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IRC: The social shaping of technology

by djdunc. Average Reading Time: about 2 minutes.

The third innovation reading circle reviewed The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 by Professor David Edgerton (Profile Books, 2007) Held at the offices of LBi near Angel. The session was chaired by Nico with an introduction to his book from David.

The main thesis of the book is that we do not understand what the important technologies of the twentieth century are. The book proposes an alternate (controversial) view to the current textbooks on histories of technology. It argues that the most significant innovations and inventions are often the ones built on old / traditional ways of doing things rather than the linear progression of hyped new technologies.

I was surprised that I did not find much to disagree on in the book. As an engineer, geek, partial neophiliac and foresighter I have all the credentials to be the stereotype targeted in this book, but I could not find an argument that made me uncomfortable. In the discussion around the question of *what is the author arguing for?* I was unclear as to what the next steps need to be. Whilst the argument that current policy strategy can lead to the funding of white elephants I wasn’t clear what the proposition for how it could be done differently was – I think it was the need to focus on the here and now innovation in addition to the long term invention.

My take away from the book was the unknown truth of history – for example the argument that world war II was won by horses, big guns and small arms, not fighter planes and atomic bombs. If this is true then why do we invest so much in the development of these red herrings?

Things to change: when assessing innovation a common assumption made is that there is no comparable alternative, to understand the significance of an innovation it is essential to understand the implications of use – how the innovation will change things that people do. Some comparison to the alternatives (even if the alternative is that it does not get done) is useful to understand potential benefit. Could this be applied to assessment of internal investments?

Interesting tidbit: the second biggest global killer of people (after malaria) is the automobile (around 1 million people per year – pg 27 – would love to find stats reference to support that).

Professor Edgerton is Hans Rausing Chair at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Centre at Imperial College London.

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