Is Technology As Innovative As We Think?

In an article in last month’s New Yorker, Steven Shapin writes What Else is New? and points out that a lot of the most effective technology isn’t really all that new or innovative. Effective technology has often proven itself over a matter of years.

Here are a couple of quotes from the article:

The nineteenth-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle didn’t much like the new industrial order, but he did understand the substantive relationship between human beings and their technologies: “Man is a Tool-using Animal. . . . Nowhere do you find him without Tools; without Tools he is nothing, with Tools he is all.”

In “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900” (Oxford; $26), David Edgerton, a well-known British historian of modern military and industrial technology, offers a vigorous assault on this narrative. He thinks that traditional ways of understanding technology, technological change, and the role of technology in our lives, have been severely distorted by what he calls “the innovation-centric account” of technology. The book is a provocative, concise, and elegant exercise in intellectual Protestantism, enthusiastically nailing its iconoclastic theses on the door of the Church of Technological Hype: no one is very good at predicting technological futures; new and old technologies coexist; and technological significance and technological novelty are rarely the same—indeed, a given technology’s grip on our awareness is often in inverse relationship to its significance in our lives. Above all, Edgerton says that we are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and that we should think of it, rather, as evolving through use. A “history of technology-in-use,” he writes, yields “a radically different picture of technology, and indeed of invention and innovation.”

Another thought process that I’ve been pursuing is how we often view technology as our hope. We often put our hope in technology for solving our current and future problems. Faith in technology can replace faith in God. But, that’s a subject for a future blog post.

Be sure to read this article, then let’s address some questions for further discussion:

  1. What are some of our most effective technologies that are at least 25-50 years old?
  2. Do we sometimes get too hyped about cutting edge technology before it becomes truly effective? What are some recent examples of this?
  3. How do we spot new, effective technology and distinguish it from ineffective hype?