Lasting effects of technology

Financial Times

The guillotine, traditionally associated with the French Revolution, was used in Germany more than 100 years later during the Nazi regime to execute 10,000 people.

Adolf Hitler, David Edgerton says in a grisly chapter on the technology of killing, ordered the building of 20 guillotines and introduced hanging as an alternative only in 1942.

In his new book "The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900," Edgerton relates this fact in seeking to convince us of the truth of three propositions. First, that conventional histories of technological progress are partial, incomplete and weighted toward innovation and invention.

Second, that older technologies -- the guillotine, the rickshaw, corrugated metal and the horse among them -- have an importance in the modern world that is often overlooked by "innovation-centric" pundits.

And third, that "to rethink the history of technology is necessarily to rethink the history of the world."

The first proposition is plausible, the second reasonable, and some might think the third teeters on the brink of hyperbole.

Edgerton is a distinguished academic, and his book is very much an academic's rant. Its target is what he perceives as sloppy and cliche thinking that celebrates the new and innovative and ignores the old and useful.

"Use" is one of Edgerton's key differentiators in thinking about the value of technology. "Many things we think of as old remained in practical use for longer than our future-oriented accounts of technological history allow," he writes. "Our industrial, scientific and technological museums testify to the long life of many machines and yet, at the same time, many deny the significance of this point for our thinking about technology."

This is an attack on authors who treat the history of technology as a succession of "boy toys," who laud their innovators and inventors as heroes, and who play down the importance of copying, adapting and transferring.

Edgerton cites a long list of examples. Poor countries may not innovate in Western terms but they create technologies suited to their capabilities and resources that are every bit as effective, he suggests.

So in, say, Ghana, newly imported motor vehicles quickly break down from lack of routine, Western-style maintenance. But, over time, they are reworked in small local garages or "magazines" and kept running in a state of perpetual repair.

Indeed, on a visit to India some years ago, the ancient taxi in which I was traveling stopped suddenly with fearful noises emanating from the transmission. In the West, it would have been on its way to the junkyard. The next morning, taxi and driver were waiting for me, both in good running order.

Edgerton says that IKEA, the Swedish furniture retailer, is a "wonderful" example of his arguments. "First, of the continuing significance of what we take to be old, in this case, not just furniture, but wooden furniture, supplied obviously by forests. In terms of industry, it exemplifies beautifully the extension rather than the retreat of mass production, and its globalization, producing fantastically cheap outputs. In terms of service industries it is an example of mass retailing and mass consumption of identical goods."

I learned a great deal from this book. The B-52 bomber, for example, has been in service so long that the grandchildren of its first pilots are now themselves flying an airplane that is expected to see service until 2040.

A smaller and weaker Japanese force seized Singapore from its British defenders in World War II in part by requisitioning 6,000 bicycles from the local population -- although superior military strategy also was necessary.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure that, outside the history of technology, Edgerton's proposition has much novelty.

Most people have no difficulty understanding that not all technologies are successful, that economics and culture play a big part in the rate at which technologies are adopted by particular countries and how long they continue to be useful, and that innovation is not a sure road to prosperity.

Alan Cane is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.


Shifting gears

"The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900"

* By David Edgerton

* Oxford University Press USA, $26, 288 pages

Source: Publisher

Los Angeles Times

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