Technology and Culture 44.2 (2003) 412-413
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Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony. By Rudolf Mrázek. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. xvii+311. $65/$24.95.
Engineers of Happy Land is a striking and deeply engaging historical study of the emergence and development of technological modernity in late-colonial Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). Set at a pace that mirrors that of its subject, the book details the rapid changes in colonial transport, communications, architecture, and fashion that engulfed the Indies in the last seventy-five years of colonial rule (ending in the Japanese occupation of 1942). In tracing this history, Rudolf Mrázek takes the reader on a journey, sometimes strange, through the jungles, laboratories, houses, trains, and latrines of late-colonial life. He also brings to life a cast of historical characters—engineers, administrators, nationalists, radio personalities, writers—who used everything from toilets to airplanes as tools for articulating and reflecting upon what it meant to be modern in the Indies.
For Mrázek, technology is interesting because it has the capacity to defamiliarize. In the Indies, "as people handled, or were handled by, the new technologies, their time, space, culture, identity, and nation came to feel awry" (p. xvi). To describe how Indies culture came to feel awry, Mrázek analyzes the writings of successive generations of Dutch colonials and early Indonesian nationalists. He draws upon an array of sources, including novels, letters, technical journals, diaries, political speeches, song lyrics, and photographs. And he uses these sources much as Wolfgang Schivelbush (The Railway Journey, 1986; Disenchanted Night, 1988) used accounts of railway travel and lighting to highlight the disorienting effects of industrialization in the West. Mrázek's method gives vivid personality to these accounts by focusing on particular historical figures: Tillema, a hygienist, photographer, and asphalt enthusiast; Kartini, a Javanese "princess" who dreamed of telephones and loved to ride trams; Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the renowned novelist who spent most of his life in exile or under house arrest; and many others. [End Page 412]
Mrázek uses these people to draw attention to an important shift that took place in the technological culture of the late-colonial Indies. Up until the 1910s, both Dutch and non-Dutch figures were optimistic about using technology to modernize Indies society and perhaps even create a modern social space for all. Technological culture seemed capable of incorporating different groups and perhaps even erasing differences in identity. By the end of the period, however, a kind of floating modern space had developed that was detached from the rest of Indies society and was deeply segmented into Dutch and non-Dutch parts, a segmentation due largely to the efforts of Dutch engineers and planners to use technologies to draw a line between themselves and the non-Dutch population. This did not mean using "machines as the measure of man" (in Michael Adas's expression) so much as creating two parallel cultures of technology: Dutch and "native." The former culture sought escape in hygienic electric homes and the comforting sounds of radio, and used surveillance technologies to maintain control over the latter. The latter culture, partly as a consequence of these controls, became little more than an engineered version of an idealized and sanitized native society.
Mrázek shows that the trajectory of change in technological culture had important consequences for Indonesian nationalism, which grew out of the early period of optimism about new technologies; being a nationalist became closely associated with handling these technologies. Even critical nationalists liked to think of themselves as "radio mechanics" (p. 161) contributing to the creation of a common modern social space. As time went on, however, becoming a radio mechanic increasingly meant becoming entrapped within the escapist and divided culture of late-colonial Indies modernity. What is striking about Mrázek's book is the ease with which he analyzes such a grand problem, the relationship between technology, colonialism, and nationalism. Mrázek develops his theoretical insights with a light hand through the telling of...