A Fresh Look at Power Thieves
A DISCUSSION OFElectrifying Agents and the Power Thieves of Mexico City
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One of my most disturbing memories growing up as an infant in Peru is the blackouts (apagones). Provoked by the Maoist group Shining Path as part of its strategy to seize power, the sudden lack of electricity marked (and shaped) the lives of an entire generation of Peruvians, who had to learn how to manage and repair everyday objects while preventing them from damage once energy returned. The close interaction with electricity (as well as its absence) in the 1980s was present while reading Diana Montaño’s fascinating account, “Electrifying Agents and the Power Thieves of Mexico City” (Issues, Spring 2022), of electricity thieves and the rise of an infrastructure in Mexico City a century ago.
Montaño has chosen an unusual path to understand the complex relationship between individuals and systems: those who trespassed the law by procuring access to electric light. By focusing on marginal subjects, the author sheds new light on technological systems. They are no longer abstract “black boxes,” but a set of artifacts that users (and potential users) aimed to understand, intervene with, and incorporate into their daily lives. One way to do this is essentially by circumventing the formal requirements demanded by the company and gaining direct access to this source of energy and prestige.
As the essay reveals, the expansion of electricity in Mexico City and elsewhere ignited the emergence of new practices. Stealing electricity was one of them, a grassroots expertise that also involved technicians and police agents. Montaño makes an excellent point in suggesting that thieves should be considered as part of the human network created by this innovation. Why not? After all, thieves (and hackers, by extension) belong to a long lineage of underrepresented actors and deserve particular attention beyond the legal/illegal judicial dichotomy.
The role of “users” in the coproduction of technoscientific knowledge constituted a crucial debate a few years ago in the field of science and technology studies, and particularly in the SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) approach. Even though the debate seems to be over, it is crucial to return to these foundational exchanges and discuss them with new approaches and case studies, such as Montaño’s own book, Electrifying Mexico, along with other works on the history of electricity, such as the historian Willie Hiatt’s current project on Peruvian apagones, or anthropologist Antina von Schnitzler’s book, Democracy’s Infrastructure: Techno-Politics and Protest after Apartheid, on local resistance to prepaid meters in South Africa. Hence, “stealing” is just another action from a broader repertoire of “moral economy” invoked by those who reclaimed their own right to gain access to certain technologies or to make them available to a larger group.
Most recently, historians of technology have made an important effort to incorporate narratives from overlooked groups as well as from areas beyond the Global North. In doing this, the field has gained a better and more nuanced perspective on how infrastructure interacted with human agents in the past and the legacies of such interventions. Only by expanding our repertoire of actors, places, and practices will we reach a comprehensive understanding of the multiple meanings of technology and the impact it has, and continues to have, on ordinary individuals.
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Diana Montaño highlights the importance of ordinary people’s experiences, practices, and expectations in the making of what she terms the electricscape. By showing how people not only made sense of new energy technology as it arrived (in a top-down model of technological diffusion), but also worked—and made trouble—with it in ways that were socially and culturally specific to Mexico City, Montaño reminds us to attend to a wider range of sites in which energy systems are shaped, extended, contested, and sabotaged.
Of particular interest is her focus on the ladrones de luz (power thieves). In her engaging narration of the problems raised by electric theft, Montaño points us to transgression as an entry point for understanding how energy systems function, and where they break down. The ladrones de luz show us how the theft of electricity has profoundly shaped the way we use, regulate, police, and sell energy. What Montaño identifies as an electrical script is not a product of consensus or cohesion, but rather can be read for conflicts, disagreements, and disparities of power. The electrical script defined by the power companies is not only defied by the residents of Mexico City, but also alerts us to the fact that capitalinos (authorized and unauthorized users) have developed their own electrical script. The process of negotiating that gap shaped everyday practices and produced new legal precedents. The cases remind us how novel the problems presented by new kinds of energy can be.
Montaño’s account is filled with the rich texture of everyday life of the Mexican capital, but its insights reach far beyond the history of the city, or even the history of Mexico. At the heart of Montaño’s research is a challenge to historians of the countries that exported electric technology, finance capital, and expertise—places such as the United States and Canada, for example—to recognize that technological diffusion was not a one-way process, that capitalinos did not simply accept electricity as it was presented to them, but made it their own. What impact did the contestation over the electricscape of Mexico City, including the struggle to set the boundary between licit and illicit use of electricity, have beyond Mexico? What would it look like to bring this history into studies of the exporting countries? We might look to the processes of investment, scientific and engineering collaboration, and management to follow the impact on the companies. Equally, we might trace how migrants took their electrical scripts with them, from Mexico to elsewhere, or elsewhere to Mexico City.
Finally, I would like to briefly comment on the contemporary implications of this research. If we recognize that the legal regimes governing the distribution and appropriate use of electricity—including the definition of electric theft—grew from earlier moments of energy transition, we should consider how a similar process might play out with the efforts to decarbonize the world’s energy systems and what kinds of reimagination decarbonization might demand. How, for example, would decentralization and democratization of energy production and distribution reshape our electrical scripts, including around questions of theft? Are concepts of property and theft even the best ones we might use to pursue fairness and justice in the electricscape yet to come?
Georgetown University in Qatar
In hurricane-prone areas, everyone checks their electric power supplies before a hurricane’s landfall. Recently, days before Hurricane Ian, Floridians like me scrambled to assess how much electricity would their families need for water pumping/filtering and to run electronics, among other jobs. Then we charged our power banks, batteries, and solar panels, preparing for future days without power. People today are acutely aware that access to electricity is an essential part of modern life, and some may die without it. So I sympathize with Tomás Sánchez, owner of the San Antonio mill in Diana Montaño’s history, who said in court records that he needed steady access to electricity to operate his factory or it would perish—although he did not always wish to pay for this access.
Montaño’s engaging story of power thieves is a reminder that the invisible marriage of protons (positive charge) and electrons (negative charge) changed lifestyles around the globe. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Latin American leaders directly funded or granted permission to private companies to build electric power plants as part of a modernization drive. The aesthetic of a civilized and orderly society was to have electric streetlights and lighted buildings. Electricity was vital in infrastructure, industrial development, and military preparedness. And it implied rising social status, offering life-changing opportunities to individuals who could afford a monthly contract to light their homes during the night and dawn hours. By the early twentieth century, as the scholars Abigail Harrison Moore and Graeme Gooday describe, electricity was common in public areas and designers invented decorative electricity “to produce a new style that would meet both the technological and aesthetic demands of what the Art Journal (December 1901) referred to as ‘the greatest revolution to antiquated customs and appliances … electricity.’”
By the mid-twentieth century, the Mexican power thieves were not alone in stealing electricity from public lines. For instance, in the Quarto de Despejo (1960), Carolina Maria de Jesus, a woman living in a São Paulo favela (shantytown) with her three children, mentions having electricity hooked up to her shack. Having light permitted her to write, read, and relax in the evenings. By the 1970s, gatos (illegal wire hookups) became commonplace in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, with the donos do morro (owners of the hill) supplying utility services to residents, including through the illegal hookups, as reported in RioOnWatch.
As other discussants have suggested about Montaño’s case study of ladrones de luz, electricity could be widely available worldwide. However, institutions create unfair and inequitable systems of distribution, making it costly to access electricity—an energy source that is derived from a basic knowledge of transferring or managing it. Montaño shows that historically, consumers have never been passive actors and will ingeniously discover ways to retrieve needed energy for low or no cost. Since the first use of electricity in homes, people have continuously created new uses for it or expanded on its original designs. People today can live “off the grid,” using little more than a relatively inexpensive foldable solar panel system and portable power station. Like the historical characters, these individuals have made electricity their own.
University of Central Florida