This conversation took place in June 2017 with David Edgerton, Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London.

Clips from the interview


The Place of Technology in History

David Edgerton: “I’ve been teaching scientists and engineers the history of science and technology for many years, and I was constantly looking for a way to think about the place of technology in history. I increasingly found that I was dissatisfied with what has been said. Too much work is focused on the early history of some very particular inventions rather than looking at what human beings actually used. So I argued that our accounts of the material world were biased in time. They were usually focused on the wrong time, far too early a period and were usually biased away from the most important technologies or things or structures or machines of a particular historical era. On top of that, we didn’t have a proper account of invention. We assume that we have an account of invention that tells us about what was invented in any particular year but I discovered that we don’t. For example it comes as a surprise to know that in the late 20th century, the biggest R&D spenders in the world were motor car companies like the Ford Motor Company, not the Microsofts and Googles of this world.”
Quantifying Innovation

“How can one quantify the importance of a particular technology?”

David Edgerton: “One of the great problems with our understanding of the world of technology is the fact that we don’t quantify. We just take on trust assertions that this or that technology is transforming our world. We should in fact begin to quantify but it’s actually much more difficult than you might think. Take the question ‘How important is the computer?’ One answer would be ‘What would happen if all the computers stopped suddenly?’ The answer then would be ‘Very important, because our world would come to a crashing halt.’ But that’s not the right way of formulating the question. The question needs to be formulated as follows: ‘If instead of computers we had some alternative, what is the difference in the performance of our society with that alternative and with the computer?’ That’s to say we could do lots of things without computers that we today do with computers. We could type a letter with a typewriter, not a word processor. We could take a photograph with a wet photography and indeed, we could do many things, from broadcasting to fighting wars to all sorts of magical entertainment without the digital. That has to be our comparison. But it’s very difficult because young people will not be aware of predecessors to the digital. I remember a very funny occasion when on the television program, in the early days of the Internet, the presenter of the program was trying to communicate with an Internet guru in San Francisco from London. They discovered that it was difficult to make this video connection to this guru and they made mild fun of this poor chap because the future hadn’t quite arrived. But the real joke was that actually, they could have picked up the phone to San Francisco and spoken to him perfectly well.”

Digital Technology and Change

David Edgerton: “We need to think not just about the one thing which everyone is talking about but actually ask ‘Why is the world changing as it is?’ We should not assume that we know the explanation, i.e., the digital. We should ask ‘Why is it that things are happening as they as they are?’ Once we ask that question it becomes very obvious that the digital is just one element of many. It’s very striking, the extent to which all change today is reduced to the digital. People talk about the fourth Industrial Revolution actually a concept from the 1940s that people pretend is original. They think the fourth industrial revolution is about the digital. Well, it could be about whatever is happening in industry, so it could be about changes in chemical processes, it could be changes in work organization, it could be about changes in any number of things, but we essentially make ourselves ignorant of what is really going on by just saying digital, digital, digital, digital. It might be the case the digital is indeed the most important, but that has not as far as I’m concerned been established. All I know is that digital is what you hear all the time. I don’t see much evidence that it’s specifically the digital that accounts for 50 or 80 percent of the change.”

The Same Old Story, Re-Told

David Edgerton: “The promoters of technology for many decades, over 100 years actually, have argued that we absolutely need this one, two or three new machines and that they will transform our world. That is a very familiar story. In fact, there is hardly anything original about it. All that changes is the particular machine. So once the radio would bring the world together, later it was television and now it’s the Internet. Wars will be abolished by new explosives, by airplanes, and by atomic bombs. It’s a very familiar kind of story that’s told. It’s extraordinary really that people still get away with giving the impression that this is an original story. Now one difficulty of being critical of these stories is that people assume that that one is against change. But actually, I am all in favor of change. I want more change, and I think one way that we will get more change is if we stop thinking about the material constitution of the past, present, and the future in this terribly passe way. We really need to find a refreshed, more interesting and more grown-up way of thinking about our world and how we might change it or how it might be changed by others.”

Rejecting New Technologies

David Edgerton: “People who are opposed to a particular argument about a new technology are often called Luddites or conservative backward-looking people that want to keep the world as it is. Actually that’s not right. The original Luddites
were complaining not about machines but about a new form of society that was depriving them of work. Similarly today, we should feel free to reject the blandishments of the promoters of new technologies. One thing that’s very important to remember in this context is that there are lots and lots of new technologies to choose from. In fact, we have to reject most new technologies, because we’re not going to live in a world with ten different types of telephone or fourteen different kinds of transport machine. We need a reduced number, and that implies rejection. Indeed rejection of novelty has been central to our adoption of appropriate or sometimes inappropriate machines in the 20th century. Rejecting machines is something that scientists and engineers and investors do all the time and have to do. We as consumers do the same, and we should feel free to do that. Of course the advertisers of a particular product have to insist that we take their product, but we don’t have to. We can say, ‘no thank you, I prefer this other one,’ or ‘I prefer for the moment to buy nothing at all,’ or indeed ‘I preferred the old version. I’ll have 1990’s Nokia, thank you very much, not an iPhone 7.’ We’re perfectly free to do that. There’s no shame in it it. It doesn’t imply backwardness or a desire to make us all poorer. Not anything like that. We should be free to choose.”

Critical Thinking

David Edgerton: “The assessment of the impact of significance of a particular techniques is extremely difficult, and of course, most projections into the future of what the impact will be are wrong and often risibly wrong. Often they’re wrong because no serious thought has gone into the impacts. We have propagandistic positive stories and equally propagandistic negative stories. We really do need to start thinking in a more grown-up way about how we might change our world and what the place of technology will be in that world. But alas we don’t live in that world. We live in a world of tech boosterism and tech negativity. We moralize like teenagers about new technology. Really, we ought to up our game and upping our game means being very critical, I think, of most of what’s written and said about this magical thing ‘technology’.”

The Untold Story of Tech

“Where would one go to get solid critical views of today’s tech trends?”

David Edgerton: “It’s rather difficult because there are many people that are critical of technology but they often really invert the hype. ‘So technology X is going to have positive effects,’ say the promoters. ‘No, it’s going to have negative effects,’ say the critics. I think usually the promoters and the critics are both wrong. The story of tech is a story that’s not told. In any case, it’s not a story we should moralize about. It’s a story that we need to analyze, need to understand, need to investigate as we don’t have much sense really of what’s going on. The critics and the promoters are made for each other, so we mustn’t confuse criticism of the hype with criticism of the technological world.”

Impact of Digital Transformation

“What’s your view on some of these so-called transformative digital technologies, like AI, Big Data, cloud computing, etc?”

David Edgerton: “I find it very interesting that the term ‘digital’ is now the master concept for studying our world. Technology in a broader sense was the master concept for studying our world until recently. I just find it very difficult to think about this. I think it’s self-evidently a bit strange that people attribute so much importance, so much change, to this particular narrow set of techniques. Now I’m the first to recognize that the digital is everywhere, but I have more difficulty in seeing just how significant it might be. I’m also very familiar as any historian of technology has to be with very similar stories told in the past about airplanes about atomic power, about rockets, about radio, about television… So the claims aren’t in themselves novel. They have a long pedigree, and I think it’s true to say that most of the claims made in the past were essentially propagandistic claims with little basis in their analysis and these claims that are made today reek of exactly the same problem. I’m not saying that one couldn’t have a serious assessment of the digital and its impact and what it might be in in future, but that’s not what one gets. One gets all sorts of extraordinarily crude stories about knowledge societies the de-materialized world, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and they clearly cannot be right.”

The Myth of the Weightless Economy

David Edgerton: “We do not live in a dematerialized world. There is more material whizzing around the world today than ever before. We haven’t reached peak coal, we haven’t reached peak concrete, we haven’t reached peak oil, we haven’t reached peak motorcar or peak electricity. The idea that we have left all these things behind and are now just a bunch of near weightless electrons seems to me utterly fanciful. Yet, that is the kind of story that is told. Stories of knowledge societies stories of the post-industrial age. Actually, we live in the most industrial age ever, and never before in human history has a single product let us say, the iPhone, been made in such numbers. Never before in world history have we had factories as large the factories that put together iPhones. So my response is that in many ways we’ve been here before. In many ways what we see is the playing out of a very long process of industrialization of the world rather than a radical transition between one kind of world and the next. But as I say, it’s been a feature of that modern industrial world that some gurus, boosters, have claimed again and again that the latest machine is going to transform the world, it’s already transforming the world, indeed. So that is why we already had four industrial revolutions by 1940. It’s a shame the promoters of the fourth industrial revolution today don’t know that that they’ve been anticipated by many decades in their rather silly notion.”

Alternative Futures

“I hear a lot that some of these technologies are inevitable like for example driverless cars. What’s your view on that?”

David Edgerton: “Well, it could happen, but you only have to think about the particular arguments that people typically make to see that they are implausible. One reason they’re implausible is that they don’t admit of any alternatives. For example, people talk about driverless cars. There are alternative ways of organizing transport in the city. For example we could get rid of private cars tomorrow and insist that everybody travels by bus. This would free up the roads for a lot more buses. We could get anywhere, not with driverless buses but with buses with drivers but we would not have to drive around in our own vehicles. But that’s not on the agenda. The story is being driven by the Googles of this world not by public transit auhorities. The point is we do need to think not just about the digital but about what we need for example in the area of of transport. There are many more ways of organizing the future of urban transportation than driverless cars.”

Downsides of Tech Optimism

“Is this optimism dangerous?”

David Edgerton: “Well, I wouldn’t call it optimism, I would call it propaganda. I think we should be optimistic and I’m optimistic that we could achieve a consensus that we need a more grown-up way of thinking about our options for the future, but that does mean rejecting the propaganda of these gurus. There are many ways of thinking about the future. There many possible futures to think about. I think the great tragedy is that we we have let ourselves be conned into thinking the future has to be of the sort that the propagandists for particular techniques tell us it is. We either react by applauding that or by condemning that. We shouldn’t do that. We should remember there are other scenarios.”

On Going to Mars

“What’s your view on some of these bold plans of some tech entrepreneurs, like tunneling under cities or going to Mars?”

David Edgerton: “I think it’s fascinating actually that’s so many of the Internet entrepreneurs have as sidelines the promotion of very old technologies. Elon Musk – electric cars. Electric cars to me say 1900. I think Sergey Brin is building an airship. Now airships are for me 1920s, 1930s. And then a whole bunch of people are building gigantic airplanes bigger than this Spruce Goose of the 1940s and rockets! What could be more 1950s or 1960s and then space rockets. And of course, going to Mars… Well, that is such an old-fashioned idea. I mean, it’s a staple of science fiction. They’re going into the 19th century. Perfectly illustrates the point that the supposedly future-oriented people are actually stuck in the past. The trouble is, they don’t know it.”

The Future vs. Science Fiction

“Why do you think some tech entrepreneurs have these big plan to change the world?”

David Edgerton: “Well, I think that they are brought up in a frame of mind that sees the future in this way. I mean you only have to read about the future to know that this is that the future is going to be. We have lived with a literature telling us what the future is going to be for a very very long time. If you read it, this is what you come up with. But it’s the wrong place to look for the future. We should look at the actual history of the 19th and 20th century and that would tell us very different things from sci-fi, from the projections of the futurists. But it really is a very naive way of looking at the world and actually a very naive way of looking at what’s being invented. We don’t actually know what is in fact being invented across the world today. It’s clearly not the case that a significant proportion of our resources are going to finding new ways to get to to Mars. It is a highly publicized activity but not significant in the in the bigger run of things.”

Significant Inventions

“Which do you think are the really significant inventions of our time?”

David Edgerton: “I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody does. Most innovations or most research of course is being done if not in secret at least in confidence, and its results aren’t shared with wider public. In that sense we can’t have a global view of what is being invented now and what will be significant. All we get is very selected, propagandistic images. I don’t know what the future that is being made in the laboratories of governments and corporations is. Interestingly, when I go to conferences to hear about the future, I am never told that either. I’m just told about some very particular stories, usually ones I’ve been hearing for 20, 30, 40 years. But if we are serious about knowing about future we have that’s what we have to know about. What actually is being planned and not just in Silicon Valley, but around the world. One problem is is that research agencies around the world feel forced to research in areas everybody else is researching in. Research managers never lost their job by doing what was being done in the United States, France, and Germany but there’s a severe risk they would lose their job if they did something that was actually original and which indeed might have a greater chance of success. It’s a great paradox that innovation policy is one of the least innovative areas of policy in the world but one that ought to be innovative has to be innovative, indeed if it’s going to succeed. Not everybody can be top dog in innovation in any particular area. It is a winner-takes-all or winner-takes-a-lot game, so you want to make sure that you’re in a game that you have a chance of winning.”

Thinking Seriously About the Future

“One way to sum up the problem is that we use very slippery words when we’re thinking about the future. We use words like ‘digital’, words like ‘technology’ words like ‘science’, words like ‘innovation’, that could mean many different things. I think we should stop using all of these words and think much more empirically about what’s actually going on or what’s likely to be going on. What is technology? For example at one moment it is nothing but the latest digital gizmo. At another it is the material basis of our societies. We can’t have those two concepts working at the same time. We need to be clear whether we’re talking about one kind of latest gizmo, or we’re talking about the material constitution of our world. They’re clearly very different things. Let’s get rid of these these brain-macerating terms these terms that force us it seems to moralize in a childish way and think seriously about what we’re trying to invent, who’s trying to invent it for what reason, how we’d like to change our world. And then we could have an interesting chat and people like me would have to spend their time appearing to be Luddites.”