Human Rights and Technological Change: Conflicts and Convergences since the 1950s

Human Rights and Technological Change: Conflicts and Convergences since the 1950s

Dr. Michael Homberg, Potsdam; Dr. Benjamin Möckel, Köln; Dr. Daniel Stahl, Jena
Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, Apostelnkloster 13-15, 50672 Köln
Vom - Bis
19.09.2019 - 20.09.2019
Möckel, Benjamin

Modern technologies have become a major subject of human rights policy. Surveillance technology, the military use of drones, and the possibilities of Big Data analyses pose new challenges for the international human rights movement. At the same time, these techniques offer new ways to document and denounce violations of human rights and to promote mass mobilization. Although these debates are of topical interest, the ambivalent connection between human rights and technologies depicts a long-standing problem. Right from the start, the modern human rights system established in the 1940s and 1950s had to deal with challenges of technological innovations. The appropriation of new technologies in the service of political agendas goes back to these years. Thus, the main focus of this conference is on this ambivalent relation, that has until now scarcely been addressed in historical research.

Empirical case studies from different national and global contexts which focus on the years after 1945 are supposed to lend historical depth to these current debates. The conference analyzes how the spread of modern technologies both challenged and served human rights policies. How did technological innovations change structures, concepts, and practices of human rights policy? And how did these new norms, in turn, shape the way in which new technologies were implemented? Regarding these questions, presentations may take different groups and institutions into account: Governments, media, scientists, industrialists, NGOs and international organizations.

With this approach, the history of human rights can open up new vistas on global history. This is especially true for research on development aid, which hitherto hasn’t taken the historiography on human rights into due consideration. The subject of the conference offers an ideal starting-point: Technological modernization and progress have been promises of salvation by numerous initiatives for the “development” of the “third world”. At the same time, the right to development was of great importance in the debates on human rights. Still, it is important to highlight that such an approach should not only focus on tensions between technologies and human rights in developing countries but also in more developed, industrialized ones.

The conference focusses on five areas: 1) major infrastructure projects; 2) production methods in agriculture and industry; 3) changes in media cultures; 4) the societal impact of computerization; and 5) reproductive technologies. We define technologies as things, infrastructure, techniques, and know-how, which determine and influence social practices and interactions. Revisiting a social history (“Gesellschaftsgeschichte”) of technological change with regard to the transformation of global human rights regimes sheds new light on environmental and economic history approaches as well as the history of technology. Furthermore, it can take new perspectives on the history of migration, postcolonial nation-building, and international policy of the 20th century into account.


Thursday, Sep 19

Opening, 9.30 a.m. – 10.30 a.m.
Dr. Michael Homberg (Potsdam), Dr. Benjamin Möckel (Cologne): Welcome and Introductory Remarks

I. Infrastructure Projects, 10.30 a.m. – 12.30 a.m.
Chair: Dr. Volker Barth (Cologne)

Dr. Birte Förster (Darmstadt): Infrastructure Projects in French Colonial Territories after 1945

Christoph Plath (Berlin): The Right to Development, Technology, and the Quest for Global Justice. A Human Rights-Based Approach to the Transmission of Knowledge

Dr. Bradley Simpson (Connecticut): Development through Armaments in Authoritarian Indonesia

Lunch, 12.30 a.m. – 1.30 p.m.

II. Production, 1.30 p.m. – 3.30 p.m.
Chair: Prof. em. Dr. Jost Dülffer (Cologne)

Michel Christian (Geneva): The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Program of “Industrial Redeployment” in the 1970s

Dr. Knud Andresen (Hamburg): Human rights and Labor Rights at the Volkswagen Plant in South Africa

Dr. Simone M. Müller (Munich): Technology Transfer and the Global Waste Economy

Coffee break, 3.30 p.m. – 4.00 p.m.

III. Media Cultures, 4.00 p.m. – 6.00 p.m.
Chair: Prof. Dr. Anke Ortlepp (Cologne)

Andreas Kahrs (Berlin): Human Rights as a Topic in South African Propaganda during Apartheid

Prof. Dr. Barbara Keys (Melbourne): “Tools for Truth”: Human Rights NGOs and Typewriters, Telephones, and Computers

Lia Börsch (Heidelberg): Searching for a Universal Language: Discourse and the Organisation of Images at Amnesty International in the 1980s

Dinner 6.00 p.m. – 7.30. p.m.

7.30 p.m. – 9.30 p.m: Public screening of the movie “The Cleaners” (Germany, 2018) and discussion with the directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck (Chair: Prof. Dr. Habbo Knoch)

Friday, Sep 20

IV. Computerization, 10 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Chair: Dr. Valeria Wegh Weis (Berlin/Buenos Aires)

Benedikt Neuroth (Berlin): Big Data and Privacy in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s

Prof. Dr. Larry Frohman (Stony Brook): Human Rights and Digital Wrongs: Computers, Personal Information, and the Evolving Discourse of Privacy Rights in West Germany

Julia Gül Erdogan (Potsdam): Computer Power to the People. The West German Hacker's Activism, Online Communication before the Internet Age and its Utilization during the Yugoslav Wars

Lunch, 12 a.m. – 1.00 p.m.

V. Reproduction, 1.00 p.m. – 3.00 p.m.
Chair: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Lindner (Cologne)

Roman Birke (Jena): Individual Freedom or Responsibility to the Community? Human Rights, Contraceptive Technologies, and Fertility Control in the 1960s and 1970s

Dr. Tehila Sasson (Atlanta): Population Policy and the Production of Baby Milk Powder

Dr. Heinrich Hartmann (Basel): Contested Reproductive Rights. Demographic Technologies and the Quest for Individualism, 1960s to 1970s

3.00 p.m. – 4.00 p.m.
Dr. Daniel Stahl (Jena): Summing-up
Final discussion


Benjamin Möckel
Universität zu Köln, Historisches Institut, Albertus-Magnus Platz, 50923 Köln