Summary

We could retitle this book “Against Novelty.” Edgerton calls for a “use-centered” approach to hist. of tech. that counteracts the normative focus on innovation. We need to center first a social and material history, and then locate technology w/i it, rather than as the causal agent.

Three main points:

  • technological multiplicity
  • temporal nonlinearity
  • global perspective

In short: progress does not progress; we should think with things over “technologies.” The lives of those things are imbricated in the social/material histories of specific places and are deeply messy.

Keywords

  • use-centered history: Writing history through technology rather than of technology, focusing on the ways that tech. (things) are used rather than narratives of innovation or invention. Shifts our focus to the quotidian (think “boring things”) and troubles notions of teleological progress.
  • temporal rhythms:
  • “the future”: Edgerton wants to trouble the notion of how we construct the “future”—he argues that we devolve into the same patterns for imagining the future time and again, which neglects the role of the past and overdetermines the value of the present.

Notes

Introduction

  • Rethinking the history of technology away from invention and innovation and toward use (xi). Rethinks “technological time,” “global history,” and “the schemes of modernity.”
  • Contrast “use-centered history” with “innovation-centered history.” Still accounting for signficance, but using different methods.
  • Use-centered histories:
    • acknowledge alternatives (xiii)
    • genuinely global, not just the small places that enable innovation; particular “technologies of poverty” (xiv)
    • undermines conclusions of innovation, e.g. “national innovation determines national success”; also overturns how we account for impt. things, e.g. including IKEA alongside Microsoft.
    • establishes a place for failure in hist. of tech.
  • History counteracts normative futurism: “History reveals that technological futurism is largely unchanging over time. Present visions of the future display a startling, unselfconscious lack of originality.” (xvi)
  • Against “technology” and toward “things” (xvii).

1: Significance

  • Alternatives: “The hidden counterfactual assumption which lies behind the equation of use and significance is that there was no alternative” (6). We should think about what viable alternatives there really are to technologies throughout history such that we can see how technological boosterism repeats and indeed conditions what we have received as historical truth. Reserve technologies also illustrate how tech lacquers over itself (11).

2: Time

  • Temporal non-linearity: the innovation model assumes that tech rises, spreads, and falls. Rather we can see how tech proliferates, lingers, re-emerges to satisfy specific needs, or sharply disappears in response to pressures.
  • Throughout all of this I’m thinking of Purdom’s story of the washing machines cleaning potatoes in China. “In particular, they fail to see the poor world as a distinctive technological world, one that was particularly fast-growing, and dependent on local and what are usefully called ‘creole’ technologies, many of which we think of as ‘old’. That distinctive world can be voyeuristically consumed, as in the writings of the architect Rem Koolhaas and his associates, but it also needs to be understood not as the future, but as a distinctive world with its own technology of poverty” (39).
  • Deploys “creole” to designate the technologies of the “poor world” (his preferred term) (43).
  • Concludes w/ section on “retro” technologies at 49. Cruise ships, antique cameras, and organic farming all given as examples of affective use.

6 — War

7 — Killing

Conclusion

  • Disproving the “ever-increasing rate of change” in which we live. Not only has economic progress stalled post-neoliberalism (though Edgerton doesn’t use those words), the rhythms of change are not the same everywhere. “Once again, our future-oriented rhetoric has underestimated the past, and overestimated the power of the present” (206).
  • Shipbreaking as an example of an embraced “low-tech future” (207–08). Shipbreaking is an example in Jackson’s “Rethinking Repair”.
  • “Calling for innovation is, paradoxically, a common way of avoiding change when change is not wanted. The argument that future science and technology will deal with global warming is an instance. It is implicitly arguing that in today’s world only what we have is possible. Yet we have the technological capacity to do things very differently: we are not technologically determined” (210).
  • Edgerton does seem to want to have things both ways a bit: “We should feel free to research, develop, innovate, even in areas which are considered out of date by those stuck in passé futuristic ways of thinking” (210). Getting beyond innovation has the paradoxical effect of allowing better technological progress, or at least progress in the lives of others.

Archive and Impact

  • Edgerton is a historian of science at Imperial College London.
  • Interestingly, for all its focus on failure, paths not taken in hist. of tech., and focus on use, “media archaeology” doesn’t come up at all. (Disciplinary difference here.) He’d hate Kittler too, given how against technological determinism he is.
  • For its focus on “things,” thing theory as such doesn’t appear. Part of that is time (2006) but again, disciplinary differences.
  • Edgerton is clearly responding to a model of historical research that doesn’t necessarily translate to literature and media studies. Still, it’s useful to see his work 1) as a preliminary archive of object-based thinking; 2) as a different disciplinary approach to the problems of media archaeology. His methods are a bit repetitive: introduction of a point followed by an exhaustive but still a little piece-meal elaboration of examples. (This isn’t a platform study.)
  • For my work, the most interesting and useful parts are those on failure, e.g., the “unused and unusable weapons” in the War chapter (148–49).
  • The title plays off the 1980 BBC docuseries The Shock of the New, and also works against popular “futurism” books like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970). This book seems to have two main audiences: first, fellow historians of technology who are seduced by narratives of technological progress and determinism; and second, a more popular audience as a corrective to these futurist books.
  • Intervention: historiography. Organized by use rather than time, e.g., “Killing.” This means that his history is a little scatter-shot: a repetitive of the same points expressed across a variety of times, places, and materialities. (Perhaps this kind of disorder is part of telling this sort of achronological history? To center use, do we have to deny narrative?)