Monday, February 05, 2007

Pg. 69: "The Shock of the Old"

David Edgerton is the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London where he was the Founding Director of its Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

His new book is The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900.

I asked him to apply the "page 69 test" to it; here is what he reported:

P. 69 is not very representative of the book as a whole. It deals with a very well-known technology, the motor-car, in the years after 1945. On the other hand p. 69 does show how the book deals with well known technologies in non-standard ways. It illustrates just how global the story the book tells is – I range from the USA to Italy, to the Soviet Union. And, it illustrates some of the many paradoxes we need to grasp to get at the place of technology in history:

The great boom in car production after the Second World War was largely an American and European affair, with the European makers growing faster, though from a much lower base. In each nation the great car firms were regarded as powerhouses of the booming economies. Even in a poor country such as Italy, car ownership went up more than ten-fold in the fifteen years between 1950 and 1964; from 0.34 million to 4.7 million cars. The number of cars just overtook motorcycle numbers, which increased from 0.7 to 4.3. Between 1955 and 1970, 2.7 million Fiat 500s were made and 3.6 million Fiat 600s between 1957 and 1975. European car workers were not yet able to buy cars themselves, but would be doing so by the late 1960s.

In the long boom the Eastern European economies, like those in the West, grew very fast. Yet, the Soviet Union and its allies, for all the emphasis on standardised production and the possibility at least of plenty for the masses, were places of low consumption. Even in the 1960s the superpower USSR made only 1 per cent of the world’s private vehicles, and 12 per cent of commercial ones; in comparison Britain made 10 per cent of the cars, and 9 per cent of the trucks. So committed were the Soviets to mass production that they suffered from ‘premature mass production’, the putting into production of not properly tested goods. But mass consumption in the richest countries was more typically about the extensive multiplication of firms, styles, types, rapid model change, the pursuit of endless novelty.

In my book I’m concerned to produce a properly global history, and one which addresses the problem of technology in history in a grown-up way. This means rejecting the childish, futuristic accounts of past and present that are thrown at us by interested parties, and we take to be authoritative accounts. Instead of looking at the standard (and highly biased) selection of technologies at around the time of innovation (which is what most histories of technology do), I look at many sorts of technologies as they used. The book is filled with less-well known, though important technologies, like whaling (the source of most margarine in the 1930s), corrugated iron, oil-from coal and AK47s. Indeed p. 68 has a picture showing the making of wooden motor torpedo boats in the US in WW2. Wood turns out to be much more important than we imagine ….
Many thanks to David for the input.

Among the considerable praise for The Shock of the Old:

"As fascinating in its details as in its arguments. In compact form and accessible prose, Edgerton offers a new vision of modern technological history, emphasizing staying power rather than novelty. A rewarding read, it should become a standard in its field."
--J.R. McNeill, author of Something New Under the Sun

"David Edgerton is an historian with an economist's eye. He can deliver a cost-benefit analysis of the V-2 rocket and yet dig out hundreds of historian's tales, of the rickshaw still in use, and the killing lines in meatpacking. By asking us to look at the history of actual use and actual advantage, he demolishes scores of myths: about Teflon, DDT, the Atomic bomb, motor transport, and maintaining your office building. This is technological history brought out of the Romantic age of the Hero Inventor, male, Western, imperial. Edgerton's heroism is our common human ingenuity, in the Rio slum and in the Cambridge laboratory."
--Deirdre McCloskey, Professor of History and of Economics, University of Illinois at Chicago

"David Edgerton is on to something very important. The Shock of the Old is one book that I intend to savour slowly and use."
--David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and The Unbound Prometheus

"Edgerton arrestingly challenges the claim that hi-tech innovation is essential for progress and prosperity in the contemporary world. He tells us why a variety of old technologies--from spinning wheels and rickshaws to mosquito netting--play essential roles in today's global life. A fascinating, thought-provoking book."
--Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the Name of Eugenics and The Baltimore Case

"In this eminently readable book, David Edgerton takes a welcome fresh look at the nature of technology. He does not just recite the familiar heroic leaps of invention, nor does he serve as a cheerleader for inflated promises of future breakthroughs; rather, he emphasizes the importance of the workaday world of things that are so much a part of what it means to live in the technological present."
--Henry Petroski, author of To Engineer Is Human and The Evolution of Useful Things

"[T]his book is utterly fascinating."

"The Shock of the Old is a quiet pleasure.... [it] argues rightly that our accounts of 20th-century technology are fundamentally unbalanced, focusing on invention over use, acquisition over maintenance, and inevitability over choice. In quick succession, all of these notions, and the crude historical models generated from them, are entertainingly and empirically dismantled."
--David Goldblatt, Independent

"David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old is a book I can use. I can take it in two hands and bash it over the heads of every techno-nerd, computer geek and neophiliac futurologist I meet."
--Simon Jenkins, Guardian
Read John Sutherland's interview with the author and his Q & A at the OUP blog.

The inscription to The Shock of the Old:
I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as/ the New./ It hobbled up on new crutches which no one had ever seen before/ and stank of new smells of decay which no one had ever/ smelt before.
--Bertolt Brecht (1939) from 'Parade of the Old New'
Edgerton's books include Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, Science, Technology and the British Industrial 'Decline' 1870-1970, and England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation, and a long list of other publications.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point
David Fulmer, The Dying Crapshooter's Blues
Anya Ulinich, Petropolis
Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization
Olen Steinhauer, Liberation Movements
Andrei Markovits, Uncouth Nation
Julie Kistler, Scandal
Robert Ward, Four Kinds of Rain
Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist
William Landay, The Strangler
Kate Holden, In My Skin
Brian Wansick, Mindless Eating
Noria Jablonski, Human Oddities
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity
Neal Pollack, Alternadad
Bella DePaulo, Singled Out
Steve Hamilton, A Stolen Season
Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air
Donna Moore, ...Go to Helena Handbasket
Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye
Neal Thompson, Riding with the Devil
Sherry Argov, Why Men Marry Bitches
P.J. Parrish, An Unquiet Grave
Tyler Knox, Kockroach
Andrew Rehfeld, The Concept of Constituency
Laura Wiess, Such a Pretty Girl
Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer
Andrew Pyper, The Wildfire Season
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
Meghan Daum, The Quality of Life Report
Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue