- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (December 15, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195322835
- ISBN-13: 978-0195322835
- Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 0.9 x 6.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #437,155 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900
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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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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 Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top customer reviews
I found nothing with which to disagree in this book, so perhaps I am not the best person to review it. Still...read it for yourself, and see whether you come away with the same feeling.
Back to the good parts though, analyzing innovation by use. I was trained in user centred design at Arizona State a decade and a half ago. It has never led me wrong. However, I never had the good sense to link my user centred training to history. The author, David Edgerton, does just that. He argues that we are distracted by the shiny new innovations that are niche at best while overlooking the old innovations that actually improve our lives.
Take communications for example. Everyone talks about Facebook and Snapchat. Some people talk about satellites. However, few people talk about undersea cables. The first trans-Atlantic cable was laid between 1854 and 1858. The surprising thing is that today the majority of communication is still via cables (albeit, now fiber-optic). Moreover, they are still laid under the sea in much the same way that first one in the 1850’s!
Another thing that Edgerton talks about is the geographical displacement of technology. It reminds me of walled gardens from the 1600s in Europe to grow warm climate fruit further north. By building thick walls around fruit trees, they were able to create mini-climates that stayed warm at night by using the walls as heat sinks. They would absorb the sun’s energy during the day and radiate heat at night. Today, the process is forgotten in the west, but is being widely used in China to boost crop production without using expensive fuel to keep crops warm.
The last chapter of the book is enlightening too. Edgerton surprised me by pointing out just how little R&D is and has been done and how concentrated those efforts have been.
He starts with R&D budgets over time. He argues that most R&D spending peaked in the 1950’s and ’60’s and has declined since. In spite of the decline, patents per capita have remained fairly constant. Perhaps technology isn’t changing all the time then?
Moreover, he points out how in 2003, 14 of the 24 largest R&D spenders were companies founded before 1914! It’s even more surprising that the “tech companies” like Microsoft, Apple and Google don’t lead the list. Instead 1/3 of R&D spending is in pharmaceuticals and combing that with cars adds up to a full 50% of all R&D spending! Think about it, all the research for all the products we use every day: TV, internet, buildings, cooking, cleaning etc is only 50% of R&D spending. Remarkable.
Having said these great things, I can’t forgive the author for completely losing his thesis for the middle 150 or so pages of the book. It’s as though he had 40 pages for a beginning and end and decided to just cram interesting facts and stories in between to stuff it.
At one level, I'm happy to point out how many areas of technology are stagnating or regressing after earlier prominence, far from converging on some singularity. At another, the author underplays the inescapable rise of information and communications technologies (ICT) still tracking Moore's Law and more so ICT's influence in other areas where it changes how things are done. Sure there are false promises, but even some of those can change how we thing about things. My big lesson in the pervasive influence of ICT came 20 years ago when a survey form about technologies in higher education came in from a prominent laboratory equipment maker incredulously claiming they weren't a technology business. While the author seems to want to treat ICT as yet another overplayed innovation and I'd like to agree, by not addressing its perceived ubiquity he fails to nail it.
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