Rocket science no match for a washing appliance

The Shock of the Old
April 13, 2007

I hate to admit it, but maybe Richard Nixon was right. In 1959, Nixon (then Vice-President) debated with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the kitchen of a model American home in Moscow. Rather than discuss nuclear weapons or the launching of Sputnik two years earlier, Nixon argued for the superiority of capitalism by showing Khrushchev the washing machine on display. "Would it not be better," Nixon asked Khrushchev, "to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?"

David Edgerton would certainly agree. In this book, he argues that to understand the history of the 20th century, we need to pay more attention to everyday things such as washing machines and less to high-technology objects such as rockets. For Edgerton, the history of technology has been far too innovation-centric - that historians and popular writers have focused on identifying technological "firsts" and on a few fundamental technologies such as electricity, the automobile and computers.

Innovation-centric studies, Edgerton suggests, assume that the newest technology is always the best, that people should always adopt the newest technology and that if they don't they must be stupid or backward.

To counter innovation-centric history, Edgerton proposes a use-centred narrative, investigating technology not in some abstract sense but in terms of the things people around the world actually use. More often than not, the things people used were reliable but old-fashioned: the bicycle, the horse, the spinning wheel. Rather than being replaced by revolutionary inventions, these reliable things were used by people for much of the 20th century. A use-centred history would highlight that there are always technological alternatives - a point often ignored in innovation-centric histories. Airlines, for instance, did not have to take up supersonic transport in the 1970s despite the billions spent to develop it; preferring economy over speed, the airlines chose conventional jet liners.

To develop a use-centred history, Edgerton draws on the work of other historians of technology who for the past decade have been studying not only how technology is created by engineers and scientists but also the roles of consumers and workers. Edgerton enlarges this consumption perspective by providing provocative examples from Asia, South America and Africa. He reminds us that the world's population tripled in the 20th century, with many of these people residing in fast-growing megacities such as São Paulo, Lagos and Jakarta. Sometimes called bidonvilles , they were ingeniously built using oil drums, corrugated iron and asbestos cement.

Rather than being passive recipients of technology, Edgerton shows us how poor people creatively convert industrial products into hybrid or "creole" technology. One remarkable illustration of this is how mechanics in Ghana continually repair and modify imported cars so that the vehicles run for decades - without spare parts, precision tools or even the manuals produced by automakers.

Edgerton is undoubtedly correct to suggest that a meaningful history of the 20th century requires understanding how ordinary people used technology to shape their lives. Yet to write this history, one would also have to explain why so many - leaders, scientists and consumers - eagerly embraced an innovation-centric view. Why did Hitler pour millions into the V-2 rocket when he could have killed more people by building conventional bombers? Why did Americans think the Pill created the sexual revolution of the 1960s when condom use had been growing steadily for decades?

Edgerton says little about why the innovation-centric view was so persuasive. One reason, I would suggest, is that this perspective proved useful to those in power. Edgerton may be right that the "big" technologies - automobiles, airplanes, electrification, radio, nuclear weapons and computers - did not necessarily transform the world as much as we generally think. Yet he says little about why the innovation-centric view was so persuasive.

One reason is that this perspective proved useful to those in power. Those "big" technologies, I would suggest, were useful to select groups in Western societies - the State, big business and the professions - because they allowed these groups to accumulate power and restructure society without calling undue attention to themselves. Henry Ford made the Model T so appealing to the average American that they hardly questioned how he built a giant corporation, transformed work with the assembly line and helped to create a consumer society. Likewise, because electricity was seen as essential for modern life, it was hard to oppose the centralised bureaucracy - whether it be investor-owned holding companies, the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Soviet state under Stalin - needed to finance and operate power grids. What made some technologies "big" in the 20th century was not that they were used by everyone but rather because powerful groups could use these technologies to promise something to everyone.

To bring power into this book would have meant that Edgerton would have had to delve more deeply into political history, and to do so, he would have had less room for the valuable insights he offers about how ordinary people use technology. Yet by building on Edgerton's provocative thesis, historians will be able to weave technology and power together. In the meantime, we can appreciate with Edgerton how Nixon may have been using that washing machine to tell us more about the 20th century than we previously imagined.

W. Bernard Carlson is professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia. He recently completed Technology in World History , seven volumes (Oxford University Press), and is finishing a biography of inventor Nikola Tesla.

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

Author - David Edgerton
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 0
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 1 86197 296 2

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