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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Born in Montevideo in 1959, David Edgerton is one of Britain’s leading historians, and has challenged conventional analyses of technology for 20 years. Currently the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London, he writes for the broadsheet press and is a regular on television and radio. He lives in London. David's most recent book is Shock of the Old.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Shock of the Old?
DE: For years I felt that lots of assumptions underlying our thinking about technology and history weren't quite right. These thoughts developed over the years, mostly in lectures, but I got a chance to write them up for the great French historical journal the Annales. The reaction to that paper convinced me that I was on to something. A second important influence was traveling to India, Malaysia, Argentina and Uruguay in the mid-1990s. These visits made obvious the need for a global technology of technologies in use, as well as providing many examples of long-lived machines. What was in a sense obvious about technology in these countries applied just as much to Britain or the USA, but was not so visible there. But none of these ideas would have turned into a book without the intercession of my wonderful publisher, Andrew Franklin.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
DE: Longer than planned! Just how long is between me and the publisher.
MT: What is it that annoys you most about the "promoters of new technologies", and the gurus of the "Information Age", and how they talk about technology?
DE: That they want us all to be as ignorant as they are. We know a lot about technology and have a good sense of where things are likely to go, but they want to take us into a future in which all our knowledge is supposedly redundant.
MT: In your book, are you really saying any more than innovation isn't as innovative as we think it is and that some old(er) technologies (steam, coal) have a remarkably longlife?
DE: Yes I am. I am also saying that we innovate in old technologies, indeed that to think of technologies as old or new is a mistake. All technologies are a mixture of old and new. But I am also saying that we don’t have a good picture of what technologies, now and in the past, were significant, or indeed what was invented in any particular historical period. I’m saying that most innovations that are highlighted are not as innovative as their promoters would like us to believe.
These are in any case, preparatory steps. In my book I explore not just that general argument, but also use it to look afresh at the relations between technology and war, technology production, technology and the nation and so on. I think I am making original arguments about the particularities of these relations.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
DE: Straight onto the computer, with lot of editing. There must be a better way, but ... It is a pleasure, when away from a computer to get out and notebook and a fountain pen, and some of the key parts of the book started life in that way.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
DE: I’m reading, teaching, administering!
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
DE: Since it took me a while to work out whether I did or didn’t the answer has to be no. But in a book of this sort I did have to have in mind specialist in many subjects, and readers who would come to the book from very different positions from my own.
MT: What are you working on now?
DE: I am going back to British history. I’ve started researching a book on science, technology industry in Britain in the second world war, for Penguin.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
DE: My favourite book of fiction is Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities. I remain a critical fan of George Orwell as a writer of non-fiction.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
DE: Make sure you have something to say before deciding to write .
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