García Solares on Castro and Garza, 'Technocratic Visions: Engineers, Technology, and Society in Mexico'
J. Justin Castro, James A. Garza, eds. Technocratic Visions: Engineers, Technology, and Society in Mexico. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022. vi + 282 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4748-6.
Reviewed by Israel García Solares (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (March, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58562
A man at the bottom of the cover of Technocratic Visions: Engineers, Technology, and Society in Mexico controls a mechanical arm that holds a lightbulb. The shadows of an urban environment in the background contrast with the light and electricity expelled by it. The engineer looks up at this piece of technology. The lightbulb looks directly into the reader, with a dilated pupil on its center, and only the reader looks at the whole scene.
Technology often appears as something that emerges in the West and exercises linear power on the periphery. It is unfortunately uncommon to see histories of technocratic visions in the Global South. Technocratic Visions is a rare example of a collaborative project centered on these peripheries. The book, edited by J. Justin Castro and James A. Garza, is the result of the work of eleven researchers in Mexico and the United States. It engages with questions of location, artifact, visions, and agency that have long framed studies on technology and technological actors, in the years of the construction of a modern Mexican state.
The book is organized into nine chapters roughly divided into two parts. The first section, with chapters by Marcela Saldaña Solís, Lucero Morelos Rodríguez, Omar Escamilla González, Rocio Gomez, and James A. Garza, focuses primarily on expertise during the Porfirian years. The chapters are diverse in their topics, dealing with the tensions of architecture between national and international projects (Saldaña Solís), the history of a particular collection of artifacts at Escuela Nacional de Ingeniería (Morelos Rodríguez and Escamilla González), the history of mining safety engineers in Mexico (Gomez), and the history of Mexico City's drainage (Garza). In this first half of the book, besides describing three main areas of engineering expertise in the period (civil, hydraulic, and mining engineering), the authors introduce a fair amount of context to readers unfamiliar with Mexican history. (A minor editing note: in my copy, the chapter numbers and pages of the texts of Garza and Gomez are swapped in comparison to the table of contents.)
The second section, with chapters from the late Juan José Saldaña, J. Justin Castro, Jayson Maurice Porter, Pete Soland, and Matthew Vitz, primarily focuses on the changes and continuities of the technology after the revolution. The authors of this second half of the book open the scope of the analysis with chapters on engineers intervening in politics (Castro), changes in military engineers in Mexico and the United States (Porter), aeronautical engineering experiments (Soland), and the urban construction of Mexico City (Vitz). Saldaña's chapter provides the institutional history of postrevolutionary engineering, just as Morelos Rodríguez and Escamilla González offer the main narrative of Porfirian technical education. If the chapters in the first half give the reader a framework for Mexican technical knowledge, most of the chapters in the second half reach into the future of expertise during the so-called Mexican Miracle.
The common theme among the chapters is state-sponsored engineering. This marks the construction of engineering, a global phenomenon, into a national narrative. The central arc of the book describes the constitution of Mexican expertise in the years of construction of a global technocratic order. The chapters focused on the Porfirian era point to efforts to build Mexico nationally, with urban developments or surveying projects, and their relationship with foreign expertise. The following chapters deal with at least three levels of Mexicanization: the adaptation of technology, the education of technicians, and the nationalization of companies and organizations. According to Vitz, those decades were determined by the rise of a "techno-bureaucratic State" (p. 187).
The book's central conflict is between the powers of control of state-sponsored technocrats and local physical and political bodies, from the rural communities that supported Pancho Villa during the punitive expedition to the miners' bodies in Zacatecas, from the communities around the Gran Canal in the 1910s to the bodies of pilots in the 1930s. This relationship between engineering and political bodies is most evident in Castro's chapter. The piece illustrates how a cohort of diplomat engineers represented Mexico internationally. The fact that one of the leading promoters of technocratic nationalism in those years, Luis Cabrera, was not an engineer nor a technician, but a lawyer, demonstrates how pervasively the technical discourse shaped public opinion. In short, the studies show that engineers' political function was not an anomaly.
This identification between political body and technical power may also be the main limitation of the texts. Nonstate technical actors receive very little attention, even if private firms and nonstate-sponsored projects were and are the majority of employers of technical experts. The replacement, for instance, of US mining engineers by Mexican professionals was not only determined by concerns over safety and state control but also marked by internal dynamics of foreign firms. Little by little, they replaced expatriate staff with local experts and ultimately abandoned the sector of extractive industries. The periodization of some of the chapters also excessively focuses on presidential terms without inviting a deeper reflection of the real power of six-year plans and the equivalence with other economic-planning models worldwide.
Technocratic Visions offers a comprehensive yet specific history of expertise in the Global South and examines how technocracy reinvented itself in the wake of the first socialist revolution in the twentieth century. It escapes from a history of technological artifacts that move, diffuse, and transform, while shifting the reader's attention to the technicians that made it possible, their agency, and their visions of models of a nation and a political body, along with their cities, skies, wars, and deaths. It joins a growing field of studies of the process of indigenization of technology inside and outside imperial powers. Furthermore, the multiplicity and diversity of the works showcase a vibrant community of historians of Mexican technocrats and technology. The volume is a must for historians of science in Latin America, historians of Mexico, and the general public interested in technocracy's role in nation-building. Let us hope that Technocratic Visions can animate the production of more works on the history of local, national, and global engineering in the modern era.
Citation: Israel García Solares. Review of Castro, J. Justin; Garza, James A., eds., Technocratic Visions: Engineers, Technology, and Society in Mexico. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58562This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.