Laurie Lee: Against the Linear Temporality of Technophilia and Techno-nationalism

In this piece, Laurie Lee, PhD candidate in historical musicology and ethnomusicology at Harvard University, interrogates the “conceptual umbilical cord” tethering the idea of “technology” to how the West imagines itself. In parallel with insights developed through her work on the history of medicine and of the voice in twentieth-century Korea, she explores how scholars can avoid reproducing (technological) narratives that configure supplicatory or dehumanizing visions of the non-West in the wake of the West’s teleologies and temporalities.

Against the Linear Temporality of Technophilia and Techno-nationalism

I. Three Stories of Techno-Orientalism[1]

When historians in the humanities at US universities talk about science and technology, we tend to talk about those scientific systems and technologies that were innovated in the West to be inherited by other parts of the world. Scholars in music have found systematically erased stories of technology that de-throne elitist and Western notions of innovation by pointing out how communities in the periphery radically appropriate these technologies first christened within the US military-industrial complex,[2] or how these technologies are shaped by ideas and materials from colonized and indigenous worlds.[3] Another approach to challenging histories that narrate the US and Europe’s supposed monopoly on “innovation” would be to embrace a broader conception of science, one that goes beyond the technological object birthed in the West and war-borne to the periphery. This conceptual umbilical cord binding technology and the West inevitably helps reproduce the historical narrative of how the non-West came into maturity and modernity through passive inheritance of Euro-US science and technology.

To first demonstrate these abiding narratives and give an example of how they take root in the popular and geopolitical imagination, I want to share three stories told about technology and “Asia” by the Western popular media and in modern political discourses:

  1. Benefactors

As a showcase of anti-communist free-world practices, Korea and Vietnam are televised into US homes from the ‘50s through the ‘70s in chaotic news footages as a blur of war-torn bodies requiring US and allied assistance. Korea in the ‘70s and ‘80s is the dutiful backdrop to M*A*S*H, a comedy sitcom set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital close to the DMZ during the Korean War. The two countries are made visible during this period as an undifferentiated traffic of bodies blasted by war and awaiting reassembly and transplants of limbs and organs flown over by the US and UN. These apparently broken nations receive technical aid from 1950s US programs like the Mutual Security Agency and Technical Cooperation Administration. Forced to accept a literally unrefusable offer of freedom by the US, South Korea and Vietnam are interpolated forever into US alliance and empire.[4]

  1. Frankensteins

Meanwhile, Japan and North Korea are seen to have received, learned, and turned around the West’s technological innovations to aim them back at the West, threatening to annihilate its inhabitants. This projection of an unfeeling and therefore readily militarizable army of Asiatic cyborgs animates unpublished CIA reports referring to the Japanese as the self-healing, rapidly proliferating, parasitic “lamprey eel;” likewise, it provides fodder for the kind of psychogeographical imaginary that prompts former prime minister of France, Edith Cresson, to refer to Japanese people as an army of mercenary ants.[5] In the same vein, Tokyo provides the exotic backdrop to Hollywood technofantasies—as gritty futurescapes that are conspicuously emptied of all Asian inhabitants.

On Twitter and in the news, Trump-fueled visions of North Korea as a nuclear-clad, brainwashed and de-individuated citizenry proliferate. But even before Trump, there have been popular documentaries as well as political commentary on the nature of North Korean suffering that float, in their collective and detached fascination, the implicit (and perhaps unintended) speculation that North Koreans may not be capable of real tears.[6] Overly digestible documentaries on YouTube churn out images of marching Lego armies and smiling children of North Korea, which eclipse a more sensitive account of the population’s suffering and living conditions. North Korea becomes one prominent subject among US media representations that ultimately cast Asians as incapable of original feeling and innovation, but frighteningly equipped to copy and make perverse uses of the West’s technologies.[7] Finally, like the Japanese, North Koreans figure in the minds of the US administration as manageable by nuclear decimation; this stance relies on imagining entire populations as human-technology hybrids that are able to obstinately self-heal and repopulate.

  1. Laborers, or Technology Itself

Then, there are places like China, India, and the Philippines—nations cast in the pre-technological past, but who ultimately manufacture the components of the West’s realization of the technologically conquered future. These nations provide the abused Chinese workers at FoxConn fitting iPhone parts, or the underpaid workers in the Philippines protecting US users from upsetting Facebook content. In a recent analysis by David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, authors say that outsourcing practices have resulted in a particular strain of techno-Orientalist xenophobia:

[India] has also found itself under the techno-Orientalist gaze as a consequence of U.S. outsourcing practices. [Negative opinions about these practices] find expression in a particular strand of techno-Orientalist discourse that consolidates China and India as the chief threats to the U.S. service and labor sectors. These Asian nations serve as the scapegoats for corporate decisions to move service and manufacturing jobs abroad and bear the brunt of the resulting xenophobic antipathies. Chinese and Indian workers, for instance, are routinely portrayed in techno-Orientalist and technophobic vocabularies […]. Glossy spreads of endless rows of Chinese workers in corporate factories and towns in mainstream magazines such as Time and Wired seal the visual vocabulary of Asians as the cogs of hyperproduction. In the NIC contexts, techno-Orientalist discourse constructs Asians as mere simulacra and maintains a prevailing sense of the inhumanity of Asian labor—the very antithesis of Western liberal humanism.[8]

In these three stories, Asians are imagined as residing permanently in the pre-technological past (as benefactors), always already in the hyper-technologized future (as Frankensteinian monsters), or as technology itself (as inexhaustible laborer-bodies).

What animates this geo-temporal triangulation in the Euro-American technofantasy of Asia? One possible answer is the different degrees of instrumentality and threat these parts of Asia pose to the Western hegemony over postwar technology. This seems compelling if we accept the idea that US cultural identity has stood on its technological innovations, giving rise to what Robert Reich has called “techno-nationalism.”[9]

Another thread underpinning these three cases is a conceptualization of science and technology as belonging to and innovated in the West, specifically in preparation for global domination. Indeed, techno-nationalism figures not only in the West’s pride in Euromodernity secured through Western science and technology, but also in, for example, imperial Japan’s attempts to secure a place in global competition by adopting, appropriating, and competing decidedly within the Western system of modern science (for example, in Japan’s designation of Western biomedicine as the nation’s official medicine in 1874, shortly after the Meiji Restoration). That is, the warped chronology of techno-Orientalist narratives makes sense only if we operate within a Western-centric temporality of science and technology. In both cases, the West’s technologies remain the center of any interactions “Asians” have with technology; if science and technology mark Western cultural identity, then everybody else is a benefactor, a stealer-in, or a cog.


But how, as historians, do we get out of this kind of narrative? What counts as science and technology in these narratives is laced with the constant possibility of threat and militarization, because we designate as technologies those things that trickle down and out from Western imperial weaponry and the US military-industrial complex—nuclear bombs, artificial intelligence, the space race, and radio technology.

One step is to take the spotlight that music scholars engaging with science and technology have shed on screens, networks, cybernetics, robotics, prosthetics, AI, and virtual reality, and reposition it on a broader field of science which doesn’t find its center of gravity in the West. In pursuit of more capacious and alternative visions of living pasts, presents, and futures, historians need to yield an understanding of science and technology that frees those ideas from embroilment in the global arms race. The history of science with which music/sound scholars engage should go beyond the canon of silicon-based prosthetic technologies.


A related idea is presented powerfully by George Lewis in his foreword to the 2008 Journal of the American Musicological Society issue on Afrofuturism. He praises Michael Veal’s work on dub’s particular imagining of sound, technology, science, and future, and urges theorists and historians of Afrofuturism to similarly refrain from canonizing a US-centric imagery of “prosthetic technological imaginary,”[10] and to thereby avoid discarding examples of technology and science that don’t fit the mold of US-American hegemonic frameworks:[11]

[Veal] observes that dub itself “tends to be less concerned with images of flying saucers and interplanetary travel, and is more reflective of prominently interwoven dichotomies of nature/technology and past/future.” … Veal’s remark leads us to understand that the science-fiction model could only account for a fraction of contemporary Afrodiasporic imaginings of technology. In the course of my editor’s task it was becoming evident that Afrodiasporic people were asserting non-Afrofuturist engagements with technology. It was this larger world that intrigued me… For instance, one can easily view Santería as a kind of technology designed to facilitate communication with higher powers and condition the neo-Yoruban Afrofuture. As with the more usually invoked silicon-based machines of today, the example of Santería shows us that we need not eschew the spiritual dimensions of black engagement with technology.[12]

He says that Veal’s primary achievement resides in foregrounding “Jamaican attitudes toward technology [that] actually contradict these oppositional distinctions between a past understood as nature-based, primitive, and stereotypically African, and a future understood as technological and stereotypically de-Africanized.”[13]

Indeed, in dominant theorization of innovation and knowledge in science and technology or even in futurist imaginings like Afro-futurism or techno-Orientalism, the focus is too often on an understanding of technology as one which is materialized in and for the future, a future which in turn owes little to the past and living tradition and spirituality. It follows from Lewis’s argument that we should not only think of futurisms such as Santería or, say, Daoist alchemy as science and technology, but also think of Western modern science and technology as futurist imaginations—that is, fueled by desires and ideologies and not by superior proximity to reality.

Certainly, it is important to continue to study technological and scientific systems and objects of the West and its wars, particularly in ways that expose how the labors and resources required for these innovations have come from structures of exploitation of disempowered communities in and outside of imperial centers. And there is more work to be done in investigating and resisting the centralization of technological resources and systemic racism that keep people of color and particularly African-Americans barred from access to STEM education in the US.

Another approach I’m advocating here is to de-universalize Western science and technology by avoiding reinforcing the notion that various non-Western societies first embarked on a teleological path to modernity with their first encounter with white Western culture—a notion that divides the world into benefactors, stealers(-in), and laborers of Western technological hegemony. To start, this leap would go beyond (though not necessarily away from) technological objects and instruments in order to accommodate a more diversified study of knowledge systems that have been discursively supplanted by a self-universalizing Western science.


II. A Brief Case Study: Of Western Medicine in Korea

I’ve argued that to leap from the vortex of techno-wars and virtual racism we need to de-centralize the notion of science and technology from its assumed Euro-American provenance. If focusing on the technological objects keeps us married as researchers to black-boxed products of the Western military-industrial complex, then we should investigate the cultural root of such technophilia, and adopt a broader conception of science that includes forgotten temporalities of innovation. In beginning my own research on the history of medicine and of its invocations of the human voice in the Korean peninsula, I found that the vast majority of English-language histories of medicine in Korea are narrativized as such:

Scene One: In 1949, US president Harry Truman gives his inaugural address, promising to “[make] the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” This promise heralds the more intensive introduction of biomedical tools to the Korean peninsula after nineteenth-century US Protestant missionaries had first used the gospel of biomedicine to proselytize to Koreans.

Scene Two: Japanese colonial government sends police into the streets and homes of Koreans to impose a brutal program of public health and hygienic modernity, of the same kind that is imposed on Japan’s own population during the Meiji restoration.

Scene Three: US Military Government in Korea focuses on disease prevention and mass inoculation, setting the stage for later strategies including the “Minnesota Project” of 1954–62, which provided US medical education to Koreans. Amidst the chaotic contingencies of the war (1950–1953), US doctors treat North Korean refugees and children to be adopted by US families. Surgeons improvise while operating on Korean bodies in addition to US military bodies, and introduce Koreans to systematic interventions like surgery, injection, autopsy, and internal examinations.

Scene Four: The Korean nationalist government adapts biomedical tools left behind by the US and Japanese regimes, imposing their own agenda of family planning, invasive reproductive technologies, and antiparasite campaigns.

This oft-told chronology begins when Korea enters into US political concerns, and showcases the West’s technical aid to Korea as the catalyst for long-awaited progress: the American-Korean Foundation brought rehabilitative medicine and replacement limbs for South Korea, as Western biomedicine came to stand for relief work on refugees escaping the North to the South, including the symbolic relief during the flight from Communist North to the abundant and advanced state of the allied South.[14] Yet, how Koreans lived, managed, and were their own bodies before the imposition of biomedicine as a popular system remains insignificant in this narrative.

This framework also neglects that Western medicine was already known to Korean intellectuals and physicians, as some of its basic ideas were included in Korea’s first encyclopedia, Yi Su-gwang’s Jibong yuseol (published 1614). Indeed, Western medicine had been studied long before this more militarized and state-sponsored imposition of biomedical practices on the Korean populace. This is all to say that there was nothing transformative about Western medical science for Korean society until it was combined with the (Korean, Japanese, and US American) state’s nation-building and modernization project.[15]

If we focus solely on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century moments of biomedicine’s propagation driven by political agendas, we contribute to the asymmetry of historical knowledge that casts Western science as the true science, and to an understanding of science as that which is generated by the West. Korea’s own medical tradition, denigrated by foreign powers and nationalist elites, occupies at most a spectral negative space, rather than figuring as a system of knowledge that becomes supplanted by official and legislative authorities through what is a difficult process for most of the population. And this “forgetting” is enacted not only in the official accounts of authoritarian regimes, but also gets reproduced in the hands of modern historians who don’t sufficiently contextualize technological innovations within cultural and political ideologies.


III. Toward Other Sciences

Lisa Nakamura’s research into the advertisements used to sell computers in the late-‘90s US shows how in order to sell future-facing “progress,” the technological image factory needs to feature pre-technological Others for comparison.[16] She demonstrates how images of people of color in exotic or pre-industrialized locales serve as the backdrop to techno-utopian disavowals of racial difference. Alondra Nelson’s analysis of a South African ad for Land Rover demonstrates similarly how the digital divide is reinforced between Western technology and its Others.[17]

The ad, which ran in popular magazines in South Africa, depicts a Himba woman from Namibia in traditional attire. Much like an image from National Geographic… the woman is shown bare-breasted. She stands alone in the desert, her only companion the latest model of the Land Rover Freelander, speedily departing. The force of the vehicle’s back draft as it accelerates pulls her breasts toward it. Her “feminine primitiveness” and the slick silver veneer of the sport-utility vehicle are in sharp contrast; the Freelander rapidly heads toward the future, leaving her in the past.

Such deployment of imagery in Western technofantasies thus displaces racial and ethnic Others to “over there” not only geographically but also temporally; it relies on a conception of science and technology that is linear and future-oriented.

Analyses such as Nakamura’s and Nelson’s demand that we treat those strategically barred from digital and technological futures as more than the subjects of the West’s “back draft.” Indeed, to fully acknowledge that technology is the West’s cherished cultural identity, we should also interrogate what amounts to a technophilic orientation toward linear time, in which technologies look solely to the future (one that is free of indigenous knowledge systems) and to the West (a West that is free of indigenous peoples and traditions). To echo Lewis and Veal once more, the dominant vocabulary of technology must go beyond current fixations on centralized high-tech objects that prevent us from untangling science and technology from the US and the arms race. Finally, by wrenching the terms of technology from the vantage point of Western discourses, we can start to scrape away at some enduring and tedious images of non-Western agents: as pre-technological, as hyper-technological, or as the West’s technologies.

[1] “Techno-Orientalism” was coined by Kevin Morley and David Robins in Spaces of Identity (1995), though similar critiques were being made by cultural theorists of the ‘90s like Toshiya Ueno. In their chapter, “Technologizing Orientalism,” Betsy Huang, Greta A. Niu, and David S. Roh define the term as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.”

[2] See the works of Tricia Rose (1994), Kodwo Eshun (1998), Alexander Weheliye (2002), and Deborah Wong (2004).

[3] See the works of Michael Veal (2007) and Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier (2014) and, outside of music studies, Lisa Nakamura (2014).

[4] Mimi Thi Nguyen has written about the logic of US empire which operates on the complicated gift of freedom, friendship, and debt.

[5] Both references are made in Morley and Robins, Spaces of Identity.

[6] In 2011 in particular, Kim Jong-il’s death sparked a moment of heightened visibility for North Korean tears, igniting public speculation: The New York Times’ “North Korea’s Tears: A Blend of Cult, Culture and Coercion,” The New YorkersThe Tears of North Koreans,” and BBC News’ “How Genuine are the Tears of North Koreans?

[7] In the European classical music world, there is a similar sentiment of anxiety-filled awe at how East-Asians have rapidly risen to global competition by mimicking and mastering at a supposedly unnatural rate. See a recent documentary made by Belgian filmmakers, Pierre Barré and Thierry Loreau, The Korean Musical Mystery: South Koreans in International Competitions (Les Films de la Passerelle, 2012).

[8] David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, “Technologizing Orientalism,” in Techno-Orientalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015) 4–5.

[9] Robert Reich, “The Rise of Techno-Nationalism,” The Atlantic Monthly 259, no. 5 (May 1, 1987), 63–69.

[10] George Lewis, “Foreword: After Afrofuturism,” Journal of American Musicological Society 2, no. 2 (2008), 139.

[11] Ibid., 142.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Michael Veal, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 213–214, cited in George Lewis, “Foreword: After Afrofuturism,” Journal of American Musicological Society 2, no. 2 (2008), 140.

[14] John DiMoia, Reconstructing Bodies: Biomedicine, Health, and Nation Building in South Korea Since 1945 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[15] The story is similar in the rest of East Asia: for example, it was in the late-sixteenth century that European surgery was introduced to Japan, three whole centuries before Japan’s national adoption of Western medicine required everybody who studied medicine to study Western medicine—again, the delayed legislative move to adopt biomedicine coincided with Japan’s political aim to Westernize itself and compete globally.

[16] Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[17] Alondra Nelson, “Introduction: Future Texts,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (2002): 1–15.



DiMoia, John. Reconstructing Bodies: Biomedicine, Health, and Nation Building in South Korea Since 1945. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Quartet Books, 1998.

Lewis, George E., “Foreword: After Afrofuturism.” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 2 (2008) 139–153.

Morley, David, and Kevin Robins. Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes, and Cultural Boundaries. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Nakamura, Lisa. Race in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2000.

______. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture.” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (December 2014): 919–941.

Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text 20, no. 2 (2002): 1–15.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Ochoa Gautier, Ana Maria. Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Reich, Robert. “The Rise of Techno-Nationalism.” The Atlantic Monthly 259, no. 5 (May 1, 1987), 63–69.

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu. “Technologizing Orientalism.” In Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Ueno, Toshiya. “Techno-Orientalism and Media-Tribalism: On Japanese Animation and Rave Culture.” Third Text 13, no. 47 (1999): 95–106.

Veal, Michael. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

Weheliye, Alexander. “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music.” Social Text 20, on. 2 (2002): 21–47.

Wong, Deborah. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004.