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A Few Questions for David Edgerton

David Edgerton, author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 is the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London where he was the Founding Director of its Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. In the introduction to Shock of the Old Edgerton concludes that, “Things belong to particular people in ways which technology does not.” This point resonates throughout his book as he looks at the technology everyday people use, rather than just what was invented. You’ll find yourself in awe over corrugated iron! Below, Edgerton answers some questions for OUP.

The inscription to The Shock of the Old

I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as/ the New./ It hobbled up on new crutches which no one had ever seen before/ and stank of new smells of decay which no one had ever/ smelt before. Bertolt Brecht (1939) from ‘Parade of the Old New’.

OUP: Why did you pick Bertolt Brecht for the inscription of The Shock of the Old?

Shock_of_the_oldDavid Edgerton: Because it rather brilliantly captures the complex relation between new and old, and how we can easily get it wrong. It also reminded me of an epigraph I used in my first book, England and the Aeroplane: ‘Progress stalks with warhead and prosthesis’. That came from another German-language writer, Karl Kraus. I have some lines from Robert Musil lined up for my next book …

OUP:What will the next book be about?

Edgerton:My next book will be a new account of science, technology and industry in Britain in the second world war, for Penguin.

OUP:What inspired The Shock of the Old?

Edgeton: For years I felt that lots of assumptions underlying our thinking about technology and history weren’t quite right. These thoughts developed over the years, mostly in lectures, but I got a chance to write them up for the great French historical journal the Annales. The reaction to that paper convinced me that I was on to something. A second important influence was traveling to India, Malaysia, Argentina and Uruguay in the mid-1990s. These visits made obvious the need for a global history of technologies in use, as well as providing many examples of long-lived machines. What was in a sense obvious about technology in these countries applied just as much to Britain or the USA, but was not so visible there.

OUP: Can you explain the difference between a use-centered account and an innovation-centric history?

Edgerton: Innovation-centric histories discuss particular technologies at the time of, and just after, they are innovated. It is the standard approach to the history of technology. Electricity figures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but not at the end of the twentieth. The aeroplane and radio are seen as the great technologies of the interwar years. The atomic bomb is the key technology of the 1940s. In fact the choice of innovations is typically driven by how publicly-known these technologies were. Thus innovation-centric histories are not typically histories of invention or innovation.

A use-centered history looks at technologies throughout their lives, asking when are they in maximum use, among many other things. Thus agricultural horsepower peaked in the USA around 1915. Asking what technologies were in use, when and what for, leads to asking questions about significance, which an innovation-centric history cannot begin to ask but often assumes. It also leads one to consider such subjects as the history of maintenance. Use-centered history needs to be distinguished from long tradition of work which asks how users influenced innovation.

The point of my book is not to shift from innovation-centric history to use-centered history. It is rather that we need to avoid conflating the two. We need not only use-centered histories, but histories of invention and innovation too. But having done this, the point is to ask questions about the relations of technology and history, and that is what my book is about. It seeks to rethink the relations of say, technology and production, technology and war, technology and the nation, and many other things besides.

OUP:What do you think was the most useful technology of the last century?

Edgerton: Especially after having written this book I have to say that I have no idea. Asking what the most important technology is, is important, but answering the question is impossible. Two key points to be borne in mind are that there have been alternatives to most technologies, and that the impact of a single technology is likely to be small in a world of very many technologies.

OUP: What technology do you wish had never been invented?

Edgerton: I am tempted to say none. The more invention the better, I think. In any case most inventions fail. But there are plenty I would have wished had never been developed, used or maintained, which is the key question. To my mind the new techniques of torture developed and used since 1945 which have destroyed so many lives and so blighted the modern world deserve highlighting as technologies we should do without.

OUP: What surprising things did you learn while writing this book?

Edgerton: Any number of things surprised me. For example, I had no idea that the great age of the guillotine came in the 1940s; that whaling became a new kind of industry in the twentieth century, largely to provide oil for margarine; that the founder of IKEA may be the richest man in the world. That so much was surprising to me was itself a surprise, but paradoxically perhaps that the book will have succeeded if this new picture seems obvious by the end of the book.

OUP: Where do you think innovation and invention is heading in the next century?

Edgerton: I don’t know, and if I did, I wouldn’t let the world know. I would be on Wall Street, and that knowledge would be extremely valuable. But, we can be pretty sure it isn’t heading where the techno-hype tells us it is going.

OUP: What is your favorite book?

Edgerton: Since reading the new translation that came out a few years ago, it is Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities.

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