David Edgerton, “The Shock of the Old”


Edgerton’s basic historiographic thesis in “The Shock of the Old” is that innovation-centric accounts of the history of technology give us a very distorted understanding of technology’s effects on society and society’s effects on technology—an understanding that can be corrected only by looking at the history of technology in use. Edgerton’s book is an extended argument for the inadequacy of the former approach, as well as a positive narrative of technology as it has been used from the year 1900 to the present. Thus his book embodies two highly interrelated but separate projects—one negative, one positive.
“The Shock of the Old” is organized thematically, but its operational categories are uses or ways technology is encountered (“Maintenance”, “Killing”), rather than historical time periods, stages of technological system development, or aspects of the process of invention. Embedded in each of his categories are one or more arguments about how innovation-centric narratives “get it wrong” as well as a number of mini-narratives about technologies that are normally left out of these narratives, or a re-framing of our perspective about a technology that is normally included, but whose story and significance changes when considered in terms of how it has been used instead how it was first invented or intended to be used. Some of Edgerton’s most important (and provocative) theses are:

> Decisions about a technology’s significance need to be made by evaluating the practical difference between its use and that of its best alternative, not a hypothetical world where there are no alternatives (e.g., his discussions of railroads, automobiles, digital computers).

> Our sense of historical time is distorted when we draw our timelines in accordance with dates of invention or introduction, because most technologies don’t disseminate widely until much later (electricity, the airplane) and some technologies disappear or wane, only to come back later (the condom, the spinning wheel in India, the ox in Cuba).

> Many “cutting edge” technologies are given an exaggerated importance, when their actual effect is surprisingly slight in absolute terms (the V-2 rocket, the battleship) or when considered against the best alternative (the A-bomb in WWII). Similarly, prosaic technologies are often given little attention, when in fact they may play a role of greater significance for the majority of the world’s population (corrugated iron).

> Almost all technologies are used far beyond their supposed “replacement” technologies are invented. Further, many of these “old” technologies are developed and modified far beyond that point (e.g., steam locomotives, wooden airplanes, the rickshaw, the bicycle, the VW Beetle).

> Much technology is altered from its original state when it is used by new populations. This can take the form of copies (in the Soviet Union, China) or “creole technology”, the adaptation of technology for use in different conditions (horse-drawn carts made from automobile parts, retrofitting of automobiles with locally available materials, the Kenyan “flying toilet”).

> Not just the production, but the maintenance of technology must be taken into account to give a complete picture of its significance, cost, and impact (e.g., the airline industry, personal computers, military systems).

Taken as an aggregate, Edgerton’s arguments and mini-narratives serve to re-situate an array of individual technologies with respect to their express or implied significance in mainstream narratives, displacing some from their central positions and inserting others into the mix. In two respects, then, “The Shock of the Old” is a counter-narrative: it reshuffles the elements of the “standard” narrative, and it reconstructs the history of contemporary technology in a decentralized, localized, micro-scale manner. There is no unifying theme to the construction of Edgerton’s narrative; in refocusing the story of technology in terms of use, he can only work at a micro level, overturning assumptions and components of standard narratives on an individual basis. Edgerton is fairly convincing in his arguments against the emphasis normally given to invention and the spectacular in the history of technology, and his mini-narratives about the use of particular technologies is fascinating and significant (particularly his discussions of creole technologies and techniques such as the use of shipping cargo containers as housing, the importance of corrugated iron to the poor world, the significance of horses to the Nazi war effort and 20th century agriculture, and the resurgence of the low tech in the form of rickshaws and shipbreaking), but his narrative lacks any narrative unity or momentum. Whether this is a shortcoming on Edgerton’s part or an inherent quality of the type of history he is doing is unclear. That is, if we want to tell the “whole story” of technology, perhaps we must divest ourselves of the search for (or imposition of) coherence and design.


Link to Book on Amazon


Edgerton lays out his basic position more succinctly in “From Innovation to Use”.

Edgerton’s brief discussion of “reverse salients”, which he describes as identified through widespread use of technology (and as determining the direction of further innovation) draws upon Thomas P. Hughes, who develops the idea most cogently in “Networks of Power”. However, he is less pleased with Hughes’ no less seminal synthetic history, “American Genesis”, which Edgerton reads as innovation-centric and naively progressivist.

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