Book Review the Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900

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Modern technology is often thought of as encompassing, frequently being changed and updated, and science-intensive with electronic or digital bits. When we do consider technology in historical terms we customarily see it as a driving force of progress, something that has enabled people to perform tasks more effectively than ever before, which brings a new age into being. However, people rarely recognize that modern technology is not just a matter of electricity, mass production, aerospace, nuclear power and the internet. Modern technology also involves the trivial creations we are not likely to care about. The rickshaw, DDT, cement, asbestos, the spinning wheel or corrugated iron are just a few pieces of technology that have become a significant part of everyday and historical use. These undervalued technologies have become hugely important throughout their existence in places like the Third World and have become overshadowed by novelty inventions like the V-2 rocket or the Concorde jet. In The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 written by David Edgerton, a well-known and leading British historian that has challenged conventional analyses of technology for over twenty years, offers an alternative way of understanding technology, technological change, and the role of technology in our lives. Edgerton reassess the significance of such acclaimed inventions such as the birth control pill and information technology (IT), underscores the continued importance of unheralded technology, debunking the idea that we live in an era of ever-increasing invention and casting doubt upon the many naive assertions about the “information age”. Edgerton’s main focus in The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 is that innovation-centric accounts of the history of technology give us a very distorted understanding of technology’s effects on society and society’s effects on technology. Edgerton states, “many cutting edge technologies are based on a historical timeline which have come to define a certain age such as flight (1903), nuclear power (1945) and the internet (1965)”[1]. These defining and so-called novelty technologies are given an exaggerated importance, when their actual effect is surprisingly insignificant. Similarly, prosaic technologies are often given little attention, when in fact they play a significant role for the majority of the world’s population. Historians should therefore consider “technology-in-use” based history. David Edgerton emphasizes technology-in-use in order to better understand a wide variety of seemingly “old” technologies that have had a long-existing impact throughout the twentieth century. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 is organized thematically, “Significance”, “Time”, “Production”, “Maintenance”, “Nations”, “War”, “Killing”, and “Invention” rather than historical time periods. Within in each of these categories, Edgerton argues how innovation-centric narratives distort our perspective of technology and explains the significance of “old” technologies. Beginning with “Significance”, the chapter is mostly introductory in an effort for the reader to understand Edgerton's concern of how historians often link a historic time due to technological innovations and are limited in understanding “old” technologies that have been around before the twentieth century that are still impacting the world today. These so-called “significant” technologies are clearly innovation-centric in their chronology, implying that the impact of the technologies comes with innovation and early use[2]. The birth control pill, for example, marked a sexual revolution replacing the condom until the AIDS scare of 1980[3]. The next chapter in The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 is “Time” in which Edgerton states how certain technologies are perceived to be “old”. Many of the most important technologies of the twentieth...
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