The Shock of the Old: redefining the history of technology.

There are certain bits of received wisdom that nobody normally challenges. Such as: we live in an era of constant, accelerating change, that innovation is the key to economic survival, and that we all travel everywhere by personal jetpack.

OK, I made that a bit obvious. That’s the problem with yesterday’s futures. They’re so yesterday. Yet the same people who were so sure about the jetpack future didn’t have the slightest inkling that by 2006 we would be flying to Budapest for lunch on a whim, for pocket money. On planes seemingly little different from the machines the world’s elite used to fly in the 1950s.

What’s happening? Why do things not change according to the headlines? Why is white-heat-of-technology Concorde a fading memory while the utterly conventional Boeing 737 rules the skies? Why won’t vinyl records go away? Why are killer diseases such as malaria not eradicated, as everybody assured us they would be in the 1960s? Why don’t we live in titanium pods, served by robots? Because people were thinking jet-pack when they should have been thinking bicycle.

This is the fertile territory explored by Professor David Edgerton of Imperial College in his new book, The Shock of the Old. In it he eviscerates our obsession with novelty. It’s time, he argues, to look at the history of science and technology in a new way. It’s blindingly obvious, really. Instead of recording the history of when devices and processes were invented or predicted, why not look at the way we really use things?

I find him in Buenos Aires for Christmas – he was born in Uruguay, of an English father and Argentine mother. He knows that Fray Bentos is a real place, not just a brand of corned beef. And not just a real place, but a remarkable example of 19th and 20th century industrialized food production whose scale and efficiency – without need even of refrigeration – rivals anything in the world today. Our shops are still full of such canned food, an alternative, older technology we never stop to think about.

We are both alive to the irony of the fact that, in an online age, we are talking to each other by telephone, a 19th century invention. I mention the fact that outside my window is an ancient wooden pole sprouting copper wires in a way the Victorians would have recognised, and that our words are passing through it. ‘Ah yes,’ he shoots back, ‘But you’ll find that the wires have changed, the exchanges are different. It’s like today’s airliners. They’re no faster now than they were in the 1950s, but they’re more efficient’.

It would be easy, and wrong, to characterise Edgerton as some kind of scientific conservative – simply because he is a revisionist historian, and looks a bit middle-aged. What he does is question the presentation and interpretation of the facts at our disposal. Key to this is to question the myth of the inevitability of sudden technological change. So we have the internet? He does not deny that it is a powerful thing. Yet there are alternative technologies. Mankind managed fine before the internet, and if the system crashed globally as it often threatens to do, then we shall find ways round the problem.

“If we get a half-decent account of the history of 20th century technology, then that allows us to rethink some aspects of 20th century history,” he says. “In other words, technology is very important – so important, that if we understand it properly, then we might be able to produce a new kind of history.”

For Edgerton, the problem is not that technology has been ignored – we can’t get away from accounts of it – but that those accounts have been idealistic rather than pragmatic. They incline towards glamour, drama, spectacle. The humble soldier’s rifle – Lee-Enfield or AK-47 – was massively more important in 20th century warfare than the V2 missile or the atom bomb, he points out. But a basic killing tool like the rifle doesn’t make good television – or good political capital – like the V2 missile or the atom bomb. Weapons of mass destruction, anybody?

“A lot of our understanding of 20th century global history is shaped by a very particular understanding of technology that may not be that useful,” he remarks. “I’m not saying that there isn’t very, very dramatic change. On the contrary, I want to highlight the fact that there is change. But in terms of the technology that is actually used, it’s very different from the stories of invention and innovation that are told. Those stories are very narrow – our creativity is much more general than we think.”

In other words, we’ve got it all wrong. Corrugated-iron sheeting and bicycles feature more prominently in all our lives than the Apollo moon missions and nuclear submarines. “For example, motor car technology continues to change. Steel-making technology continues to change. Textile technology continues to change. And all those are changing our lives today,” he says. Glamorous, no. Important, yes.

China is the nation/region having the biggest impact on all our lives, yet China restricts use of the Internet. “If we think about the rise of China, we’d be mistaken to do so in terms of the Internet, or nano-technology, or biotechnology. We’d be better off thinking about the continued massive importance of mass production – steel, coal production, all the rest of it. We made a big mistake” – he pauses, and corrects himself – “We made a partial mistake in the dot-com boom, thinking we’d come into a new economy driven by IT. We found ourselves back in an old economy of heavy commodities and shipping.”

Even genocide has gone retro, he contends. The ghastly efficiency with which up to a million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered in 1994 – mainly with machetes costing less than a dollar each, and clubs costing nothing – rivals any process the German Nazis were able to invent. The terrible truth is that Hitler didn’t need the gas chambers. The idea the Hutu tribe had – simply to import shiploads of cheap machetes, and then to use them on an unprecedented scale – was enough. “Invention happens at unexpected times and places,” says Edgerton, with masterly understatement.

Then there is the old canard that you cannot un-invent something. That you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Yes you can, says Edgerton. It happens all the time. Just as plenty of old ideas continue in use unremarked today, so others just fall out of use for various reasons. The world used to depend upon asbestos. It was useful stuff, then we discovered it was also dangerous. Now we use other useful stuff instead. It would be nice to think that people just couldn’t be bothered with nuclear weapons any more. Unfortunately we are still transfixed by their sabre-rattling potential.

Edgerton’s position is highly nuanced. He is no Luddite, no Golden Age nostalgist, no denier of the importance of real innovation, for good or evil. He just points out that many of the real advances are in areas seldom considered. Better materials in planes, rather than new types of superplane. Gradual progress in pharmaceuticals, rather than the invention of new wonder-drugs. And of course economies of scale. “Mass production in the recent past has made an enormous, almost invisible change. It’s made things so cheap, we almost don’t notice their existence in the economy. That’s very, very important.”

In the end, what Edgerton is banging on about is the significance we ascribe to things. We all love the idea of a new super-invention, the Eureka moment. But in our hearts we know that the world of technology is more of a plodder than a sprinter. We know that barbed wire changed the world far more than manned space stations.

“We should celebrate all invention – though most invention is bound to fail,” he says. “As for the stuff that goes on to be significant, at the moment we don’t celebrate most of it. We think in very clichéd ways about what the future will bring. We need to invent right across the board, not just in those areas that we think might be the future. Otherwise we’ll end up where we were in the 1950s and 1960s – putting all our eggs into the nuclear and supersonic baskets.”

And what’s so wrong about pinning your hopes on the future? Edgerton is very clear on this. “You can make up the future, which means you don’t have to face up to the realities of politics, economics and society in the present. Futurism is the refuge of the scoundrel.”

The Shock of the Old: technology and global history since 1900 by David Edgerton. Published by Profile Books (UK) and Oxford University Press USA.

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Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, December 31, 2006, as: “Two Wheels Good”.