By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
Whether it's whizzy phones that double up as portable music players, or the latest advances in genetic engineering, the pace of technology seems to grow ever faster. But has our lust for gadgets overshadowed an appreciation of the technologies that really make a difference?
Gadgets galore for consumers
The pages of the BBC News website are perhaps an incongruous place to debate David Edgerton's controversial theory that technology is not all it's cracked up to be.
To many there can be no better marker of technology's march in the 21st Century than the net. But, Mr Edgerton wisely counters, if his thoughts had not been distilled into book form, would we be talking in the first place.
Despite the prevalence of computers, the book - a "technology" which dates back a couple of thousand years - still holds sway as the chief medium for stimulating intellectual debate. Yet when was the last time you stopped to marvel at the impact of the printed word on a piece of paper?
New technology has a grip on the public imagination that outstrips its relevance, says Mr Edgerton. There's no denying the first part of his statement - whether it's crowds clambering for a new games console, or the much anticipated launch of a Windows operating system - technology seems to wield a seductive power over the masses.
Pop along to your local mobile phone shop and witness the crush of consumers marvelling at the latest model. The launch, this month, of Apple's new iPhone was the most popular story on the day on the BBC News website, earning more than a million page views.
We conflate invention with the stuff that's actually in use and that's dangerous because invention doesn't actually change anything
And yet, says Mr Edgerton, Apple's latest product offers little, if anything, that's really new. Indeed, its constituent functions - a phone, a music player, a camera - would have a ring of familiarity to the man on the Clapham omnibus in the days when omnibuses were the very latest means of getting from A to B.
"What these things do is not that startling. So if you compare what was visible to consumers in 1907 versus now, there's not really much of a difference. In terms of their impact on people's imagination, the motor car, aviation, cinema, radio were revolutionary."
Yet all those technophiles out there, lusting after the latest nano-proportioned, polyphonic multi-megapixel wireless gizmo, would beg to differ.
Not only are consumer electronics a pocketable fact of life, they influence how we live. The mobile phone has brought flexibility to social lives, enabling friends to meet up on a sudden whim. The cameraphone has put photography in the hands of millions.
Worshipping at the altar of iPhone
"But the essence of this new stuff is not that we can do things we couldn't do before, just that we can do things in different ways," says Mr Edgerton.
His assessment of the internet will be seen by many as either wilful provocation, or sheer blinkeredness. It has, he says, "changed my life in some ways. But I use it not because it's massively better, but a little better. It's essentially still a just a means for communication".
What's more, gadgets have become so ubiquitous thanks, often, to old-fashioned means of mass production and distribution - "injection moulding, assembly lines, container shipping" - which have made them so cheap.
Ok, so our neophilia is shallow. But isn't it rather harmless? Why criticise the iPod-owning masses for their love of gadgets?
The problem, says Mr Edgerton, is we slip into a sort of boyish excitement about new technology, associating inventions with when they were invented rather than how they are used.
The result is to overlook the importance of longstanding "technologies" that are impacting on billions of people's lives - paper, cement, steel, for example.
"We conflate invention with the stuff that's actually in use and that's dangerous because invention doesn't actually change anything. It's only when things come into widespread use that they have widespread effects."
Some 28m sold, but from a different technological age
What better example with which to hammer home his point than Ikea's Billy bookcase - 28 million sold, and counting.
Bill Gates may be the world's richest man by some estimations, but not far behind him is Ingvar Kamprad, founder of the global furniture giant. And while Mr Gates has made his billions from new, digital technologies, Mr Kamprad owes it all to a decidedly modern twist on an utterly familiar technology: furniture... much of it wooden.
Ikea is proof that when it comes to capturing the consumers' imagination, the old, masquerading in funky colours, with slick Scandinavian design and a dash of savvy marketing, can appear to be new. But, as with the book, who pauses to wonder at the significance of wooden furniture?
The same, says Mr Edgerton, goes for corrugated iron, a technology that dates back to the 19th Century but continues to have a massive impact in the developing world as a ready housing material.
Cultural commentators often hark back to the "na´ve futurism" of the 1950s and 60s - all hover boards and holidays in space - as proof that society has a more realistic, post-modern, view of what the future holds.
But, Mr Edgerton says, our current scepticism of science goes hand-in-hand with a belief that science will make for a better world. With global warming we are looking to future technologies to reduce carbon emissions, for example.
Corrugated iron has a global impact
"We are consumed by beliefs that new technology will make the world better or, through technologies such as genetic modification, it will make the world worse. The truth isn't in between, it's elsewhere.
"You need to look not just at the technologies that are being talked about but those technologies that are in use. We mustn't rely on childish fairly tales of what might be."
While his broad attack is something of a sideswipe at our fetishising of gadgets, it is more sharply focused on the emphasis government and business put on new technology, through cash investment and the constant emphasis on research and development.
For all the joy his MP3 player brings him, today's man on the Clapham bendy-bus still desires a stylish bookcase to house his collection of novels. But it's worth noting how the inventors of the iPod - Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive - have a celebrity-like status among many today. Who, if anyone, could name the inventor of the Billy bookcase?
The Shock of the Old: Technology in Global History Since 1900, by David Edgerton, is published by Profile Books.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
"We mustn't rely on childish fairly tales of what might be." True, but without imagining what might be, we would not have the impetus to invent new things for our lives. When a new phone is lauded just for shaving a couple of millimetres off it's size, we need to focus on the things that will last as design classics. I doubt any mobile phone could stand out as a classic in 100 years time.
In emergency or possible emergency mobile phones are a most useful "gadget"; internet has made it possile to sit in one country and have regular discourse with an expert in another, as every science academic knows; businesses are able to being conducted from anywhere, enabling women AND men to work from home, revolutionising workplace and home-work-tasks-roles equations. The concerts and ballets only a few could enjoy once became more available to masses through radio, and far more now with cd's, television and satellite radio. True, books are still fantastic and always will be as a source for mind, and so is food and water for body, and so are children for future of humanity - internet does not pretend to substitute for any of these. But it has supplemented news dispensing enormously, and made it possible for average people to make themselves heard for causes they care about. No, there is no argument that modern days technology is wonderful and future is great and it is here - unless you choose to be deliberately obtuse. Yes, the Billy bookcase and IKEA are great, with old technology; how much of their business is on the net, or conducted on phone, and can do without mobile phones and so forth? And inventing a new design of a bookcase and selling it via IKEA or internet has become easier too for anyone interested, only due to technologies of today.
Dr. J. Gokhale, Bangalore, India.
I think that the medium (iphone, etc.) is not important, rather the delivered message. It's the way a piece of music moves your soul rather than the fact that it is coming from a squeaky transistor radio. As long as it is recognisable the imagiantion and memory make up the rest. We fill the old bookcase with tatty books, old well thumbed novels, etc. but we can still read Hamlet, etc.
ian bettinson, wimborne, dorset, uk
Maybe I'm being stupid but I completely fail to see the point of this article. Are you trying to say that bookcases are more important than iPods? That corrugated iron desrves more attention than a wi-fi laptop? So what? People still buy bookcases, and people still use corrugated iron. Yes you're right that much of today's "new" technologies are merely adaptations of old ones, but again, so what? Is that a bad thing? So the inventor of the Billy bookcase doesn't get as much press as the inventor of the iPod, so what??!! I'm sure that person has made plenty of cash out of it, but a bookcase is not quite as glamorous as an iPod, so they're not going to get so much press are they? You seem to be suggesting that we should all stop being over-awed by modern-day gadgets and start showing some appreciation for the technologies of old. Why? Books are indeed a great piece of "technology", we show our appreciation by reading them all the time, of course we're not going to get as excited about a book as we do about a mobile phone that's an mp3 player and camera, we've had a lot longer to get used to books, the novelty has worn off somewhat!
"But the essence of this new stuff is not that we can do things we couldn't do before, just that we can do things in different ways," says Mr Edgerton. Following this logic the telephone is just an improvement over the telegraph system, which is in fact really not much better than walking over and talking to the person. If people never demanded things to be better and more efficient things would never improve. After all who needs new water pipes when the old ones still carry water.
Simon Massey, Gloucester
I haven't read David Edgerton's comments in full but I wonder if it's too simplistic a view that we always look to technology to solve our problems? My sense is of people at once fascinated (and distracted by) the twinkle and glitter of new 'toys' and at the same time sceptical of science's ability to solve everything. Or, indeed, even fearful of its ability destroy. I think people are confused and looking for direction.
Jules C, London, United Kingdom
We seem to have more and more gadgets but few actually improve our lives. Why do you need a cell phone that can store 500 numbers if you dont even know 500 people?? Why do you need a car that can go 800 mph, if the speed limit is 70? There just seems to be a great deal of useless thinking by inventors.
Kara Tyson, Mobile, AL USA
The bbc are the top priests of gizmo worship. And pump the world full of this evil. But you are so blind, you cannot see the evil you do.
Bring back the tape Walkman, Betamax video and remote controls attatched to wires. Those were the days!
Steven Lynch, Glasgow, Scotland
What a load of waffle! "the essence of this new stuff is not that we can do things we couldn't do before, just that we can do things in different ways" - That would be innovation then, yes? Surely books weren't that great an invention; after all, weren't they only a "different way" of writing scrolls? Of course the simple things are more ubiquitous, they're generally more numerous and have been around longer. Becoming jaded to things is just human nature. How often do people praise mobile phones nowadays? Certainly less than a few years ago.
Ian Yates, London, UK
Innovation just follows market demand. Just look at Concorde, one of mankind's inventions that literally broke down barriers - but where is it now? As for the 'iPhone' - the barrier was broken with the 'mobile phone' - being able to listen to music on it just saves carrying around a walkman as well - a very marketable idea - and walkman's have been around since the 80s in one form or another anyway.
Dan Budden, Swansea
I for one appreciate the technology. I used to babysit for a friend and during the park visits with the little kid i would take photographs and then using a psp or my phone share them with his mum and dad. For me technology has made carrying all my music, photos and anything else i can think of all land in the palm of my hand. But on the other hand, it has made life all that much more stressful and the most tranquil time of the day for me is when i am resting in my bed staring up at the ceiling with no form of technology running. In other words all the technology makes me look at silence as something not to be taken for granted.
hussein e rawat, Leicester united kingdom
Could it be that Jonathan is actually a technophile trying to disguise his fear of electronics as a 'post-modern' view? The introduction of computers and the internet has completely revolutionised my area of work (engineering research), making work quicker and far easier. It may only be 'a little better' for him, but not everyone's experience is the same.
Andy Donovan, Sheffield, UK
How ridiculous. Many of the longstanding inventions he refers to were novel at the time they were invented. We could have the same argument about furniture, people could do without it and sit on the floor, or eat food from the top of a stone, but furniture makes life more convenient, like mobile phones and the internet. It's the test of time that tells us how much impact a type of technology has, as the ones that are not so useful fall by the wayside. If past inventors had sat sat back and decided that we already had the key inventions we 'needed' we would be missing a few of the inventions he refers to.
We should be thinking about the damage its forcing the East to do to the environment, to keep up with our hunger for the latest high-tech gizmos. We're the first to moan about their pollution, when really we're the root cause of some of that.
Whilst I'm the first to applaud the convenience of today's gagetry, I also find myself getting overwhelmed by a lot of the latest technology to the extent that I'm starting to turn my back on quite a lot of it. This writer owns no ipod, MP3 player, microwave or even a toaster. I completed my music degree with a humble dual cassette radio machine when others studying different subjects had the latest hifi (we are talking some years ago now!), and am currently taking a photography class using the ever-rarer BLACK AND WHITE FILM. Some might ask why (I'd ask them to go and really think a little harder). And to answer your first question, I read myself to sleep last night (John Marsden, for those who've been lucky enough to recognise my mention of the "Tomorrow" series). And yet...how could I share all this with you without the wonders of modern technology and a touch or two of irony?
Alex, Edinburgh, Scotland
Absolutely right; emperors new clothes anyone? The problem is that the fickle westernised cultural is all about materialism and having the latest gizmo is as much as a status symbol as buying a brand new car. Clever marketing fools the insecure and shallow into believing that by having the most modern of gizmo's you will be a better person, even when it's just a rehash of something in existence already.
Sorry, but I also think that technology is over-rated. Computers have dumbed down skills of writing and grammar. "Personal" stereos are the bane of millions on public transport throughout the country. And most gadgets have anti-social side-effects. Just look at the proliferation of telecommunications masts being erected to satisfy the demands of the techno-snobs.
KB, Bristol, England
This is one of the dumbest stories I've read. New things capture peoples imagination. There's only so many days you can wake up and be captivated in wonder by a bookcase or even the magic of concrete.
Life is getting to easy with all these gadgets around. i think we need to spend more time and money on environmental issues, such as global warming
Zaheer Desai, Blackburn
Mr Edgerton has good point - Environment saving technologies should be supported and encouraged as much as possible by governments, media and business. However "boyish excitement" is perhaps a little patronising - Its more to do with stimulation of the mind and senses. Most people (especially us "boys" for some reason) "get off" more on seeing, feeling or controling something they've never done so before. Its just human - we're on the planet to breed and be stimulated! The degree of either of these requirements varying from dude to dude!
Bren , The Hague, Netherlands
The trouble with most modern technology is it either doesn't do what it promises to do or else it isn't reliable. For example, it's like's I'll be on to my third freeview box in as many years: what a waste of components and materials! Some shiny new gizmo invariably doesn't work as it's meant to and lasts a laughably short time: why does nothing have a guarantee for more than a year? Nor do I wish to be a slave to my mobile phone, like all these idiots wandering around the supermarket with alien-looking earpieces: they're not necessary items....
Simon Bonsor, Horley, Surrey
Radio 4 had a public vote competition about two years ago for the most useful technology out there. The 19th Century bicycle won because it was fun, gets us about the place faster, keeps people heathly and good for the enviroment.
David Young, Reading
It is all very well to say that technology is evil and to dwell on nostalgic values, but you are forgetting or at least omitting the fact that without new technologies the production of books and book cases etc in bulk would be expensive, slow and even more pollutant that it is now.
Jonathan Francis, Bourne, Lincolnshire
What is his point ? I don't see concrete and corrugated iron going away just because everyone wants an i-phone. Mobile phones have saved lives, and my MP3 player is saving my life by helping me through the ironing and washing up!
Brod, Bracknell, Berkshire
What's so bad about wanting something that's a bit better? A radio without valves, so you don't have to wait for it to warm up? A phone you can carry instead of walking half a mile in the cold and dark at the edge of a motorway when you break down? And so on. And as for home computers and the internet - they *have* changed my life. Last night I spent a couple of hours downloading free clipart and printing 3 sets of flashcards to use in my teaching. Without the technology, I'd have had to draw them (and I can't draw for toffee) or cut pictures from magazines and glue them. Now, I not only have the sets I made, but I can alter them and reprint them, in various sizes, whenever I want.
Ros, Sheffield, UK
Since gadgets usually have a short lifespan and go out of fashion quickly, the manufacturers should place more emphasis on recycling them just as they do with cars.
The technology scepticism in this article is extremely shortsighted. Yes, some people do fetishise some technology, but to say it has had little effect on his life is nonsense. He needs to look beyond the shallow forum of consumer electronics to other areas. Areas such as medical tehnology, which keeps people alive longer, financial technology allowing not only the massive growth of wealth but also access to money. I also wonder if he's like to go back to the 1907 necessity of washing all his clothes by hand? He also misses the point. Technology is there to facilitate life, to make things you were going to do anyway a lot easier, not to change everything radically.
David Hicks, London
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