David Edgerton – The Shock of the Old

22 August, 2021 - examPrep

In Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 David Edgerton puts forward a new paradigm for the historical study of technology: a use-based understanding of technological significance to society, rather than an invention/innovation-centric one (or what at least he presents as new or — dare I say — novel). If the title is any indication, Edgerton’s thesis is meant to respond to Alvin Toeffler and Adelaide Farrell’s Future Shock, though Edgerton makes no reference to the 1970 classic. Edgerton’s argument is that the kind of individual and societal psychosis Toeffler and Farrell purport to result from uncope-able technological change might need to be reevaluated in light of the state of use-based technological reality. While the scale and scope of novel technological invention and the capitalist deification of novelty might be psychosis-inducing, or at least nauseating, the technological reality, that is, from Edgerton’s perspective, how and which technologies are actually being used and by whom and where, tells a different story from the invention/innovation-centric one. In order to tell this story Edgerton divides his books into thematic chapters: time, production, maintenance, nations, war, and killing.

Besides the use-based approach to the history of technology, Edgerton also proffers another historiographic innovation, or what he presents as an innovation, that he calls ‘creole technology’. For Edgerton, creole technologies are those “transplanted from their place of origin and finding uses on a greater scale elsewhere.” This reveals the great glaring lacuna of The Shock of the Old: that the technologies of interest to Edgerton are, invariably, those developed in Euro-American culture and ‘transplanted’ to the rest of the world, when, in fact, the greatest reserve of ‘old’, that is, persistently in use, technologies — if for no other reason than simple demographic math — originate from cultures other than the Euro-American. Edgerton is more interested in the creolization of the outboard motor and a locally-indigenous form of boat than in the technology of the local boat itself; he is more interested in the creole cars created in the Ghanaian ‘magazine’ as a technology than in the magazine itself as an indigenous technological regime. Edgerton elides or ignores the technological contributions from the South at every turn. The subtitle gives the game away. The ‘old’ to Edgerton dates back to 1900, when many of the technologies creolized with Northern imports are much older and have been developed and adapted to ever-changing use cases for much longer. The ‘global’ history alluded to in his subtitle masks an imbalance in the economic and political vectors of power in the technologies he chooses to highlight in the seemingly endless quantitative-fact-laden anecdotes which compose the majority of his story.

In light of this I thought it might be interesting to turn Edgerton’s analytic gaze onto his own book. Despite his attacks on innovation-centric history of technology, Edgerton describes his historiographic intervention — of technology-in-use — as “a radically different picture of technology” and as a “new history” that will be “surprisingly different”, dismissing much of the extant historiography of technology as being for “boys of all ages.” I think in his attempt to minimize the role of innovation in the history of technology he may have over-emphasized his innovation in the historiography of technology. But it is difficult to determine Edgerton’s evaluation of his book’s place in the larger historiography of technology because, but for a few snide remarks directed at straw men, his book is absent any overt historiography. His book is, for the most part, an endless stream of quantitative and factoidal anecdotes mostly about (puzzlingly self-contradictorily) the aerospace, computer, and armaments industries unselfconsciously bleeding one into the next without stopping to explicitly connect the anecdotes to any larger argument. More paradoxically still, despite having no overt historiographic commentary, in order to assemble these fact-laden anecdotes, Edgerton draws on a rich body of secondary literature including Michael Adas, works about the rickshaw, the use of household appliances, draught horses in WWII Germany, the country boats of Bangladesh, barbed wire, and t-shirts. If the historiography of technology is misguidedly single-mindedly interested in the invention and innovation of big masculine technologies then where did all of this original research come from? None of which is to say that I disagree with Edgerton about the perspective-shifting tectonic ramifications of a use-based approach to the history of technology and its potential for disorienting center-periphery dynamics in the historiography, or that I support a historiographic project monomaniacally interested in big snazzy spectacle technologies. I just do not think he is as interested in disorienting center-periphery dynamics or in exploring old, or local, or small technologies as he thinks he is.

Sinah Theres Kloß’s (Ed.) The Global South as Subversive Practice special edition of Global South places Nina Schneider, Roberto Dainotto, Ipek Demir, Dena Freeman, and Lisandro E. Claudio in conversation to discuss the fraught polysemy of “Global South” as both a referent and a reference. The contributors struggle against various conceptions and usages of Global South: as a geographic denotation, as a heuristic alliance building category, as a metaphor, or as a synonym for or alternative to “Third World”, “developing world”, “underdeveloped”, or “postcolonial”. Of course it is important to problematize and rhetorically deconstruct terminology in intellectual discourse, not only for the sake of intelligibility and communicability, but also because words, as my rhetorician wife is constantly reminding me, are capable of reifying injustice and enacting justice, but at some point, deep in the weeds of the conversation about “Global South”, I have to wonder if there’s a principle of diminishing returns at work in terminological debates. As a white cis-het man hoping to operate in an anti-colonial knowledge ecosystem seeking to learn about indigenous epistemology and technology, I of course want to be a conscientious participant in the conversation, but I could not help but feel when reading this special issue that some of the problems identified with the term “Global South” are problems general to language and not specific to this particular piece of language. I am thinking especially, here, of the complaint that “Global South” is overly generalizing — that it homogenizes the people and places it aims to represent. And it certainly does. But I cannot help but feel that it does so no more than any other higher-order container reference. The fact that there are meaningful differences between bananas and tomatoes does not call into question the usefulness of the word “fruit”. The people, communities, and cultures of the world exhibit such granular particularity that it would be impossible to develop a lexicon that could contain them without some semiotic erasure. And yet, I think, insofar as colonialism, capitalist exploitation, political repression, and physical, cultural, and epistemic genocide are ontological facts, we need umbrella terms that can conceive of those subjected to these violences as an allied whole. 

The charge of false binarism levelled against “Global South” is equally sticky. As someone inculcated in the Northern knowledge regime, it is difficult for me to conceive of non-binaristic terms that do the work we expect “Global South” to do. For every “poor” there is “rich”, “underdeveloped” there is “developed”, the “subaltern” imply a “superaltern”. None of this is to say that I want “Global South” unselfconsciously bandied about without a care for its implications or a concern for its harm potential. I want this conversation to take place and I need desperately to listen to it intently, I just feel comfortable using a term fully aware of its limitations rather than searching, perhaps endlessly, for its limitation-less replacement.

I found an interesting connection between this special issue and Edgerton’s Shock of the Old. Recalling an incident from a conference in which one of her colleague’s was disappointed in the conference because he felt everything they were discussing had already been discussed ten years prior, Kloß remarked that his comments “indicated an unconscious, linear idea of knowledge production” that privileged US and Anglophone discourse as “‘the latest’ and most ‘up-to-date,’ hence ‘leading’ in global knowledge production.” This anecdote creates an opportunity to apply Edgerton’s use-based approach, instead of to technology, to academic knowledge production. Might we reevaluate our discursive practices in light of the connection between innovation, novelty, and capitalist conceptions of productivity and the linearity of modernization discourse? Academia seems hyper-cognizant of the encroaching corporatization of the university but seems to regard this as a novel phenomenon. Historians of mid-20th century big science or of the early modern interdependencies between knowledge production and colonial control know otherwise. If in their defense of the Global South academics recognize the epistemic validity of non-Northern ways of knowing, they must contend with the conflict that creates within their own knowledge-production regimes. That they — or we — have been inculcated in an epistemic tradition and enculturated with a set of truth procedures immanently predisposed to do the kind of boundary work which negates and nullifies any other way of knowing. 

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