies, while investing heavily in a nuclear programme that did not produce a single watt of electricity in the first two decades of its existence.
And if the Department of Atomic Energy did less with more, the Indian Space Research Organisation known for doing more with less is also suspect. The frugality of the space organisation, Sukumar notes, is built on its inability to pay its scientists anywhere near its global competitors and in the nature of the projects it pursues. As historians have argued, an accounting of ISRO’s success must consider its impact on proximate industries.
However, for a book about the political history of technology, there is precious little about people’s negotiations with it. People’s perspectives enter this book through surveys conducted by researchers, and in the cavalier claim that people are mired in a fog of disinformation due to the state’s reluctance to educate. As Amita Baviskar’s work shows, political opposition to state projects was often about an inequitable distribution of land and technologies, a skepticism borne out by the experience of marginalised communities. Political contentions over labour rights and trade unionism are likewise sidelined in this book.
The same holds true for Sukumar’s handling of institutes of technical education. While Nehru’s lament over the “brain drain” of IIT graduates to greener pastures is addressed, the structural bias towards an upper-caste and masculine rationality in these institutions receives scant attention.
There is a deeper point to be made here about the kind of technologies investigated in this book. Sukumar is concerned foremost with technological innovation, as seen in his choice of technologies: fertilisers, solar cookers, electronics, IT, automobiles, biological research, mass media, PCs and nuclear technology, to name a few. From the sectors left out – coal, iron and steel, mining, oil and gas, textiles, railways, construction, public works, shipping, medical infrastructure, and handicrafts – it is clear that technology has been associated with novelty, and with novel sectors.
The book’s organisation embraces a teleology identified with the gradual opening up of the country’s technological fate to the market (the book begins with the Nehruvian ‘Age of Innocence’, followed by the ‘Age of Doubt’ with Indira Gandhi at the helm, the pangs of partial liberalisation of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the ‘Age of Struggle’, and the post-liberalisation years with the IT industry take-off as an ‘Age of Rediscovery’).
Framed this way, Sukumar can boldly claim that the 1980s was a period when “Indians were waking up to technology after decades of enforced slumber.” This identification of technology with innovation obscures the changing politics of technologies in use. Indeed, it renders invisible the distribution of these techniques due to structural inequalities of caste and class. This is not to suggest that stories of technological innovation are unimportant, but that our histories of innovation must address the tension between the ‘old’ and the new. Thus, Sukumar’s analysis of the Human Genome Project rests on the assumption that it would build Indian scientific capacity “in ancillary domains such as agriculture or animal husbandry”, even though he adduces no evidence to this claim.
An innovation-centric understanding of technology conditions not only our histories but our imagined futures. Sukumar’s characterisation of contemporary India is similarly based on the new. His study of Nandan Nilekani and the Aadhar project lacks the sharpness that characterise earlier chapters. The attention paid to Narendra Modi’s rhetoric on technology over the material outcomes of his government’s policies likewise renders his analysis thin. This is, after all, a government that is failing to straddle the technological chasm between the new and the old. For every Digital India, Smart Cities and bullet train project, we have the equally floundering Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, ‘Make in India’ and the LPG scheme.
Similarly, the apogee of ‘efficient governance’, Aadhaar, is up against an inadequate electricity grid resulting in starvation deaths. The NRC exercise in Assam and the proposed India-wide NRC rest on this same contradiction. To avail the services of an efficient technocratic state, citizens must navigate a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure, with their allegiance resting on their ability to produce one of the oldest technologies around: their papers. That this targets the most vulnerable groups amongst us is by design.
Books like Midnight’s Machines are important because they seek to make transparent the workings of an opaque state. Indira Gandhi’s surveillance state and the ‘appropriate technology’ policy that Sukumar illuminates are examples of what Lewis Mumford called authoritarian technics, a system of technological coercion that only furthers the interests of the ruling class. While this book effectively demonstrates that technologies serve powerful political ends, its very appeal is a reminder that the analysis of powerful techniques is never apolitical.
Shankar Sunil Nair is a postgraduate student on a PhD track in the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine at King’s College London.