Published on June 28, 2021
In this episode, Firat Oruc speaks with Anto Mohsin, professor of science and technology studies at Northwestern University in Qatar, on electrical energy in everyday urban life in Doha and its intersections with the history, cultural memory, development, and future of the city.
Speaker: Anto Mohsin is an Assistant Professor in Residence in the Liberal Arts Program at Northwestern University in Qatar (NUQ). He’s also an affiliated faculty member of Northwestern University’s Science in Human Culture Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Prior to joining Northwestern Qatar, he held a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellowship in Asian Environmental Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where he taught courses on environment and development in Southeast Asia. He received his Ph.D. in science and technology studies (STS) from Cornell University where he was also trained in the Southeast Asia Program. He has been teaching undergraduate STS courses at NUQ since Fall 2015. His main research and teaching interests are in energy studies and in Southeast Asia studies, exploring particularly how electrification intersects with issues of equality, social justice, development ideology, national and regional identities, national sovereignty, and sociotechnical capacities in Indonesia and also broadly in Southeast Asia. His book manuscript on the sociopolitical history of electrification in post-independence Indonesia (1945-1998) is currently under review. His previous research on this topic has been published in Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia; East Asian Science, Technology, and Society: An International Journal; and Technology’s Stories. His latest research on the electrification of Indonesia’s border regions will be published in an anthology titled Infrastructure and Scale Ordinary and Extraordinary Constructions Across Asia edited by Max Hirsh and Till Mostowlansky (University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming). Recently he’s taken an interest in expanding his geographical exploration of energy and electrical history to include Qatar.
Moderator: Firat Oruc, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
[BIRDS CHIRPING] [DRUMMING]
CIRS INTRODUCTION [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities research initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy.
FIRAT ORUC [00:00:24]: Greetings from Doha and welcome to our new podcast episode on lived experiences of energy. I am Firat Oruc, Assistant Professor of literature and humanities in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Qatar. Our guest today is a dear friend and colleague Dr Anto Mohsin. Anto Mohsin is Assistant Professor in the liberal arts program at Northwestern University in Qatar and an affiliated faculty member of Science in Human Culture program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. He received his PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University where he was also trained in the Southeast Asia program. He was also the recipient of the Henry Luz Postdoctoral Fellowship in Asian Environmental Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Anto’s main research and teaching interests are in energy studies and in Southeast Asia studies, exploring particularly how electrification intersects with issues of equality, social justice, development ideology, and national sovereignty. He has a forthcoming book on the socio-political history of electrification in post-independence Indonesia. Anto, welcome to our podcast series. Can we start with a personal intellectual account of what brought you to the field of energy studies? How did you develop the scholarly interest in writing the history of the post-colonial nations, such as Indonesia, from the vantage point of electrification?
ANTO MOHSIN [00:02:48]: Thank you very much for this great first question, Firat. Before I begin, I would like to thank you and thank Georgetown University in Qatar, again, for inviting me to take part in this podcast episode, which is a part of GUQ’s wonderful research initiative on energy humanities. Thank you. I have a short answer and also a long answer to the question that you post. The short version is that when I was in grad school I learned that there were still little scholarly works on the history of science and technology in Indonesia and I wanted to be one of the technology storytellers of modern Indonesia’s history. I learned especially that Indonesia, just like many other post-independent nation-states that emerge in the middle of 20th century they use science and technology to build their nations. They employed science, scientific and technological projects, to develop their nation and modernize their nation. Electrification received a particular attention from many of these new governments. They marshal resources, state resources and obtain substantial funding from international donors. So, electricity, I learned, was being vital for many of these countries’ modernization efforts, and their different pathways to electrifying their countries form a crucial and, to me interesting technological story, of the second half of the 20th century. So, the story of how and why Indonesia electrified the country is part of this larger historical narrative that I found fascinating to explore and examine. That is the short version of it, but if you’d allow me, I can expand that a little bit more, which is the longer version of it.
ORUC [00:05:15]: Please.
MOHSIN [00:05:16]: I think I can trace back my scholarly interest to the time when I was working as a professional engineer. So, you see I studied mechanical engineering in college and then worked as a mechanical design engineer for general electric, so I was part of an engineering team that designs steam turbines using power plants for the company’s customers all over the world. I also got a chance to work in a different division that helped design gasifiers; this huge machine that turns coal into synthetic gas which can be used in gas turbines to power gas turbines in power plants. So, working in this area, and this was back in the beginning to mid-2000s, led me to develop a broader interest in energy issues. I was observing that energy consumption throughout the world was on rise and in fossil-based fuels were in limited supply. Nations in the world would get into conflicts over this non-renewable energy resources and people passionately debate about alternative energy solutions. GE, the company I was working for at the time, highlighted these issues as well, and the company tried to tell its employees and the world that it has just the right solutions for these problems. At first, I was persuaded by this narrative. As a trained engineer, my thinking was mainly framed in technical terms and, whatever the problem that the world has or is facing, I thought the science and technology could definitely provide the solutions. But then I came to learn that these so-called “technological fixes” weren’t always the only or even the right solutions in many areas. For example, we want to talk about renewable energy the sun does not always shine to power solar panels, wind turbines could kill birds, are noisy, and not profitable for land development. And some people think they are unsightly, even though they are offered as solutions. I also read in the news at that time that corn-based biofuels could actually create more problems than they could solve. So, taking in all of this confusing and contradictory accounts, I wanted to understand these issues a little bit better, and a close friend, who was completing his PhD at a nearby university at the time; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, suggested that I take a graduate seminar taught by one of his advisors. The seminar was called Technology and Social Theory, and this course changed my life. Before taking the course, I hadn’t realized that we can study technology using the theories, methods, and lines of inquiries of the social science and humanities discipline. So, after taking the graduate seminar, I seriously prepared myself for graduate school, applied, got accepted, and quit my job. The rest as they say is history, and when I started grad school my advisor, my initial advisor – all incoming grad schools were paired by initial mentors – was Professor Ron Klein and he had a similar experience like me, so he happened to also have work as an engineer for GE before becoming a noted historian of technology. So, I was quite naturally attracted to him in his works and so I studied his publications and one of the books that he’s published explored technology and social change in rural America. And one of the technologies that he examined was electricity and when I was searching for a dissertation topic and, I considered a few different topics at the beginning, so Professor Klein, at one point advised me to take advantage of my language skills in Indonesian. I was born and partly raised there. And other professors and friends also urged me to consider using the resources that are available at this Cornell library’s Echols collection, and what an impressive collection. I found out rows of books, journals, magazines, reports on /and produced in Indonesia can be found there. So, after giving some thoughts, I decided to write my dissertation prospectus examining history of modern Indonesia from the perspective of electrification. This is how I developed my scholarly interest in studying a history of post-independence Indonesia from the point of view of electrification.
ORUC [00:10:43]: This is a really interesting. Of course, Cornell is sort of the place where probably the most important text on the emergence of post-colonial nations nationalism was also written that’s Benedict Anderson’s Imaginary “Imagined” Communities. Yes, and from that perspective I think your work is really important for post-colonial studies; a field in which I have been trained and for a long time didn’t really pay much attention to the centrality of the scientific technological energy discourses in post-independence visions, right? We have only very much paid attention to national liberation, these speeches so to speak, but as your work shows, most of that vision was sort of transferred into the way the infrastructure for the new nation including electrification would be put into practice and so on.
MOHSIN [00:12:20]: Yes, correct. I was accepted in a graduate program called Science and Technology Study. So that’s why I think I was trained to pay particular attention to the materiality of national identity, nationalism, and national discourses, right. So, when I got my hand on Benedict Anderson’s famous and quite influential, even up until today and in many different fields like you said, Imagined Communities, I read it using that lens, and there’s a chapter in the book right, at least in the second edition, not the first one, that talks about maps senses and museums that help raise national consciousness among people in the Netherland East Indies at the time.
ORUC [00:13:22]: You have recently taken an interest in expanding your geographical exploration of energy and electrical history to include Qatar. If I were to ask you to give us a sketch of electrified Doha how would that look like? What kind of an image would it invoke? You know as someone who has been in Doha for some time, I’m still struck by how much an illuminated city it is.
MOHSIN [00:13:58]: Yes, Doha is a brightly lit city, and actually you can see an image of Doha at night, and I don’t mean just the photos of the colorfully illuminated downtown Doha skyscrapers that you can find online, there are many of such images. What I’m talking about is the images that NASA produces. So, there’s a NASA satellite, I think it’s called NASA Suomi Polar Orbiting Partnership “Suomi NPP” satellite that took images of our earth at night in April and October 2012 and the images that the satellite took or composited show how our earth was lit up at night in 2012. These images are available online, they can be downloaded. I’ve used this image in my undergraduate course to talk about our electrified world, and in one of these images you can see how Qatar is very well illuminated country. So urban areas such as Doha, Alkhor, Lusail, Mesaeed, Wakra, Dukhan, and others and the main roads connecting these urban centers the Al-Shamal road, the Dukhan road and the Salwa road all the way up to the Saudi border glow very bright at night. You can also see some glaring spots out in the sea. I think where the offshore oil and gas platforms and other installations are located. The only dark spots on that image are the uninhabited desert areas at the northwestern part of Qatar and also the southwestern part of the country. But the NASA satellite image of Qatar at night, to me at least, reveals not just where people live, right, we would immediately know where the urban centers are located or it’s highly developed electric infrastructure, right, that supply electricity to illuminate these places, but also the existence of Qatar’s other infrastructures, such as transportation, the highways, and oil and gas. But going back to Doha, Doha is brightly lit and it’s an ultra-electrified space. Very well illuminated, and the prevalence of electric lighting used in many buildings, street lights, houses and parks can be felt almost everywhere in Doha. I think you experience this yourself. There are, of course, some dark pockets, and I’ve seen them, such as the alleyways between residential buildings in downtown Doha for example or just empty open spaces when there are no buildings and perhaps in some other areas that haven’t visited, but, you know, everywhere you go in Doha at night you can be sure to experience a well illuminated city. But because of this, according to researchers of one study, and I’d be happy to share this study and other studies that I might cite today, they say that Doha is one of the cities that suffers some of the worst light pollutions on the world. Qatar in general not just Doha, Qatar suffers from some of the worst light pollution in the world. In fact, if I recall correctly the study says that Qatar ranks third as the lightest polluted country in the world behind the first one I think is Singapore and then the second one Kuwait. I remember this one student of mine once told me that she couldn’t use a telescope that her parents bought her to see the stars in Doha. She had to escape to the desert to do so. So yeah brightly lit, but also heavily light polluted. And there’s also another dimension of Doha’s illuminated cityscape that perhaps you have noticed too, Firat. Artificial lighting is used aesthetically to enhance the city’s bridges, parks, buildings, roads, and highways, right?
ORUC [00:19:22]: Even in some individual properties and mansions, right?
MOHSIN [00:19:32]: Yes, and you might have seen that in some places you can see a colorful street light along the Bidda park for example, or on one of the highways going to the Hamad International Airport. I think it’s designed and installed this way to entice visitors and tourists and to project Qatar’s status as a modern nation, but in light of global warming, discourses of global warming, awareness of global warming, these types of artificial illuminations of Doha and other urban centers in in Qatar bring to the foreground questions about sustainable electricity consumption, right? Can this be sustainable in the future? Can Qatar transition to electricity generated from renewable energy sources and keep up the same level of artificial lighting intensity? So, these are some of the questions that need to be explored, I think.
ORUC [00:20:39]: Absolutely. And scholars of science and technology studies such as yourself have been critically examining five key dimensions of energy and even in your reflections about electrified Doha I think they came out that namely design, production, marketing, usage, and maintenance. In what ways these five dimensions of technology studies can serve as guidelines to talk about energy as lived experience?
MOHSIN [00:21:19]: Thank you, Firat, for that question. Yes, these five dimensions are really different aspects that STS scholars have used to examine the development of technological systems. We tend to call them socio-technical systems because the social component of it needs to be incorporated and considered and examined as well. So, in the beginning, STS scholars and technology historians or technology studies scholars, including sociologists of technology anthropologists of technology, focus mainly on the design and production dimensions of technological development and then they would also integrate the marketing dimension to their study as well and then a couple of decades ago, a user and uses of technology became the focal point of technology studies scholar, right. Many STS scholars have argued that technologies are not only shaped by designers and producers or by marketers as well for that matter, but also by users, excuse me, many STS scholars have argued that technologies are not shaped by designers and producers but also by users, including users who resisted or rejected technologies. So, a technology study scholar and STS scholars have started to pay more attention to uses and users of technology and recently there’s been a growing attention and call to examine the maintenance and maintainers of technology because many technology study scholars have been focusing too much on innovations and innovators the smooth functioning of the majority of our technologies, including you know electricity, is made possible largely because their army or people who do the upkeep, repair, and maintenance but they haven’t been given enough attention to scholars so I believe paying attention to examining and thinking using these five different dimensions would help broaden our understanding of energy as lived experience. We would not just focus on the consumers, the users or also non-users in this case who live, think about, and deal with energy but also on energy designers, energy producers, and in this case, I would include both material producers, also knowledge producers of energy, energy marketers, and energy maintainers.
ORUC [00:24:17]: And from that perspective what do you, in what ways do you think these five dimensions manifest themselves in the context of Doha? Any reflections about that observation?
MOHSIN [00:24:35]: Yeah, a little bit. I have just started my research on electrification in Qatar recently after teaching one of my courses for a few semesters now so I took up a bit of interest in examining electrification in Qatar. So, let’s start with energy designers. Engineers, urban planners, architects, managers, even workers who work for different energy organizations, such as Kahrama, decision makers in the Qatari government and other relevant parties I’d say belong to this group, right? To ensure the availability of abundant, affordable, stable, and reliable electricity to the growing population in Qatar, but also to many different areas, right? and you’ve noticed that Doha has been expanding and many new places are being built they need to come up with a well-planned design now I’m not sure when it started exactly but I learned this bit there’s been I’m not sure when it started exactly but I learned there’s been 13 phase power transmission system expansion in Qatar so far. 13 phases. It may have begun in the early 2000s when the Ministry of Electricity and Water shifted the responsibilities to transmit and distribute electricity to Kahama, I’m not sure that’s my best guess, but people who deal with this expansion of Qatar’s electric infrastructure in many ways, I believe, think and deal with energy every day. Where to put the substations, the distribution substations, and why in that locations, and how that might affect other infrastructure or buildings in that area, and so on. Okay, so electricity designers, I think, would be a group of people that is worth examining as well because they live and think about and deal with energy. I think it would also be instructed to examine electricity and energy producers who produce energy and electricity in Qatar. Many in Qatar, many residents of Qatar, perhaps take, just take for granted the availability of abundant electricity, but being trained in STS I want to know a little bit more. Who are the major players? So, what I’ve learned is in Qatar the responsibilities to produce power and also water, interestingly, not just electricity is given to this company called Qatar Water and Electricity Company or QWEC. It’s a semi-private company and a few independent power and water producers, so I’d say the operators, technicians, engineers, and managers who work for QWEC and also at the power plants located at Ras Abu Fontas, for example, or who work for other IPPs such as the Mesaieed power company and the Ras Laffan power company they all have interesting experiences with energy from the production side. Their daily practices, their training, the skills that they acquired, knowledge gain, whether tacit or implicit would be worth examining as well, in my mind. And like I said before, in this group I would also put electric knowledge producer, and the institutions where they work, learn, and produce knowledge Qatar for example – Qatar for example has enough resources and capital to import all the engineers, all the electrical engineers and other professional engineers needed to design and build this power plants. But they decided to establish programs in schools where they would train generations of these engineers, right. Texas A&M University in Qatar, for example, has electrical and computer engineering and also petroleum engineering for that matter and Qatar University has a department of electrical engineering and HBKU offers a Master’s of Science and PhD in sustainable energy programs so just knowing about this and being aware, are something that STS calls like myself are interested in studying more so these programs, the institutions, and the people who are involved in them, the students, the professors, and the administrators are all part of this large system that produce energy in the country and it’s interesting to them as well and as for energy marketers, these are a really interesting group of people in some countries, Firat, the company or the organizations that build electric infrastructure or distributed electricity also acted as marketers or promoters of electrical appliances. For example, I read in a book called Then There Was Light about rural electrification in Ireland the electricity supply board in Ireland not only the employees of the electricity supply board in Ireland not only electrified Ireland’s countryside, but they also tried to sell the latest electric gadgets. In Zanzibar, the Zanzibar Electricity Corporation sent out their employees to demonstrate how some electric devices work to their existing and also potential electricity customers. So, in Doha in the 1950s there were stores selling electric appliances and these stores were lined up along a street known as the Al-Kahraba street or Electricity street and nowadays these stores are spread all over Doha at various strip malls and they help market electric appliances and electric light bulbs. In fact, I buy my electric light bulbs at those stores because they’re cheaper than the ones sold at supermarket chains, this is just a practice that I do. So, of course you find store selling electric and electronic appliances in many malls in Doha now, right? And advertisement and promotional campaigns such as the Qatar Shopping Festival helped drive the sales of many of these devices. So why this is important? Well what I’d like to point out is that marketers of electricity and electrical products are a varied group of people and they play an equally vital role in shaping consumers behaviors, preferences, decisions and consequently their lived experiences of electricity. For users of the energy, much has been said and examined, I think because this tends to be the main focus of scholars when they explore energy as lived experiences. Things such as inequalities, disparities of access to electricity, the user’s daily experience of electricity, different types of users, and their consumption patterns are some of the topics that they examine. But one thing that I want to highlight is that they’re also non-users as well, perhaps even resistors of technology. So, one of the readings that I like to assign in my undergraduate STS courses is on Amish technology because the Amish communities in the United States decided not to be connected to the power grid, so there’s this community in the United States, that many of my students perhaps initially perceive as the most technologically advanced country in the world, that resists electricity that don’t use electricity coming from the grid. why do they do that? Well it has to do with their socio-religious values that they like to uphold and use to guide their selection and adoption of technologies, including electricity. So, I use this reading to talk about technology and values, whether personal or social values. So finally, maintenance, I know there are people who maintain the various components of electric infrastructure here in Qatar, I know that. But at this point unfortunately I have very little knowledge about them and their work. There are not many sources that I found so far that highlight this labor force and their work. Unfortunately like a quick keyword search in one of the English language newspapers here in Doha for the word “linesman” for example return more about the sports related articles instead of the maintenance people who maintain transmission lines, but you know the maintainers of technologies and electric infrastructure, their labor knowledge skills and conditions need to be made more visible as well because their daily energy lived experience might provide some useful insights for us as well.
ORUC [00:36:19]: Wow this is indeed a very informative account of how the key dimensions of energy manifest themselves in Doha and I think as you suggest that also the extent to which the entire energy infrastructure, particularly electricity, is really dependent on migrant expertise, which suggests an important area of study to be done, right?
MOHSIN [00:36:58]: Yes correct, yes, nicely put.
ORUC [00:37:04]: And as you just suggested, electrification retains a special cultural memory in Doha’s urban history Old Doha’s main street, as you just said, it was also known as the heart of Doha, is called Al-Kahraba street, Kahraba is the Arabic word for electricity and Al-kahraba was not only the first illuminated street in Qatar but also the primary destination of migrant labor communities and now under the name of Sahat Al-Kahraba or the Electricity Square, it is the center of Qatar’s most ambitious gentrification project The Msheireb Downtown. So as a historian of electricity, what are your reflections on the energy discourses of gentrified development? You know smart power, and all these sorts of buzzwords that come with gentrification development discourses?
MOHSIN [00:38:24]: Yeah, this is an excellent question, Firat. So, I learned that the Al-Kahraba street was so named because in the mid-1950s there was a power plant built in downtown Doha and then there’s a cable laid to transmit and distribute electricity from that power plant and the streets curvature followed that cable, the line of the cable.
ORUC [00:39:01]: Wow that’s so interesting!
MOHSIN [00:39:04]: Yeah, I learned this in one of the four houses of the Msheireb Museums actually. In Mohammed Bin Jassim House, so there’s an exhibit, I believe it’s a permanent exhibit, I haven’t been there in a while though, that shows remnants of what Kahraba used to look like. So, there’s the signage of the street and as you said the street was one of Doha’s most important meeting places, for migrant workers to come there and also establish shops, right? There are a lot of electrical appliances stores lining the street and so it was one of the first streets, if not the first street in Doha to have artificial lighting and neon signage, and the street is preserved in the Msheireb Downtown Properties in the name at least and perhaps also the outline of the street, I’m not too sure about that, but of course it has a different outlook and feel now and as you indicated it’s part of this thing called the Electricity Square, right? Sahat Al-Kahraba, which is part of the larger Msheireb Downtown Doha, so how is this gentrification of this area and there have been many gentrifications of places in many different areas as you pointed out, right. In Brooklyn, in New York City, for example, in New Orleans, especially after Hurricane Katrina in many cities in Southeast Asia, in Jakarta, Singapore and elsewhere. So Msheireb Properties, the developer of this area, to the best of my knowledge, designed and marketed this region as a smart city with with green buildings, a smart electricity meter automated waste collection, built in one big sustainable downtown area and it boasts pedestrian walkways, electric tram, solar panels, underground service tunnel, they’re all designed to use energy efficiently so in short, the area was constructed and has been marketed as a sustainable, livable, commutable area. So, this is connected to the energy discourses on sustainability and energy transition to renewable energy regimes, I believe. And this reminds me of the webinar held a few weeks ago that GUQ Energy humanities seminar initiated with Dominic Boyer, Sarah Pritchard, and Jessica Wenzel. At one point, they all addressed this topic of energy transition. I think it was Dominic Boyer who cited an example from his and his partner’s work examining the development of wind farm in Mexico, then he said you know we need to pay more attention to the history of the area and the people and the exploitative project that they experience. Sarah also brought up issues of power, how it’s structured, its different layers, and how it operates and so on. So, on the one hand, the deliberate planning of creating Msheireb Downtown Doha as an environmentally and energy conscious area I think is laudable, right? But on the other hand, we need to also be critical and ask questions such as you know: who are the targeted audience of Msheireb Downtown Doha? Are there still affordable housing in Qatar, as well for everyone? What happened to the previous occupants of this area? Is it open to all? So, these are some of the questions that I think you know scholars such as urban historians, historians of technology and asset scholars need to address as well.
ORUC [00:43:52]: Thank you, Anto. I think I will continue with another area of ambivalence which has to do with you know one of the distinguishing features of Gulf states such as Qatar in terms of providing energy to citizens, they rely on a red tier system which includes, among other benefits, free or subsidized electricity, right? But at the same time Qatar has also launched various consumer awareness initiatives under the National Program for Conservation and Energy Efficiency called Tarshid, Arabic word for “to act with maturity and responsibility” and to raise awareness and enlightened thinking. Is there a contradiction here? I mean between the run clear logic of energy abundance and energy conservation?
MOHSIN [00:45:04]: Thank you, Firat for this question. This is also a very good critical question. Maybe first I can mention a bit of a background first from what I’ve learned from my students and reading literatures on this. Yes, electricity is provided either free or highly subsidized here in Qatar free for a Qatari citizen for their first houses, but not their second or third or fourth houses. Many residents, including the expatriate communities, get similar benefits mainly from their jobs, but not all of them, I learned. Some still need to pay electricity when they rent a property here. As for me, I’ve never seen an electricity bill since I moved here to Qatar five years ago. I used to, when I was living in the United States, and I was very electricity-conscious consumer because of that and I bring that habit here when I move to Qatar. Tarshid campaigns, I learned, started nine years ago, in 2012. They divided into two phases; the first phase is from 2012 to 2017, the first five years. And then the second phase which we are in right now is from 2017 to 2022. So, going back to your question, I thought maybe we need to ask less about whether there’s contradiction in these two measures providing electricity for free or highly subsidized and also there’s a conservation program and perhaps asked how effective this awareness campaigns to reduce electricity consumption. And the reason I say this is because other countries such as Indonesia which I’ve studied closely, electricity has also been subsequently subsidized by the government. They’re not free, but they’ve been highly subsidized electricity prices especially for household consumers and in non-urban areas are sold at a rate lower than what they should have been to cover the cost of production because setting electricity prices artificially law – excuse me setting electricity prices artificially low would benefit the ruling regimes, right? People love getting affordable electricity. But in Indonesia campaigns to conserve electricity, save energy have been going much longer than they have in Qatar so that much I know. One reason is because the state-owned electricity company PLN wouldn’t be able to keep up with rising electricity demands because of its limited capacities to grow the electric infrastructure so it’s been promoting, campaigning, raising awareness among electricity consumers to conserve electricity and only use electricity as needed and preferably for what they call production users to use electricity for earning extra income. So, the renter logic in places such as Qatar and the other Gulf states is to support the the social contract, right? Between the ruling elites and the citizens. Citizens give their political support in return for getting certain material benefits from their government. A similar, though not exactly, the same arrangement actually also happens in Indonesia in what I term “Patrimonial Techno-politics”, in my book manuscript, President Suharto in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s arranged to electrify villages and get them connected to the greed on the eve of general elections to try and gain support from villagers to vote for their government political party. Because electricity was something that many people in rural areas wanted and they were glad to get electricity, some villagers receive electric generators for free from the government. Many of them, you know, were persuaded to vote for the government political party. So, there’s been attempts in the GCC countries to introduce electricity pricing reforms actually. There’s one study I’ve read that shows when Saudi Arabia tried to increase its electricity prices, in 2016 I believe, citizens protested on social media and I made a note here that from that study, it says that the government fired its Minister of Electricity and Water but kept the new prices. So, there was somebody that had to take the blame, unfortunately. And in the same study, it also mentioned that in 2018, 11 Saudi Princes spoke out against the eliminations of water and electricity subsidies from members of the royal family, but they were later arrested and detained in a maximum-security prison. Kuwait did similar thing trying to increase prices of diesel, kerosene and aviation fuel in 2015, but political opposition in the country forced the government to revert back. And so, I think the Qatari government didn’t quite expect that electricity consumption per capita would keep increasing over the years, and when they decided to give this for free or heavily subsidize it. And seeing the increasing trend of average electricity consumption over the years made them worry that this is not a sustainable practice I managed to find Kahrama’s annual statistical reports here and let me quote them here for you “the average per capita consumption of electricity in Qatar in 2008 and this is not including the industrial buck consumers was 8,704 kilowatt hour and in 2019 it raised to 11,497 kilowatt hour per person per year” that’s quite high actually and when the Tarshid campaign started in 2012 right there’s been a slight dip between 2012 to 2013 in the average per capita electricity consumption in Qatar and also from 2015 to 2016 but then the numbers picked up again so it seems that the Tarshid campaigns launched to moderate this increasing and worrisome electricity consumption excessive electricity consumption here in Qatar and it had some initial successes at the beginning in the early years but haven’t been quite successful recently.
ORUC [00:53:41]: Thank you, Anto. I think what you told us to me showed the extent to which a popular desires, expectations, practices, are at the core of, or should be at the core of, our thinking about lived experiences of energy, and my next question you referred already to your wonderful course that you have been teaching at Northwestern University in Qatar and I know one of the assignments for this course called Our Electrified World is a video project through which the students are expected to highlight an interesting aspect of electricity or light or both in-house, compound, neighborhood and their city. Can you talk to us about these projects please?
MOHSIN [00:54:57]: I would love to. So, like many of my colleagues I believe in the liberal arts program here at Northwestern University in Qatar I used to assign only written assignments in my courses, what I call reading reflections, written exams, and essays. But having been teaching at a media school for a few years, I realized that I hadn’t given my students a chance to express their research and research findings in other forms of media that they have the skills in producing and editing so I started in earnest to incorporate this type of assignment in the fall of 2020, so just last year. Especially also because of the online learning mode that we were in during the pandemic. So, from my Introduction to STS course, for their midterm project, I gave my students options to either write a paper, to record a podcast, to make an animation, or even to create a short video. And the creativity that my students brought to these assignments impressed me, they seemed to have fun in producing them and I had fun evaluating them. It got me excited too, so I was inspired by their submissions and I signed up for a four-week online course in the basics of producing short video, how to write and edit the script, how to shoot and how to edit the shots using Premiere Pro, and I took this course back in January of this year and I enjoyed it. So, given my newly acquired skills in video making and editing and pleasant experiences evaluating some creative projects my students submitted, I decided to assign this project for my Our Electrified World course this past semester, and another factor that pushed me to assign this particular assignment as I mentioned is because of the full online learning mode that we conducted. My students, not all of them, are based in Qatar necessarily. There’s one who joined us from Seoul, South Korea. So, I have to tell you that I received, again, many wonderful and creative projects of this video project assignment. For example, a few students visited and created interesting videos about the Museum of Illusions I didn’t even know such a place existed here in Doha until my students mentioned it as a possible site to explore in class. One student made a video about fanoos, that’s Arabic for Ramadan lanterns. And narrated a story how these lanterns came to symbolize the holy month in the Islamic calendar. Some students show how electricity is used in their dorms or dorm room or in their room. And one student reveals how the majles in his house is illuminated with, among other things, beautiful chandeliers. So, another student showcases experiment using both natural and artificial lights in his dorm room, and one student wrote a really poetic script for her video about darkness and light, So I really enjoyed that one as well. And my student who joined from South Korea for example created a video highlighting how his city’s outdoor lightings illuminate the Han River, and another student created a well scripted and well edited video about the cafes in the Qatar Sports Club entitled her video “Kahraba and Kahwa”. And what I also like, and this is tied to the theme that we’re addressing in this podcast, is the rest of my students created a video that critically examining and highlighting the excessive electricity consumption in and around Doha and suggest some ways to conserve electricity consumption. So, by doing this creative project they became aware of their own lived experience with electricity, their own consumption patterns and habits and those around them, and suggest ways to increase awareness and reflect on this. So, you know I was really pleased with their submissions.
ORUC [01:00:10]: Wow, what a great pedagogical tool to draw our students to lived experiences, daily experiences of energy. I hope you encourage some of your students to consider our joint certificate program in Media and Politics. Their creativity, their creative input to understand, you know, to approach media and politics through the lens of energy and infrastructure I think would be wonderful.
MOHSIN [01:00:53]: Thank you, yeah, I will.
ORUC [01:00:59]: Thank you, Anto, for this really fascinating and stimulating conversation. I learned a lot and we look forward to your forthcoming book and your new research on energy studies on Doha. It was a great pleasure having you.
MOHSIN [01:01:18]: Thank you so much for inviting me in and it’s a pleasure being here as well. Thank you for having me, Firat.
[DRUMMING AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
- Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America – by Ronald R. Kline
- Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism – by Anderson, Benedict.
- Then There Was Light : Stories from Ireland’s Rural Electrification – by PJ Cunningham and Joe Kearney.
- Mohsin, Anto. “Wiring the new order: Indonesian village electrification and patrimonial technopolitics (1966–1998).” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 29, no. 1 (2014): 63-95.
- Mohsin, Anto. “Lighting “Paradise”: A Sociopolitical History of Electrification in Bali.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 11, no. 1 (2017): 9-34.
- Mohsin, Anto. “Coping with Indonesia’s mudflow disaster.” In The Sociotechnical Constitution of Resilience, pp. 117-145. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2018.
- Mohsin, Anto. “The Sidoarjo Mudflow and the Muddiness of an Environmental Disaster.” Arcadia (2017).
- Mohsin, Anto. “National Electricity Day: From “Electricity- Minded” Nation to “My Idea for PLN.” Technology’s Stories vol. 5, no. 4.
- Mohsin, Anto. “Epic Audiovisual History of Technology Course by a Historian of Innovation: W. Bernard Carlson,” Understanding the Inventions that Changed the World”.” Technology and Culture 57, no. 3 (2016): 657-660.
- Günel, Gökçe. “The Backbone: Construction of a Regional Electricity Grid in the Arabian Peninsula.” Engineering Studies 10, no. 2-3 (2018): 90-114.
- Gupta, Akhil. “An anthropology of electricity from the global south.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 4 (2015): 555-568.
- Winther, Tanja, and Harold Wilhite. “Tentacles of modernity: why electricity needs anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 4 (2015): 569-577.
- Wetmore, Jameson M. “Amish technology: Reinforcing values and building community.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 26, no. 2 (2007): 10-21.
- Topics in Science and Technology Studies: Our Electrified World – NUQ: Instructor- Anto Mohsin
- Night Lights 2012 Map
- Everyday Energy: Approaches to Lived Experience –Dominic Boyer, Sara B. Pritchard, and Jennifer Wenzel