David Edgerton’s is the best kind of corrective for the innovation-crazed futurology that dominates talk about technology and design at the moment. Edgerton rightly shows how the language of futurology—the idea that invention outpaces our capacity to understand it, that scientists “have the future in their bones”—has been with us a for a very long time. But Edgerton’s book is more than that. It’s a reframing of technological study in general.
Edgerton is less interested in what innovations should be seen as new per se, and more interested in tracing technologies-in-use and what that says about their importance. But to do that, he has to take apart the pervasive futurologist timeline of history: in the case of the twentieth century, that means leaving behind a tidy story of obvious “disruptive” moments in technological change (flight, nuclear power, contraception, the internet).
We need to be aware that this futurology of the past has affected our history. From it we get our focus on invention and innovation, and on the technologies which we take to be the most important. From this literature, the work of low- and middle-ranking intellectuals and propagandists, ranging from, say, the books of H. G. Wells to the press releases of NASA’s PR officials, we get a whole series of clichéd claims about technology and history. We should take them not as well-grounded contributions to our understanding, for they rarely are that, but as the basis of questions. What have been the most significant technologies of the twentieth century? Has the world become a global village? Has culture lagged behind technology? Has technology had revolutionary or conservative social and political effects? Has new technology been responsible for the dramatic increase in economic output in the last hundred years? Has technology transformed war? Has the rate of technological change been ever-increasing?
These questions become much easier to answer if we stop thinking about “technology,” but instead think of “things.” Thinking about the use of things, rather than of technology, connects us directly with the world we know rather than the strange world in which “technology” lives. We speak of “our” technology, meaning the technology of an age or whole society. By contrast “things” fit into no such totality and do not evoke what is often taken as an independent historical force.
We discuss the world of things as grown-ups, but technology as children. For example, we all know that while the use of things is widely distributed through societies, ultimate control of things and their use has been highly concentrated, within societies and between societies. Ownership, and other forms of authority, on one hand, and use on the other, have been radically separated.
From , which I assume is a play on Robert Hughes’s classic work on modern art, , a book I devoured whole as an undergraduate. These two works would be well read in tandem: the attempts of so many 20th century artists to embody and counter the “radically new” industrial and urban age, and the blinkered backward glances of our own time—attempting to grasp what was (and was not) significantly novel.