The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

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The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Interesting, accessible and full of simple common sense, it's quite shocking to think the perspective offered in The Shock of the Old is actually new, dangerous and radical. Bookbag loved it and if you prefer a historical approach that favours the way people lived over the biographies of kings and queens, you will too.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: December 2006
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861972965

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A good indicator of how much I enjoyed reading a book is the number of dog ears I made. Sacrilege to some of you, I know. But hereabouts, each dog ear represents something vital, something I feel I must tell you about when I review it. The Shock of the Old spans 212 pages and I have dog-eared 17 of them. It's an unheard of number. Clearly I can't spend 17 paragraphs talking about these vital points because if I were truly wise enough to make them, I'd have written the book myself. Oh, how I wish.

The Shock of the Old is right up my alley. I'm the girl who says that she doesn't want to know how many wives Henry VIII beheaded, she wants to know what people in Tudor times had for pudding and how they washed their hair or made their shoes. I'm the girl who thinks the discipline of economics is a complete waste of time because it has yet to produce a society in which the poor don't remain poor. I think innovation is exhilarating, but if benefits only the rich man in his castle, I'd rather do without the buzz and live a boring life that includes the poor man at his gate.

So I'm not going to make 17 points. I'm just going to say that David Edgerton's book talks about technology. It doesn't talk about the kind of technology that put the first man on the moon, or allowed rich people to fly across the Atlantic faster than the speed of sound. It talks about the kind of technology that is most used. It talks about the hundreds of millions of people whose houses are made of corrugated iron. It talks about the sewing machine, the rickshaw and the sorts of technology in use across the world by millions of people every day. It replaces the timeline of invention with the timeline of use. And it's not just the poor countries that use "old" technology more than cutting edge developments. It's you and me too. The horse was more significant to the German war effort between 1939 and 1945 than was the motor vehicle. Ships allow the rich world to benefit from cheap goods produced in the poor world. A third of the bombs dropped in 1991 in Iraq were dropped by B52s. And the list goes on.

What is so shocking about reading The Shock of the Old (a pun, I'm assuming on The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change by Robert Hughes about innovation in art) is that Edgerton seems to be the only person saying these things. We seem to live in a world of "innovation propaganda" where TV programmes such as Star Trek show us an inevitable and benign future towards which a deterministic timeline of invention will inexorably lead humankind. If you actually think about this, it's a laughable idea and evidence to the contrary surrounds us. We can't take a step or a glance about without seeing it. We still fight wars. The poor are still with us. Imperialism is alive and well. It's madness. Thank heavens then, for Edgerton, who may well be doing little more than stating the blindingly obvious, but at least he is stating it. And persuasively too.

Great book, easy to read, unflinchingly critical. Do buy it!

Thanks to the publisher, Profile Books, for sending it to me.

You might also enjoy The Design of Future Things.

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Magda said:

I have grown bit overfed with 'social history' - I think it's sometimes an excuse for lack of understanding (or lack of willingness to explore and explain) of politics and ideologies. On the other hand history of technology seen from the usage point of view?

Excellent idea, I want one of these too.

The notion that technology itself, without a political will & social change will resolve *social* problems of the humanity is laughable (although it does ease the absolute amount of pain suffered by the majority somehow). It reminds me of the notion that you can create something called 'scientific morality'. Eh?