WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Place

Tag: travel (Page 4 of 4)

Thinking Historically about Technology

This is another article I wrote for the Collegian, entitled “Thinking Historically about Technology.” In this article, I illustrate how I think about technology by using a case study of one of my favorite Indian technologies, auto-rickshaws. (This version is slightly edited from the version that appeared in print.)

After graduating from college, I spent a year volunteer teaching at a school in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India. I first arrived in Meghalaya, jetlagged and disoriented, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the hot, sticky monsoon month of September. Come evening, I passed out on the bed of my quarters and slept like a dead man.

When I got up on Thursday morning, the day was already well underway. The sun had lifted his head above the jungly hills to the east of the school. It was not even 7 a.m., yet it was already blazing hot. My quarters were on the top floor of a three-family dwelling, one of several such structures built to the same plan around campus. From the back balcony, I had a view of the hills, some fields, a highway, and the Didram River, which gives the school its name. From the front door, over the school compound’s wall, I could see children in blue uniforms heading for school, even though classes were not scheduled to start for another hour yet. Some of the older students roared up on shiny motorbikes. Others pedaled awkwardly along on conventional bicycles, their bookbags slung haphazardly over their shoulders. Some came on foot, trudging along with their hands in their pockets.

And then there were some who came in the oddest vehicles I had ever seen: bulbous, three-wheeled conveyances with open sides that went sputtering down the road. A driver sat in the front of the vehicle, peering through the windshield and clutching onto motor scooter-style handlebars as he navigated the treacherous road. Students were piled in the back seat and up front around the driver, their legs jutting out of the open sides in order to free up room inside the vehicle.

As I watched these bizarre vehicles bounce past on the road, I asked my roommate, who had already been in India several months, what those things were. “Why,” he said, “those are rickshaws!”

I quickly grew enamored over rickshaws, which are an inventive solution to the age-old problem of how to move people from one place to another. I also liked them because they are fun to ride. As I traveled around India, I was impressed by the huge variety of rickshaws that I saw in use. In Calcutta, I saw hand-pulled rickshaws, a relic of the colonial era. In various cities and towns around India, I saw and rode on cycle rickshaws. The greatest variety is found in the motorized rickshaws, commonly referred to as “auto-rickshaws” or just “autos.” Most auto-rickshaws share the same basic three-wheeled configuration. Almost all of them have handlebars rather than steering wheels, since the first auto-rickshaws were built from motor scooter parts. Apart from these similarities, rickshaws vary greatly in size and under-the-hood specifications. There are black rickshaws that run on gasoline and green rickshaws that use cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Some rickshaws have two-stroke engines, like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. To start them, the driver yanks a lever or pulls a ripcord, depending on the model. Other rickshaws have four-stroke automobile engines and electric starters. A few rickshaws are even designed with rear-facing seats, so you can watch the road unroll behind you as you ride.

In an Indian city, it is usually not hard to find a rickshaw to take you someplace. On a street corner, just wave at a passing vehicle and shout “Oe, rickshaw!” (“Oe” is a Hindi interjection that means “hey.”) In most cases, rickshaw drivers will spot you first and volunteer to take you someplace, whether you want to go or not. Drivers park their vehicles at strategic locations and wait for customers to arrive. As soon as one appears, they all cluster around and start debating prices. Rickshaws in many cities are required by law to use meters, but most drivers claim that their meters are all inexplicably broken.

Not only are rickshaws a clever solution to the problem of people-moving (and fun to ride), they also provide an opportunity to think about technology historically. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in grad school is The Shock of the Old, by David Edgerton. In the book, Edgerton argues that the best way to think about technology is not in terms of innovation—the creation of new stuff—but the use of things that may be old or new. Edgerton cites rickshaws as an example of “creole technology”—something that originated in one part of the world but took on new use and meaning elsewhere. Rickshaws are glorified motor scooters—a technology that originated in the West but is now being used extensively, and to good effect, for different purposes far from its place of origin. Auto-rickshaws are not an old technology; they are a relatively new one, coming into vogue since World War II. They are not an intermediate step toward bigger and better western-style technology—they are here to stay.

Lately, rickshaw technology has flowed to the West. I have yet to see three-wheeler auto taxis anywhere in America, but cycle rickshaws are already a feature of American life. Entrepreneurs using pedicabs, as they’re called here, have set up shop everywhere that they can find tourists who are too lazy to walk where they want to go. In New York City, adults pay $60, and children $50, for a ride around Central Park in a pedicab. Even my town of Auburn, Ala., has rickshaws on the weekends of home football games. Someday, I want to hail one of these pedicabs with “Oe, rickshaw!” and then try to haggle the price of a ride across town down to $2.

(Those who missed the first article “Does Technology Have History?” can read it here.)

http://www.willylogan.com/?p=688After graduating from Walla Walla in 2009, I spent a year on a student missionary posting at Riverside Adventist Academy in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India. I first arrived in Meghalaya, jetlagged and disoriented, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the hot, sticky monsoon month of September. Come evening, I passed out on the bed of my quarters and slept like a dead man.

When I got up on Thursday morning, the day was already well underway. The sun had lifted his head above the jungly hills to the east of the school. It was not even 7 a.m., yet it was already blazing hot. My quarters were on the top floor of a three-family dwelling, one of several such structures built to the same plan around campus. From the back balcony, I had a view of the hills, some fields, a highway, and the Didram River, which gives the school its name. From the front door, over the school compound’s wall, I could see children in blue uniforms heading for school, even though classes were not scheduled to start for another hour yet. Some of the older students roared up on shiny motorbikes. Others pedaled awkwardly along on conventional bicycles, their bookbags slung haphazardly over their shoulders. Some came on foot, trudging along with their hands in their pockets.

And then there were some who came in the oddest vehicles I had ever seen: bulbous, three-wheeled conveyances with open sides that went sputtering down the road. A driver sat in the front of the vehicle, peering through the windshield and clutching onto motor scooter-style handlebars as he navigated the treacherous road. Students were piled in the back seat and up front around the driver, their legs jutting out of the open sides in order to free up room inside the vehicle.

As I watched these bizarre vehicles bounce past on the road, I asked my roommate, who had already been in India several months, what those things were. “Why,” he said, “those are rickshaws!”

I quickly grew enamored over rickshaws, which are an inventive solution to the age-old problem of how to move people from one place to another. I also liked them because they are fun to ride. As I traveled around India, I was impressed by the huge variety of rickshaws that I saw in use. In Calcutta, I saw hand-pulled rickshaws, a relic of the colonial era. In various cities and towns around India, I saw and rode on cycle rickshaws. The greatest variety is found in the motorized rickshaws, commonly referred to as “auto-rickshaws” or just “autos.” Most auto-rickshaws share the same basic three-wheeled configuration. Almost all of them have handlebars rather than steering wheels, since the first auto-rickshaws were built from motor scooter parts. Apart from these similarities, rickshaws vary greatly in size and under-the-hood specifications. There are black rickshaws that run on gasoline and green rickshaws that use cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Some rickshaws have two-stroke engines, like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. To start them, the driver yanks a lever or pulls a ripcord, depending on the model. Other rickshaws have four-stroke automobile engines and electric starters. A few rickshaws are even designed with rear-facing seats, so you can watch the road unroll behind you as you ride.

In an Indian city, it is usually not hard to find a rickshaw to take you someplace. On a street corner, just wave at a passing vehicle and shout “Oe, rickshaw!” (“Oe” is a Hindi interjection that means “hey.”) In most cases, rickshaw drivers will spot you first and volunteer to take you someplace, whether you want to go or not. Drivers park their vehicles at strategic locations and wait for customers to arrive. As soon as one appears, they all cluster around and start debating prices. Rickshaws in many cities are required by law to use meters, but most drivers claim that their meters are all inexplicably broken.

Not only are rickshaws a clever solution to the problem of people-moving (and fun to ride), they also provide an opportunity to think about technology historically. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in grad school is The Shock of the Old, by David Edgerton. In the book, Edgerton argues that the best way to think about technology is not in terms of innovation—the creation of new stuff—but the use of things that may be old or new. Edgerton cites rickshaws as an example of “creole technology”—something that originated in one part of the world but took on new use and meaning elsewhere. Rickshaws are glorified motor scooters—a technology that originated in the West but is now being used extensively, and to good effect, for different purposes far from its place of origin. Auto-rickshaws are not an old technology; they are a relatively new one, coming into vogue since World War II. They are not an intermediate step toward bigger and better western-style technology—they are here to stay.

Lately, rickshaw technology has flowed to the West. I have yet to see three-wheeler auto taxis anywhere in America, but cycle rickshaws are already a feature of American life. Entrepreneurs using pedicabs, as they’re called here, have set up shop everywhere that they can find tourists who are too lazy to walk where they want to go. In New York City, adults pay $60, and children $50, for a ride around Central Park in a pedicab. Even my town of Auburn, Ala., has rickshaws on the weekends of home football games. Someday, I want to hail one of these pedicabs with “Oe, rickshaw!” and then try to haggle the price of a ride across town down to $2.

10440-storm-cloud_2653px

The 1970s are gone forever

Engine nacelle of an IndiGo A320, in flight over Assam.

Engine nacelle of an IndiGo A320, in flight over Assam.

Air travel is an up-and-coming transportation sector in twenty-first century India. Although the majority of the Indian population has never flown on a plane before (trains and buses are still the movers of the masses), the growth of airlines has provided greatly expanded options for the Indian jet-set. In recent years, legacy carriers such as Indian Airlines have faced competition from newer companies such as Jet Airways and SpiceJet. The most successful of the new carriers is IndiGo, a Gurgaon-based regional airline with connections to twenty-eight Indian cities and five international destinations. Last year, IndiGo became the largest airline in India by market share, only six years after starting operations.1

I first got to fly on IndiGo last summer, when I took its daily flight from Jaipur to Guwahati and back (with a stopover in Kolkata). On the flight, my attention was inevitably drawn toward the flight attendants, who were all pretty young women wearing fashionable uniforms. And it’s wasn’t a fluke that they were all attractive. The in-flight magazine carried a full-page recruiting ad with some very specific requirements. “We are looking for bright, ambitious young girls to join our award-winning cabin crew,” the ad copy began. Requirements included:

  • Age: 18-27 years
  • Minimum height: 155 cm, “with weight in proportion to height”
  • “Well-groomed with a clear complexion”

Applicants were requested to send their resumes, along with full-length and passport photos (mugshots) to crew@indigo.in.2

Wow, this is remarkable, I thought. I’ve traveled back in time, and it’s the 1970s again.

It was in the 1970s in the United States that female flight attendants were the most blatantly exploited for their femininity and sex appeal. Although airline polices had long set requirements for age, weight, and marital status (no married women need apply), several factors in the 1970s—including increased industry competition, loosening sexual attitudes, and general bad taste—led to super-sexy flight attendant uniforms and shockingly explicit airline advertisements. This was especially the case with second-tier airlines that were competing with established carriers. The most infamous airline ad from the period, issued by National Airlines, featured a pretty young flight attendant, with the caption: “Hi, I’m Cheryl – Fly Me.”3

I should add that it was the 1970s that also saw a backlash against objectification by the flight attendants themselves. They ultimately succeeded in their demands that airlines drop discriminatory hiring practices, phase out the revealing uniforms, and stop using the term “stewardess” in favor of the gender-neutral “flight attendant.”4

Meanwhile, in India in 2012, I soon realized that the present wasn’t as similar to the American 1970s as I had thought. IndiGo was not hiring women only for their femininity; the airline was also hiring them for their skills. I realized this when my plane stopped over in Kolkata on the return trip to Jaipur. As the plane was sitting on the tarmac, the cockpit crew swapped out. One of the new pilots was a woman.

  1. “IndiGo dethrones Jet Airways as India’s No. 1 airline,” Hindustan Times, August 17, 2012, http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/SectorsAviation/IndiGo-dethrones-Jet-Airways-as-India-s-No-1-airline/Article1-915217.aspx. []
  2. IndiGo has a somewhat different recruiting ad on its website here. []
  3. Kathleen M. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 176-84, 189-90. []
  4. Ibid., 8. []

Maruts on display

Michael J. Neufeld, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, recently published an article entitled “The Nazi Aerospace Exodus” in the journal History and Technology.1 The article discusses the diffusion of technical knowledge out of Germany after World War II, by means of technical specialists as well as technological artifacts (rockets and planes and such). The most famous example of this movement of knowledge was Wernher von Braun’s V-2 team, although they were just a few of the many specialists who carried German aerospace knowledge around the world.

The former Allied nations of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union got the first pick of German technical specialists. Later, specialists also traveled to less-developed nations to serve their modernization projects. During the 1950s, for instance, German teams tried to develop military jets in Spain, Argentina, Egypt, and India.

Neufeld observed toward the end of his article that one of the many legacies of the “Nazi aerospace exodus” is German technology on display in museums in countries that received this technology. As an example, the National Air and Space Museum displays a V-2 rocket and an Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter, both of which were captured after the war and shipped to the United States for testing. Neufeld assumed that technology with German heritage must also be on display in the third-world countries that received them.2

At least in the case of India, I can say with certainty that Neufeld was right. When I was in India last summer, I came across two HF-24 Maruts, the indigenous Indian jet fighter that was developed by a joint German and Indian team. (I’ve described the Marut in two earlier blog posts, “Air power in independent India” and “Industrialization, Nehru-style.”) One of these was, not surprisingly, in the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi. The museum, located at Palam air field, displays most of the plane types that have flown for the IAF since its inception in 1932. The museum’s HF-24 Marut is in a prominent location in the middle of the main display hangar.

HF-24 in the IAF Museum.

HF-24 in the IAF Museum.

HF-24 in the IAF Museum.

HF-24 in the IAF Museum.

The other Marut I came across last summer was a complete surprise. It was on the campus of Barefoot College, a sustainable development NGO (non-governmental organization) in rural Rajasthan. This Marut was not set up for display purposes only, but as a giant play structure for rural children. A Hindi sign nearby gives a first-person description of the plane’s history; it is signed, “Your faithful friend, Marut.” In the two decades that the jet has been in its present location, children have scrawled and doodled text and designs on top of the original IAF paint scheme. A ladder mounted on the side of the fuselage allows an Indian child (or, in my case, an American grown-up) to climb into the cockpit and pretend to be flying over Rajasthan, blasting Pakistani fighters out of the sky.

HF-24 Marut (tail no. BD843) at Barefoot College.

HF-24 Marut (tail no. BD843) at Barefoot College.

This photo shows the cockpit access ladder, as well as some of the graffiti that has accumulated on the plane.

This photo shows the cockpit access ladder, as well as some of the graffiti that has accumulated on the plane.

Jet fighters: they’re not just for kids anymore!

Jet fighters: they’re not just for kids anymore!

In America, we would never put a retired military plane in a place where children could climb over and inside it. We’re much too protective of our planes—and, to a degree, rightly so. I do think it is important to preserve some of our old technology for future generations to see and perhaps learn from. But I’m also glad to see that the Marut at Barefoot College has been put to some real use, rather than being locked away in a museum or elevated out-of-reach on a pedestal.

  1. Michael J. Neufeld, “The Nazi Aerospace Exodus: Towards a Global, Transnational History,” History and Technology 28:1, 49-67. []
  2. Ibid., 59. []

Page 4 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén