The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900

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The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 by David Edgerton Oxford University Press * 2006 * 288 pages * $26.00

Reviewed by David K. Levine

The Shock of the Old chronicles the recent history of technology. It is not about famous inventions, but about technologies that have proven useful over time-a good meme that I looked forward to learning about. The book is easy reading; who would think that learning about corrugated iron could be fun? And it nicely highlights the importance of several such lesser-known technologies.

Edgerton's other theme, the disappearance and reappearance of technologies such as condoms, oxen, and ship-breaking, is not news to economists-it has been decades since Paul Samuelson elegantly conceded this point to Joan Robinson-but may be news to the general reader of history.

On the negative side, the book lacks a strong theme: it is a compendium of facts with no analysis or conclusion. This isn't just the reaction of an economist to a historian. Nobody would accuse historian William McNeill of failing to analyze. What, for example, are we to make of the fact that each year 100 million bicycles are produced, but only 40 million automobiles? On what scale does one bicycle equal one automobile? What if I said "more children's toy cars are produced than automobiles"? What would that signify? Insofar as the book has a theme, it is that old technologies still matter. But so what?

More important is the discussion of "Creole" technologies; that is, technologies that are adapted to local circumstances. Examples in the automobile industry include the Ambassador in India, and the VW Beetle in Mexico and Brazil (Edgerton seems to have missed the Ford Falcon in Argentina), produced long after they were supplanted elsewhere. The other leading example given is the use of small-scale production in 1950-70s China.

What would analysis show about these examples? They were all bad things and all driven by trade restrictions-testaments to what happens in the absence of free markets. It isn't that people in Brazil wanted to buy decades-old automobiles or couldn't afford nice new Japanese models. Their government simply didn't allow them to buy the nice new ones. Edgerton does not find this worthy of notice. Indeed, he seems to put the private sector on the same level as government when it comes to foolish adoption of technology. Yet the only evidence of private-sector failure (against numerous examples of public-sector failure) is this: "Following the privatisation of British Railways in the 1990s, existing maintenance regimes were disrupted, with the consequences that essential maintenance procedures were no longer followed, resulting in serious accidents. …