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Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

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Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton I re-read this fascinating book today to help me with a column. It’s terrific stuff: packed with memorable facts yet easy to read, counter-intuitive yet persuasive. Books about technology tend to focus on the inventions, the cutting edge – a timeline of ‘firsts’. Edgerton argues that we should look things rather than ideas – technology as it is actually used rather than life on the technological frontier. Technologies often stick around. Tanks and trenches robbed horses of their glorious role in the cavalry charge – and yet the Wehrmacht used well over a million horses in the second world war, where they were essential for transporation. The contraceptive pill was revolutionary, yes – but condoms existed

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Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

I re-read this fascinating book today to help me with a column. It’s terrific stuff: packed with memorable facts yet easy to read, counter-intuitive yet persuasive.

Books about technology tend to focus on the inventions, the cutting edge – a timeline of ‘firsts’. Edgerton argues that we should look things rather than ideas – technology as it is actually used rather than life on the technological frontier.

Technologies often stick around. Tanks and trenches robbed horses of their glorious role in the cavalry charge – and yet the Wehrmacht used well over a million horses in the second world war, where they were essential for transporation. The contraceptive pill was revolutionary, yes – but condoms existed before and they still exist now, partly because they do things that the pill does not.

William Gibson told us that the future was already here – just not very evenly distributed. But Edgerton goes further: sometimes the future arrives in a particular place and time, and stubbornly fails to be distributed; sometimes, indeed, the future disappears, leaving the past to overtake us. (The most obvious example: Concorde. But there are more subtle instances, such as the emergence of a low-tech shipbreaking industry in Gujurat.)

Strongly recommended.

UK: BlackwellsAmazon

US: PowellsAmazon

Pre-order my new book, How To Make The World Add Up, out 17 September in the UK.

Tim Harford
Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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