Edward Beatty, Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico.
Edward Beatty's monograph, Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico, is an incisive study of Mexico's technological trajectory, one that was heavily import dependent over the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It elaborates at length upon the avenues of technological transfer, its components, successes, and failures. Using various examples of both small and large-scale technologies, Beatty analyzes how, in spite of the post-1870 acceleration in technological adoption, Mexicans gained little of the expertise necessary for the growth of indigenous industries and local innovation, and instead continued to rely heavily on foreign knowledge and prowess.
Beatty argues that 19th century Mexican elites were quick to consider their own country "backward" compared to the industrialized North Atlantic world, and ardently supported the adoption of foreign technology. To many Mexicans, mechanization held the key to socio-economic improvement. In contrast, one can look at the contemporaneous example of colonial India, another major site of technology transfer. In British India, some technologies such as bicycles and cars were used to distinguish colonizers from the colonized. In reaction, some machines came to be seen by Indian nationalists as embodiments of colonial subjugation. As a part of the Swadeshi independence movement against the British, numerous Indians boycotted the use of British manufactured goods, to instead promote indigenous manufacturing and a regeneration of local crafts. In the Mexican context, foreign entrepreneurs, and the expertise and machinery that they brought with them, largely drove technology transfer. However, because of a dearth of knowledge transfer to the local population, Mexico lacked the local entrepreneurship that had made for the successful assimilation of foreign technology in India. This caused what Beatty describes as "the apparent paradox of high adoption and low assimilation." (1)
Economists have traditionally viewed technology transfer as a means for developing nations to catch up to their counterparts in the developed world. Beatty observes that economic historians such as Alexander Gerschenkron have followed suit. Gerschenkron in particular spoke of a technology gap between developed and "backward" states that can be efficiently bridged by the transfer of the latest technology from one to the other. (2) Beatty, however, challenges this notion through his analysis of Mexico's travails with technology transfer. In his view, the Mexican case was one of successful technological adoption but poor assimilation and learning. In essence, Beatty argues, it was the lack of technical colleges, the small number of engineers, and easily available supply of foreign expertise that hindered the growth of a homegrown, skilled labor force necessary for local innovation and the widespread assimilation of technology. This ultimately maintained the technological gap between Mexico and the North Atlantic, leaving Mexico in a state of dependence into the 20th century. Beatty skillfully highlights how the increasing dependence on imports "dictated low tariffs which decreased incentives to invest locally, yielding continued dependence," resulting in a vicious cycle. (3)
With its many references to Mexico's purported "backwardness" and belittling jabs at its predominantly subsistence-agricultural economy, the book fails to question its technocratic protagonist's patronizing motives. However, by highlighting how widespread technological transfer precluded an effective transfer of skills and know-how to the native population, spurring the vicious cycle of dependence on the North Atlantic industrial forerunners, the author delivers on his promise in providing a lucid explanation of Mexico's "search for progress." (4)
The current historiography on the topic of technology transfer has increasingly sought to probe the agents, processes, and risks of technological transfer, while assiduously heeding the socially constructed nature of technology. There remains, however, the potential to elaborate on the role of technology in our visions of prosperity and bring our analytical and methodological tools to bear on the telos of American- or Eurocentric development. Even as our understandings of what defines development, what constitutes progress, and what is modern change, they change differently in different places and our technologies change with them. That technology continues to be applied in our unending quest for a "better life" is, perhaps, something that does not change; neither does our desire to "share" that "better life" with others.
Abeer Saha, University of Virginia
(1.) Edward Beatty, Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 8.
(2.) Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962).
(3.) Beatty, 175.