- The Technological State in Indonesia: The Co-constitution of High Technology and Authoritarian Politics by Sulfikar Amir
Sulfikar Amir’s recent book, The Technological State in Indonesia: The Co-constitution of High Technology and Authoritarian Politics, is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on state-led technological development in Asia. This examination of Indonesia’s “New Order” technological institutions and state politics uses a historical sociological approach and engages with books on similar topics, such as Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle (1982). Johnson, who coined the term developmental state in his book, argued that Japan rose to the position of the world’s second-largest economy in the second half of the twentieth century because its bureaucratic institutions, most notably its Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), were inclined toward development. Unlike the United States’ “marketrational” planning, which leaves it to the market to decide the fate of industries, the developmental-state, “plan-rational” thinking concerns itself with what industry to build to industrialize (Johnson 1982: 19). Johnson’s analytical framework has been taken up by other scholars who have studied the dominant role of the state in East Asian industrialization. J. Megan Greene (2008), for example, has probed the emergence of the developmental state in Taiwan.
Building on the work of Johnson and others, the author examines Indonesia’s effort to pursue advanced technology and rapid industrialization in the 1980s and 1990s, evaluating how that undertaking helped legitimize and strengthen the rule of President Suharto’s New Order regime (1966–98). He argues that at the time, Indonesia was more a “technological state” than a “developmental state.” The idea of a technological state is developed in the book, extending the notion of a developmental state. Although they share some features—among them the belief that a pursuit of modernity is tied to nationalistic aspirations—a technological state is distinguished by three main characteristics. First, instead of aiming for economic growth, it aims to master a “higher degree of technological supremacy” (10). Once that is achieved, technological-state actors believe, the country’s economic well-being will automatically improve. Many science and technology studies (STS) scholars nowadays would probably say that this technologically deterministic thought was rather naïve—and so it may have been. But at the time, it challenged the view of Suharto’s economists, who believed that the most [End Page 95] important measure of macroeconomic success was an increase in per-capita gross domestic product.
Second, the degree of autonomy of institutions in a technological state is higher than in a developmental state. This autonomy is, in large part, formed by shielding the state institutions from both market forces and from the checks and balances of nonstate organizations. As a result of this deliberate isolation, institutions are able to greatly influence a country’s technological direction, since they operate largely without transparency and accountability (10). Here, Amir is clearly in conversation with theories of the state that examine the autonomy of state institutions and their ability to shape a country’s political economy. What is not clear, however, is whether the shielded Indonesian state institutions he discusses were also transformed by the resulting structure. To be sure, they underwent dramatic changes after Indonesia was hit by Asia’s 1997 financial crisis. But that occurred only when market forces forcefully intruded into the country’s political economy.
Third, the institutions of a technological state serve mainly to build and develop state-of-the-art technological artifacts. These are in turn displayed to the public, forming the basis of the regime’s legitimacy. The author draws on David Nye’s “technological sublime” and Clifford Geertz’s “theater state” to make his case. To illustrate his point, he describes the introduction of an awe-inspiring technology—the N250 turboprop aircraft—inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony that commemorated in 1995 the fiftieth anniversary of Indonesia’s independence. This rallied public support for the state’s technological actors and policies. The interplay between technology and politics comes...