Power and Progress: The electrification of French colonial Vietnam

Electrification has played a key role in the global spread of modern lifestyles since the late nineteenth century, although the results have been uneven across regions. Electricity’s association with light and lightness, speed and connectivity, and freedom from drudgery has also been implicated in nation-building and modernisation projects. Whereas colonial states emphasised its positive features as emblems of Western civilisational and technological superiority, socialist states turned them into icons of national belonging and liberation from feudal and colonial oppression. Today, electricity and electrification have come to signify state sovereignty, efficiency, and global integration, and universal access to an electric power supply is perceived as an essential prerequisite for civilised life and human progress.

Despite its transformative effects on societies, electrification in the colonial era has thus far received little scholarly attention. At a time when the spectre of the Anthropocene looms large around the globe, it seems pertinent to look at the past and study how new technologies moved from the metropole to the colonies, and how they gained traction and affected local lifeworlds in unforeseen, contingent ways. Creatively combining historical and anthropological approaches, this research aims to investigate how the expansion of electric power lines across French colonial Vietnam (re)shaped local lifeworlds, perceptions of civilisation and progress, and visions of the future.

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