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The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900

3.9 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195322835
ISBN-10: 0195322835
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Editorial Reviews

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.

From Booklist

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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Product Details

  • 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: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #460,423 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Paul Tognetti TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Every day each one of us is bombarded by commercial messages touting the latest and greatest products. You can now purchase a self-cleaning hot tub or a cell phone that can store and play thousands of songs. But just how much useful innovation is really taking place in the opening decade of the 21st Century? In "The Shock of The Old" author David Edgerton offers the somewhat controversial proposition that in spite of all of the hype what is happening today really is not all that innovative after all. Rather, Edgerton argues "judging from the present, the past looks extraordinarily innovative." The interesting arguments made by Edgerton are certainly worth exploring.

Whether discussing innovations in military technology, transportation, pharmaceuticals or consumer products, David Edgerton wants to find out not only how useful these technologies really are but also how much they are actually used. Although Edgertons writing style proves to be less than scintillating, his idea is certainly a fascinating one. For example, Edgerton argues rather effectively that rockets and the atomic bomb are two of the most overrated technologies in military history. The fact of the matter is that much older technologies such as airplanes, the rifle and heavy artillery remain to this day the most prolific tools of war. Indeed, Edgerton even goes so far as to suggest that had the United States directed more of its resources to traditional weapons like these instead of the atomic bomb then World War II might have actually been concluded much sooner. And while the German V-2 rocket was capable of delivering a one ton warhead to a target some 200 miles away it was certainly not very cost effective.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The history we are taught in school, held to be common knowledge, is almost always wrong, and nowhere is this more true than with the history of technology. Growing up in the United States, I was taught that everything was invented in America: that Howe invented the sewing machine, Fulton the steamboat, Morse the telegraph, and Edison invented the incandescent light bulb everything else. Of course, none of that is true, and my favorite books are everything-you-know-is-wrong books which correct our assumptions of how modern life came to be. "The Shock of the Old" is one of the best of these, and it is full of examples of how inventions developed in unexpected places. For example, he points out that in 1895, there were more automobiles running on the streets of Barcelona than there were in New York (or Detroit).

But is it all accurate? For the most part, detailed source notes are provided, but then Edgerton makes such statements as that prior to 1939 only Great Britain and Germany had broadcast television. I suppose that by 1939, he refers to the public demonstration of television at the New York World's Fair, but prior to that Britain's broadcast television was from the Baird Television company, which employed the *mechanical* capture and reproduction of a moving image using a spinning disk system invented in 1883 by German engineer Paul Nipkow.

This is the second book I've read (the other being The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914) that was written by a Brit whose intent seems to be to counteract the collective egotism of Americans by minimizing (or ignoring) American innovations.
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This book presents a large assortment of facts which support some of my favourite arguments, yet aren't really brought together to say anything conclusive. So I give it an intermediate rating, boosted partly by being an easy read, even while frustrated that it doesn't really get anywhere. Are we supposed to be surprised that historical memory is uneven, subject to political whim and fashion? Is the author concerned that innovators gain disproportionate hero status? Surely there is more cause for concern with entertainers and sports stars, let alone those whose only realised motivation is accumulation of money. Maybe a good part of my annoyance came from his trying to measure the importance of innovation primarily in terms of impact on gross economic measures.

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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