/ How We Became Modern

What does it mean to become ‘modern’?’ This project answers this question through a study of infrastructural change in a small fishing village off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada called Change Islands. Until the 1960’s, people on the island led a traditional subsistence lifestyle. Then, suddenly, they acquired all kinds of modern technologies, such as electricity, telephones, roads, and cars. These technological changes were accompanied by deep changes in their everyday lives: changes in how people worked, changes in how they spent their time, changes in how they related to each other, changes in who they felt accountable to and for what, and changes in what they worried and dreamed about. Through ethnographic and historical analysis of social changes brought about since the 1940’s by new technologies from electricity to Facebook, this project explores how ideas of what counts as ‘modern’ are contested, established and enforced, what it feels like to become ‘modern,’ what is gained and lost through modernization, and the role that technological infrastructure plays in it. In the case of Change Islands, I am seeing that in becoming modern, infrastructure and governance are frequently designed based on particular conceptions of “right’ ways to be in time, which correspond to what are considered modern orientations to time and work. Becoming modern is then accomplished, in part, through the pressure these systems put on people who maintain ‘nonstandard’ ways to be in time. Battles over the design and deployment of these infrastructures are therefore also battles over how to orient to time and work, over what it means to be a “good citizen” of time. The winners of each battle get to impose infrastructural constraints on the next round. On Change Islands, one outcome of this battle is a gradual destruction of the ways of being in time which make life possible on the island.

Participants: Phoebe Sengers