Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

21st July, 2020

I re-read this fascinating book today to help me with a column. It’s terrific stuff: packed with memorable facts yet easy to read, counter-intuitive yet persuasive.

Books about technology tend to focus on the inventions, the cutting edge – a timeline of ‘firsts’. Edgerton argues that we should look things rather than ideas – technology as it is actually used rather than life on the technological frontier.

Technologies often stick around. Tanks and trenches robbed horses of their glorious role in the cavalry charge – and yet the Wehrmacht used well over a million horses in the second world war, where they were essential for transporation. The contraceptive pill was revolutionary, yes – but condoms existed before and they still exist now, partly because they do things that the pill does not.

William Gibson told us that the future was already here – just not very evenly distributed. But Edgerton goes further: sometimes the future arrives in a particular place and time, and stubbornly fails to be distributed; sometimes, indeed, the future disappears, leaving the past to overtake us. (The most obvious example: Concorde. But there are more subtle instances, such as the emergence of a low-tech shipbreaking industry in Gujurat.)

Strongly recommended.

UK: BlackwellsAmazon

US: PowellsAmazon

Pre-order my new book, How To Make The World Add Up, out 17 September in the UK.

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