Monday, March 19, 2007

The Shock of the Old

David Edgerton is an historian of science at Imperial College, London. His newest book, The Shock of the Old, is a fabulous rewrite of what we know of as technology history. Edgerton argues - sometimes in impenetrable sentences but always with strong evidence and compelling reasoning - that we need to think of the history of technology from the point of view of its use, not its invention.

Typically, histories of technology focus on when things were invented - leading to a global history that focuses only on certain places, times, and people. Focusing instead on how and when and which technologies are actually used presents a much more inclusive, expansive and real story of how people make and use technology.

Edgerton also offers an alternative hypothesis about why certain tools take hold and others don't. In typical tech-glorious discussions of innovations the end-results is to make the object in question - from gas engines to nuclear power to The Pill to personal computers - seem special for helping people do things they could never do before.

By looking instead at what technologies are used, when, and by whom, Edgerton shows that technologies that succeed may not be unique, they may simply be better than the available alternatives. For example, the recent interest in reducing the use of fossil fuels has led to a growth in electric engines for transportation. Hybrids, electric cars, and alternative energy is all the buzz (and its where all the VC money is going). In fact, electric cars and electric buses dominated certain transportation systems in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Why does this matter? The conditions that make one technology better at one point in time may not hold for all time or in all places. This is true of technologies like those we usually envision - machines, energy sources, gadgets, tools - and social technologies, such as immigration laws, welfare policies, and tax structures. Philanthropists need to be able to look beyond a "tech-glorious" focus on innovation and understand what systems of support really take hold in certain communities - these are the technologies to build on.

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