Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Shock of the Old

The Shock of the Old
David Edgerton
Profile Books

Published by my brother, and I met the author at one of his parties last year.

The thesis of the book is that most books which discuss technology focus on innovation and invention rather than use, and thus paint a false picture of technology and what it means. He argues that there is a relentless focus on the new, and that this results in the same story being told over and over again for each new technology. Thus, he cites the idea that various technologies have been offered up as making war unthinkable - aeroplanes and the atomic bomb being two of them. His point being that each of these technologies is repeating exactly the same ideas as the previous and that they will not have the supposed effect.

His more important and profound point though is that it is use not novelty that is important, so that new technologies actually only have a small impact and those that do have an impact will continue to for a long time, particularly when you take a world rather than a western view of the technologies. Examples he gives include that Hitler used more horses to invade the Soviet Union in World War II than Napoleon did during his invasion; and that more people were (and still are) killed by personal weapons (guns, pistols etc.) than by newer weapons, providing convincing figures. Or, he argues that printing, or radio have greater impact than the newer internet because in many countries the penetration of the older technologies is so much higher, and China and India alone account for half the worlds population, so what they are doing is important.

I have a lot of sympathy for his argument, though find the style very polemical and sometimes off putting, and I think that there are (some) counter examples. For instance, mobile phones are available in places which have never been wired for old fashioned telephony.

I do think that it is a useful antidote though for all the techno-enthusiasts who chase one new technology after another thinking that it is the solution to all problems as we have seen with learning objects, VLEs, Web 2.0 / education 2.0, PLEs, eportfolios etc. etc. Each of these has been offered as the solution (sometimes even by the same people) precisely because they lack both the historical and the usage model that he cites.

Anyone who is looking at new technology should read this. 

No comments: