Even as new technologies revolutionize everything from health care to media to warfare, it’s important to remember that our world runs primarily on products and technologies long in use — everything from aspirin to the internal combustion engine. In his new book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, David Edgerton, the Hans Rausing Professor of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Imperial College London, argues for a new view of the history of technology that focuses not only on “Big Bang” innovations — Sony’s Walkman or a future spaceship that could carry humans to Mars — but also on incremental change and how societies use the technologies they invent or, just as important, borrow. As Edgerton writes, we must shift our focus “from the new to the old, the big to the small, the spectacular to the mundane, the masculine to the feminine, the rich to the poor.”
Such a history would reveal, he says, that many of the fastest-growing countries of the 20th century, such as Japan and China, were not the most inventive. Indeed, most growth comes as a result of technology transfer, not of innovation. That understanding has significant consequences for trade policy in a global economy. For example, if a country such as the U.S. demands strict intellectual property protections from another nation before agreeing to trade with it, to what degree does that stymie technology transfer and the flowering of new products that often result? By reorienting the way we view technology, we can also better understand whether we’re making wise decisions in adopting new technologies, such as genetically modified crops — especially when there are often less expensive alternatives that, although perhaps not as innovative, may be less risky.
What’s wrong with our current understanding of technology?
EDGERTON: When we think about technology, we immediately think about invention and innovation and the future, and not about how things come into use. We’re always so enthusiastic about what’s going to happen in five or 10 years’ time. But we lack an explicit history of technology, by which I mean a history of the vast number of products that are in use at any particular time — as well as a history of innovation, outlining all of the inventions (large and small) from a particular period. Instead we have an unsatisfactory mixture of the two, leaving us with little more than excitable descriptions of the early life of some of the earth-shattering technologies that later became widely used. For example, we have a rich history of the development of the atom bomb during World War II, but there has been little or no discussion of the critical role of the horse during the war; Hitler’s army used more horses in its invasion of Russia than Napoleon did 130 years earlier.
That’s a major gap, because if we’re interested in the relationship between technology and society, we need to know what’s in use and what advances are being made throughout a culture at any particular time. And it is just as important to understand the inventions that failed as it is to study those that succeeded. In fact, the majority of all inventions fail, and they fail for a reason. The Concorde was an economic failure, for example, because it was a dreadful waste of money. We must recognize that in order to determine on what basis to go about producing another Concorde.
Describe your sense of the history of technology. Is it a conservative view?
EDGERTON: I know I could be interpreted as arguing that the new doesn’t matter and is overrated, while the old stuff is still hugely important. But I don’t really want to argue that. I insist that there are very, very many new things under the sun. So I do want to emphasize and, indeed, celebrate rapid change, but what I’m very hostile to is the celebration of pseudo-change or the cult of future change.