Water matters

Posted on 19 août 2008

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Technology and Culture is one of the best journal about history of technology at the crossroads of politics, society, science and technics (let’s call it STS). The current issue of July 2008 (Vol. 49, Nb 3) is about Water :

« (… ) as this issue goes to press, dramatic flooding has affected both the Pearl River in South China and the Mississippi River in the United States, devastating communities large and small on opposite sides of the world; a serious drought threatens famine for the Horn of Africa and serious problems for California; and the city of Barcelona has been forced to ship in drinking water and rests its hopes for the future on a desalinization plant, meant to come online within the next few years. Of course, water is often in the news—it is, after all, crucial to human life. Yet changing climate patterns, mobile and in some places growing populations, the growth of water-hungry industry and agriculture, as well as the desire to expand hydropower have unsettled taken-for-granted sociotechnical systems of water management, putting water squarely at the center of public attention. From humble cisterns to monumental dams, water technologies are under increasing scrutiny, as actors rethink historic commitments, the ethics of water use, and the needs of changing societies. In his introductory essay for this issue, Martin Reuss explores the theme of social negotiation that runs through these articles, comparing the nature and significance of the process across cultures and time periods and encouraging us to think more about the technical expert as negotiator. As we might expect, technical actors and governing authorities play a key role here, but Reuss also shows the role that collective memories of past practices (accurate or not) play in these histories. Remembering the past is a centrally important activity in the social renegotiation of water use. (…) »

The ToC is :

Seeing Like an Engineer: Water Projects and the Mediation of the Incommensurable (Martin Reuss).
– Cooperative Sanitation: Managing Streets and Gutters in Late Medieval England and Scandinavia (Dolly Jørgensen).
– Image and Audience: Contractual Representation and London’s Main Drainage System (Paul Dobraszczyk).
– Breaking from the Colonial Mold: Water Engineering and the Failure of Nation-Building in the Plain of Reeds, Vietnam (David Biggs).
– Turning Water into Power: Debates over the Development of Tanzania’s Rufiji River Basin, 1945–1985 (Heather J. Hoag and May-Britt Öhman).
– Telling Otherwise: A Historical Anthropology of Tank Irrigation Technology in South India (Esha Shah).
– Reluctant Modernization: The Cultural Dynamics of Water Supply in Istanbul, 1885–1950 (Noyan Dinçkal).
– From Colonial to Postcolonial Irrigation Technology: Technological Romanticism and the Revival of Colonial Water Tanks in Java, Indonesia (Dianne van Oosterhout).
– Engineering Innovation at Bonneville Dam (Abbie B. Liel and David P. Billington).

Historians are keen on reflexivity as well :

« (…) What is especially striking about July’s articles is their temporal and geographical distribution. The eras examined range from medieval times to the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Geographically, the articles examine stories from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, making this very likely the first time that a single issue of Technology and Culture has published articles from four continents. The unplanned nature of this issue highlights an encouraging scholarly trend in the history of technology. As a profession, we have started to address two longstanding historiographic problems: the largely U.S. and European focus of much history of technology (and a fairly small slice of Europe at that) and our collective emphasis on the modern era. The historiography of technology, as rich, vital, and exciting as it is, has never been sufficiently diverse in either time or place to narrate a truly global history of technological change. In recent years, however, this has started to change. As the profession continues to grow and spread, new and expanding scholarship on Africa, Asia, the neglected areas of Europe and the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, and Latin America gives us the opportunity to challenge both the narratives of technological change that inform undergraduate surveys and our own assumptions about what matters. We may find fresh ways to link the modest usefulness of the digging stick to the complexity of the jet engine without doing a disservice to either, incorporating, but not being overwhelmed by, the industrial revolution and European and North American experiments in modernity. We are not suggesting that historians of technology should pursue what Bill Storey once referred to as “weak multiculturalism,” where diversity is an end in itself, and marginalized countries and eras get center stage only as representatives of the marginal. Rather, it is a call to reconsider how we have delineated the “stories that matter” and to consider how to enrich our insight into the complex dynamics of technology in human history—all of human history.

Water is a nearly ideal lens for thinking anew about global narratives in the history of technology. Both its fundamental importance and the profound diversity of technological solutions to water problems embedded in different cultures and ecologies make the study of water an appropriate and useful way to explore technology and culture on a truly global basis. Water is a fundamental requirement for human survival: no human society, no matter how small, can survive without some means of procuring it. The society need not be very large before some social negotiation of water use and distribution becomes important, and sprinkling, spilling, and immersing people in water can carry basic or profound spiritual, ethical, and cultural meanings. Water can be threatening in the form of floods, tsunami, and fast-flowing rivers, while stagnant water provides an ideal breeding ground for parasites and bacteria that can devastate human settlements. However, even beyond the basic need for drinking water, human societies have also found water to be, simply put, useful: water transport is faster and, with the right technology, often easier than going by foot; water, the universal solvent, is enormously useful for flushing away wastes, both human and industrial; and water, properly applied, can dramatically improve agricultural yields. The marvelous, multifaceted usefulness of water is reflected in the multifaceted sociotechnics of water control, distribution, and use, for they embody a culture’s needs, desires, values, and conflicts. (…) »