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Shock of the Old cover

This paperback has some great blurbs.

"When I finish reading most books, they hang around on shelves, prop up tables or go to friends. 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

I quite like this book, but I won't be bashing anyone with it—least of all its worthy author, who has much to offer us.

The Shock of the Old will not daunt any techno-nerds and computer geeks. These characters are still too new and shiny to be within full range of Dr. Edgerton's shotgun. The one neophiliac futurist who really catches it in this book is H.G. Wells.

Still, neophile geek futurists ought to read this; the clock ticks for them, too.

The Shock of the Old has one big, strong argument, and a host of smaller contrarian ones. These are all raids on the twentieth century's ideas of technological common sense, which Dr. Edgerton terms "passé futurism."

As a techno-historian, Edgerton deploys the rhetorical devices of futurist pundits. He's got catchy bumper-sticker slogans, out-of-the- box thinking, exotic examples brought from weird corners of the world and dumped in the reader's lap, plus taunting wisecracks for the blinkered Establishment—rather like Toffler, Negroponte or Friedman, only time-reversed. This makes his book very approachable and interesting. It also means that he's "challenging conventional analysis" much more often than he's analyzing on his own.

Edgerton's major line of attack is the assertion that we falsely imagine that "technology" is the same as "innovation" and "invention." That the vast bulk of "technology" is the installed base. The old stuff. That huge heap of aging junk existing all around us (especially if we're British, like Dr Edgerton). That was invented, not by us, but by our ancestors, or by foreigners. Much practical stuff that works has been around for centuries. Much stuff that *doesn't* work has been around for centuries, too, but since we never call our old stuff "technology," it doesn't excite us. We bend little effort to understanding it and reforming it.

What Edgerton says is obviously true. It's especially true for the majority of people on Earth today, who don't live in Silicon Valley, but in places like Sao Paolo, Djakarta, Karachi, Mumbai, Dhaka, Lagos, and Mexico City. Those modern people aren't leading traditional rural lives; they've got wristwatches, cellphones, radios, bicycles, and sewing machines. But, says Edgerton, today's world is not marching toward a "developing nations" future where these "backward" guys end up living like high-tech R&D boffins.

The modern majority of mankind is neither "backward" or "progressive"—they're living in a "poor world," with a "creolized technology" where the favela's street finds its own uses for things. Which Edgerton then details, with keen fascination.

Truth be told, rich people from the rich world have pretty much the same attitude. They naturally spend most of their time making do with whatever's around. However, they have more money, so they buy cooler toys. Poor people never buy sandwich toasters, electric knives, ice-cream makers, foot-baths and fondue sets, because these glamour items have no use. Poor people do break supertankers apart, barefoot, with hand-tools, on the shores of Bangladesh, because they can use the scraps of steel.

The serious student of technology, says Edgerton, ought to concentrate on the use. If we studied the humble, widespread technologies—the stuff we use—as oppose to the glamorous, star-spangled technologies that smell like the future, we'd be much better-briefed in realistic efforts to improve our lives, and those of others.

But rather than doing this wise thing—Dr Edgerton soberly continues—we indulge all kinds of exaggerated, phony-baloney, kid-with-a-Christmas toy postures in our relationships with objects and services. We direly want those new ones—not because they're better, but because they make us feel like we're doing something that matters.

This is especially true of war technologies, supposedly the realm of bloody-minded, hard-headed military realists, but, to Edgerton's keen eyes, mostly a sham parade of absurdities. Real wars are won with artillery and infantry, which do practically all the killing and the seizing of strategic ground. More cannons and more cannon fodder—that's what wins wars.

Massive aerial bombing campaigns don't win wars—when you blow somebody's "technology" apart from the air, they just make do with other, simpler junk and keep on fighting you. The V-2 rockets killed more German slave laborers than they killed enemy civilians. Even the atom bomb was overhyped—once you've got hydrogen bombs, you can't use them without destroying your own country.

The Rwanda genocide proves that people can commit bloody havoc with nothing more than machetes, cheap steel blades costing less than a dollar each. Vietnamese tunnels and punjee sticks were not superpower high tech. Neither are Iraqi suicide bombers and roadside explosives.

Obviously, shocking awesome weapons are designed to shock and awe; the point of a war is victory, not genocide. The problem with military shock and awe is that it can't last. It's like our civilian admiration for some amazingly advanced and high-tech gizmo, like, say, a thermal-paper fax machine.

So while the poor world goes its own way—commonly, straight to hell—the rich world swallows tech-hype. Right, left, liberal, conservative, socialist, Communist, Fascist or laissez faire, we're always tempted to buy into Sputnik glamour and conclude that guys with Sputniks will surely rule the world. Even though, when you drop by their grimy apartment, there's rags, turnip stew and no toilet paper. Never mind that—they're storming the Cosmos! We've gotta drop everything we're doing and beat 'em to the Moon!

So: in The Shock of the Old, we have a historian's sober analysis of rich naifs continually blinded by the tinsel glare of shiny new stuff. The benefits, he says, are hard to find.

Most inventors are unsuccessful, and most patents never get used. Countries that are full of inventive genius don't necessarily have booming economies. Spreading innovations is a haphazard process dependent on luck, or culture, or fickle government support... it's not a golden road to wealth and power. Innovating is an easy process compared to "un-inventing" huge installed technologies. Asbestos got yanked out of American schools, but asbestos bricks are all over the "poor world."

Having said all this—or rather, having paraphrased it—I now come to the part of the review where I lodge a mild protest.

Every futurist who's any good is a historian—because the future is a kind of history that hasn't happened yet. And, just as Dr Edgerton analyzes, futurism is old. Futurism tends to repeat the same things over and over again. World peace and universal communication, for instance: they were going to be brought to us by railroads, and then telegraphs, airplanes, then television, satellites, the Internet. These days, five minutes with the Internet is enough to tell that world peace is the last thing on its collective mind.

The reason for this is not that futurists are frauds or shallow; they are persistently describing an old human aspiration. Aspirations are old, but not passé. If you look into the past, obviously there's no world peace and universal communication there. Everybody who made an effort at achieving it, H.G. Wells in painful particular, fell far short. If you want a more immediate assessment of our raw, tortuous, gloomy human condition, you can try Thomas Pynchon or J.G. Ballard (two novelists Dr Edgerton goes out of his way to praise).

I happen to much prefer Pynchon and Ballard to Wells myself. Still, trying to write Wells out of the historical picture as some kind of shallow optimist cannot work. People much prefer the Shock of the New to the Shock of the Old because people desire the living chance to make some fresh mistakes. The lesson of history is that nobody learns the lesson of history, and in the long run we are all dead. Yet the pageant of history isn't a victimology. It's a parade.

We start as kids who know nothing. If we're lucky, we end as tottering geezers who lack new tricks and have forgotten most of the things we should have learned. That's us.

We're not Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, who stares at the rubble in horror as he's flung backward into the future on titanic winds of change. We're not angels at all, we're at least half-beast, so we've got as much right to go "Wow!" at shiny, useless crap as the next pack-rat and jackdaw.

Wonder is wired into us. It's like being twenty years old, and seeing someone gorgeous, naked. Is a skeptic's cool indifference in order there? Should we make sure to approach that prospect in a sound, old-fashioned way, like our great-grandparents?

Yeah, maybe.

Bruce Sterling is an author, journalist, editor, critic, and blogger.

Bruce Sterling is an author, journalist, editor, critic, and blogger.
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