A Place for Hype

Edward Tenner

  • The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton
    Profile, 270 pp, £18.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 1 86197 296 5

A new golden age of technological hype seems to be dawning. This January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a small unfurnished booth cost $24,500. Some 2700 companies proved willing to pay the fee, and 140,000 people visited the show. To coincide with it, Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO, launched the iPhone in San Francisco: a mobile phone with a touch-screen and other familiar functions: web browser, camera, MP3 player. Apple shares went up more than 8 per cent that day, though the phones won’t be released until June, will sell for between $499 and $599, and hadn’t been independently tested. In January’s issue of Scientific American, Bill Gates predicted ‘a future in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day to day lives’. According to Gates, the South Korean government plans to get a domestic robot into all its households by 2013, while the Japanese Robot Association expects there to be a $50 billion a year worldwide personal robot market by 2025.

Ambitious predictions are all very well, but there have also been chastening reminders of previous rounds of misplaced hype. In New Scientist last November, the AI researcher Rodney Brooks forecast that at some point in the next fifty years a solution would be found to the ‘recognition problem’: a computer’s inability to tell, as a two-year-old child could, whether an object is a hat, a chair or a shoe on the basis of its general properties. Confident as Brooks was, he acknowledged that his own attempt to solve it in his 1981 PhD dissertation had been unsuccessful.

Academic scientists, medical researchers and technological entrepreneurs are taught to avoid extravagant claims and to rely instead on sober peer review. Yet they are also aware that hype can help win research grants and capital funding and can affect share prices. An adequately supported project may fail, but an overlooked one will not succeed. According to the Thomas Theorem popularised by Robert Merton: ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.’

David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old, with its ironic echoes of bestsellers by Robert Hughes and Alvin Toffler, is not an attack on innovation as such. Rather, it is a call for a new way of thinking about technological change, not as a sequence of revolutionary discoveries, but as a complex and often paradoxical interaction between old and new: ‘technology in use’ as opposed to an ‘innovation-centred’ history.

We are said to be living in an age of unprecedented change; indeed, we have been told this in the popular media for the past century at least. Yet much of the technology that now surrounds us would have been clearly recognisable to previous generations. Edgerton doesn’t fully explain this paradox, but he does provide many examples, four of which will serve to illustrate the complexities of technology in use: the horse, the Kalashnikov rifle, the B-52 bomber and the flat-pack bookcase.

The horse may be the most surprising case. Edgerton emphasises its continuing role in urban transportation and in warfare in the early to mid-20th century. Hitler’s army marched on Moscow with many more horses than Napoleon’s, and in 1945 the German army had 1.2 million of them, possibly an even higher ratio of horses to men than in previous centuries of warfare. Horses and other draught animals are still widely used in poor countries: in India, as recently as 1981, animals produced more megawatts of power than all mechanised sources combined, and there were twice as many bullock carts as there had been at independence in 1947. Even in the United States, Amish farmers continue to work with horses, and there seem to be tens of thousands of non-Amish farmers with draught animals, including 3500 oxen teams in New England. Amish artisans continue to develop more efficient agricultural equipment, and have a worldwide market.

It’s surprising how many supposedly pre-industrial tools survive in the allegedly post-industrial world. Advocates of development and technology may be embarrassed that horses are still used as draught animals, but they also ignore the proliferation of simple tools and labour-intensive maintenance. In the vast workshop districts of Ghana, known as ‘magazines’, motor vehicles from the industrialised world have for decades been adapted and refitted for rugged African conditions. They can be maintained indefinitely in this new state, using only simple parts, a sophisticated improvisation that Edgerton calls ‘creolisation’. ‘At dusk,’ he writes, ‘bright intermittent light from welding illuminates streets all over the world, issuing from maintenance workshops which might also make simple equipment.’

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[*] Warfare State: Britain, 1920-70 (Cambridge, 380 pp., £19.99, December 2005, 978 0 521 67231 3).

[†] Creating the 20th Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact by Vaclav Smil (Oxford, 368 pp., £19.99, September 2005, 978 0 19 516874 7).