David Edgerton, “From Innovaton To Use: Ten Eclectic Theses on the Historiography of Technology”

Edgerton objects to what he considers a juvenile bias in the field of the history of technology: an obsession with technology-as-innovation. He believes that framing historiographical questions and inquiries in terms of innovation leads leaves out most of the real story, and distorts the rest. In particular, it restricts our attention on technology that is new, on regions located within the rich (first) world, on individuals in the privileged class of inventors, on nationalist narratives, and on successful technologies only. We thereby miss the story of how technology functions in cultures other than those in which it is invented; how it is modified, adapted, and innovated over time; how old technologies influence society even after being made “obsolete” by newer technologies; and the actual significance given technologies have in relation to their best alternatives. As a corrective, Edgerton recommends that we refocus our historiographical framework to focus on technology-in-use instead of innovation. We will then gain a new perspective not only on how society affects technology, but on how technology affects society. Moreover, we will gain a new perspective on innovation itself. Edgerton’s claim here is that innovation-centric accounts of technology tend to assume that there is a logical telos to development, and that “newer” technology will always replace the old. In fact, the technology that is innovated is typically the technology that is widely in use. Use is an important determinant of innovation. From this perspective we see that there is no inevitable direction to technological innovation: at any given historical point, various technologies are in competition, and each has the potential of being innovated. The most “advanced” technology doesn’t always win out; nor does the newest. Old technologies are constantly being innovated further, and old technologies often exist side-by-side with newer technologies for long periods of time, if not indefinitely.

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David Edgerton further develops his argument in his 2007 book, “The Shock of the Old”, which looks at a large array of examples.

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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2 Comments

  1. […] quoted. A shorter article dealing with the same themes, minus the rich historical examples, “From Innovation To Use,” is included […]

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

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