From Publishers Weekly
A class titled History of Modern Technology 101 would probably focus on electricity, mass production, the automobile and the Internet, but according to British historian Edgerton, it would miss the real history of 20th-century technology. We should pay less attention to novelty and invention, he argues, and more to the technologies that people actually use in their daily lives—"a whole invisible world of technologies," many of which have served the poor more than the rich, such as corrugated metal and flat-pack IKEA furniture. Ranging across broad swaths of history, Edgerton offers multiple examples of overlooked technologies that are far more important than they might initially seem, including the condom and the sewing machine, as well as innovations in killing, such as insecticides, slaughterhouses and chemical warfare. The result, while sometimes overly pedantic for nonhistorians, is a provocative challenge to students of technology. (Jan.)
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Despite too many opaque sentences, this book is utterly fascinating. The common view of technology as a matter of novelty, of invention and innovation accelerating into the future, is very limited, Edgerton says. To understand technology historically, consider technology in use, and some remarkable facts emerge. Highly touted new technologies, such as the Pill and atomic power, were derailed by unforeseen (AIDS) or unconsidered (nuclear waste disposal) developments and sidelined by the technologies they had supposedly made obsolescent. The huge twentieth-century surge in productivity depended on improving old technologies, and we see the effect in such places as China of the quick succession of technological revolutions that occurred over more time in the U.S. Maintenance consumes a much larger proportion of technological effort than innovation, nations a-building characteristically attempt to control certain technologies for nationalistic purposes, and war and killing are the wellsprings of the most consequential modern inventions. In short, the old ways--power by harness animals, nationalism, warfare, slaughtering for food--don't fade away. They adapt, and that is the real big story about technology. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved