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Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity

Author(s):Arnold, David
Reviewer(s):Manish, G.P.

Published by EH.Net (February 2014)

David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. iv + 223 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-226-92202-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by G.P. Manish, Department of Economics, Troy University.

The Indian economy during the colonial era was often viewed as being static and unchanging. Production, many observers claimed, proceeded along well-worn grooves; the same products were produced, often with the same outdated and obsolete techniques. Inert to the benefits of adopting new and improved technology, Indians appeared content to undertake production processes that were characterized by extraordinarily low levels of productivity and yielded little. All invention, innovation and change were at a minimum in an economy that also featured extremely limited specialization and division of labor. Indeed, most production and consumption activities were undertaken within the self-sufficient village community, and barely any changes, it was claimed, permeated or affected this world unto itself.

This narrative of stasis served as ideal grist for the mills of Imperial apologists. To these supporters of colonization and empire, it explained why India remained mired in poverty despite the Imperial touch. Indians were poor because they were averse to change and betterment; they were satisfied with little and desired nothing more. Ironically, Indian nationalists adopted an identical view of the colonial economy. For them, however, the lack of change was not something to be lamented but glorified. The self-sufficient village economy with its insularity and its rudimentary production techniques was held up as a moral and spiritual ideal. Untouched by the hustle and bustle of modern industrial life it was a pure rural idyll with no place for modern machinery of any kind.

In Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity David Arnold paints a picture of the colonial economy that stands in sharp and refreshing contrast to the view sketched above. The Indian economy in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries was characterized by considerable socio-economic change, a lot of it a result of the adoption and use of machines embodying new and improved technology. Both in urban and, to a lesser extent, in rural India, the life of the average Indian was being buffeted by the arrival of a number of novel and modern goods from all over the world. Goods like the sewing machine, as well as bicycles, typewriters, gramophones and the rice mill were gradually altering the everyday relationships that Indians formed with one another.  They brought forth, in their wake, changes in the way Indians spent their leisure time and in the way they worked, while also expanding the range and the quality of the goods and services they could produce and consume.

Breaking with the traditional focus on “big” technologies and “big” machines and goods like canals, railroads and the telegraph, Arnold paints a detailed and informative picture of the diffusion and adoption of four “small” technologies embodied in the sewing machine, the bicycle, the typewriter and the rice mill. Given the smaller size and scope of these goods, and the uses that they were put to, the author’s narrative does not remain mired in the sterile world of officialdom. Instead, he is incessantly led, by the very nature of the task at hand, into the homes, offices and streets of colonial India; into the life and world of the common man. This focus on the subaltern world, far away from the centers of power, and the author’s masterful rendition of it in lucid prose, is one of the highlights of the book.

Through the course of the book Arnold sketches the entire life history of these four small technologies in colonial India. He provides a well-researched account of their emergence into the country and into the various individuals and firms from all over the world that were involved in this process (p. 40-68). He analyzes and provides evidence for the gradual increase in their importance for everyday life, citing rising imports of these goods into India, and notes the positive impact that they had on prevailing living standards. The sewing machine, we are told, contributed to significant changes in the modes of dress. Male laborers in the more prosperous provinces, for example, “began to wear shirts and cotton jackets made in town” (p. 37), while the advent of rice milling led to rice no longer being the preserve of the wealthy. Instead, “it was more cheaply available than ever before” and gradually made its way into the diets of “factory hands, plantation workers … and low caste groups” (p. 118).

Indeed, one of the most noteworthy lessons to be derived from the author’s account of the diffusion of technology into colonial India is how all these goods began by touching the lives of only a minority, usually Europeans and the richer Indians, and then slowly started permeating and entering the lives of the man and the woman on the street. Particularly compelling, in this context, is Arnold’s account of how the sewing machine was marketed and distributed. Initially thought of as a good fit only for the use of Europeans, it was left to an Indian, N.M. Patell, to revolutionize the way it was marketed (p. 70-76). Patell, in an example of brilliant entrepreneurship, began to market it to Indians as well, greatly expanding the machine’s reach and its sales.

Along with the economic impact of these small machines, Arnold also provides an account of their impact on Indian society and culture. Of particular note is his description of the social tumult that the entry of these and other machines caused, especially among Indian nationalists who believed in the goal of Swadeshi enterprise, and among those who equated all machinery with cultural imperialism and domination emanating from the developed world (p. 95-120). While himself sympathetic to the goal of economic self-sufficiency and autarky that this nationalist sentiment ultimately resulted in, Arnold provides a fair and balanced account of the debate surrounding the costs and benefits of the entry of machines into colonial India.

In sum, Everyday Technology is an interesting and informative work that all students of Indian economic history can read with both profit and pleasure. Regardless of the reader’s political persuasion and of his views regarding India’s experiments after independence first with central planning and now with liberalization and market reforms, Arnold’s book is bound to provide an enlightening glimpse into the lives of the common man and his relationship with technology during the later years of British rule in India.

G.P. Manish is the author of “Market Reforms in India and the Quality of Economic Growth,” The Independent Review (2013) and “Central Economic Planning and India’s Economic Performance, 1951-65,” The Independent Review (2011).

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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII