My Fulbright-Nehru project–to explore the communities formed through dialogue about sarees, particularly handwoven sarees, on social media–has me thinking a lot about how we conceptualize the terrain of technology. We tend toward archeologies when we’d be better of thinking about architectures.
I’m lucky that my work brings me into contact with a wide range of entrepreneurs dedicated to connecting Indian and international consumers with handwoven fabrics that are produced with attention to ethical concerns. That is, the entrepreneurs we work with are dedicated to paying fair wages to weavers and often others in the supply chain (such as cotton farmers and dyers) or even to re-configuring the supply chain to maximize local production of supplies, such as with indigenous cotton. Folks at companies like metaphorRacha, Malkha, and Vimor are involved in this space, and approaches vary from Gandhian institutes such as the Janapada Seva Trust to high fashion groups like The Registry of Sarees (which, like Vimor, also has heritage recovery projects to discover and maintain the stories behind sarees. I’ll leave the stories for a different post). You can read another word or two about my work with entrepreneurs at a blog post I composed for the US-India Educational Foundation.
The point here is that these folks all work with a wide range of technologies, from traditional to next generation. They sell handmade products (made on a loom such as the pit loom pictured here) using smartphones, and in doing so contribute to the wider cultural conversation about those products online. It’s the technological terrain that I promised to discuss, so here goes:
We often think of technologies as replacing one another, and of course often a technology is obviated by the previous. No one rides a penny-farthing bicycle any more. On the other hand, a host of different bicycle designs remain in use for different purposes. Well, we think of those as being modern bicycles that have replaced the previous, now useless designs. We think of intercontinental railways as replacing wagon trains and cars as replacing carriages. A horse-drawn carriage is now an anachronism employed by tourists to see Central Park in New York City and subject to serious ethical concerns (can the horse be happy when cars race by?). Telephones replace telegrams, and so on.
And so investigating the technological terrain looks like archeology, digging up one strata after another, always heading deeper into the historical past and toward increasingly irrelevant technologies. But this vision is, at best, incomplete.
There are technologies that remain relevant to the present and to the future despite the fact that newer versions have been devised. The pit loom above (named for the pit into which the weaver places his legs while using it) uses 19th c. jacquard loom technologies, so it is not the oldest imaginable version of such a loom; but more basic pit looms are still in use today. These pit looms are not actually made obsolete by massive, electrically powered textile mills. Indeed, the more I understand the complete costs of such mills (from environmental to social) the more it seems like handlooms might make them obsolete. In any case, the real issue for me is that the terrain of technology is architectural — it is a space of design and construction that, when done well, brings disparate elements into harmony. The smartphone (despite its attendant environmental and social costs) is an integral part of today’s life; but so is (or could be) the pit loom. And in a world of environmental crisis, climate change, and unjust economic structures, our observation of the technological terrain of the twenty-first century needs to move beyond the misguided belief that technologies are meant to be buried. Some of them might serve well to sustain us with commodities both beautiful and productive. In this, a technological architecture offers a superior understanding than does an archeology.