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May 1, 2007 10:06pm

blog all dog-eared pages: shock of the old

Shock of the Old is a technology book by David Edgerton that focuses on use in favor of invention, illustrated with examples of under-the-radar technologies (e.g. corrugated iron, DDT, etc.) that make a larger social impact than more visible, highly-touted inventions. These are a few interesting passages I've marked.

Pages 75-76:

As one philosopher of technology noted in the 1970s: "In almost no instance can artificial-rational systems be built and left alone. They require continued attention, rebuilding, and repair. Eternal vigilance is the price of artificial complexity." He noted too, that in a technological age we should ask not who governs, but what governs: "government becomes the business of recognising what is necessary and efficient for the continued functioning and elaboration of large-scale systems and the ration implementation of their manifest requirements."

Page 83:

So concerned were Ford with maintenance and repair that they investigated and standardised repair procedures, which were incorporated into a huge manual published in 1925. ... However, this plan did not work - it could not cope with the many vicissitudes and uncertainties of the car-repair business. The Fordisation of maintenance and repair, even of the Model T, did not work. As the British naval officer in charge of ship construction and maintenance in the 1920's put it: "repair work has no connection with mass-production."

Page 89, on jet engines:

Typically, there is at first a slight rise (because of unanticipated problems) and then a fall over ten years to 30 per cent of the original maintenance cost. This is due to increasing confidence in the engine itself and increasing knowledge of what needs maintenance. In other words, the maintenance schemes, programmes, and costs are not programmable in advance. In these complex system a great infrastructure of documentation, control, and surveillance is needed, and yet informl, tacit knowledge remains extremely important.

Page 114-115:

In the early 1930's there were all sorts of suggestions for the creation of an "international air police" along these lines, and similar thinking continued into the 1940's, usually with the British and Americans as that international police force. In more recent years the atomic bomb, television, and above all the internet and world-wide web have featured in this kind of techno-globalism. As we have seen, it was generally the older technologies which were crucial to global relations - today's globalisation is in part the result of extremely cheap sea and air transport, and radio and wire-based communications.

Page 169, on food production and slaughterhouses:

To understand the uniqueness and significance of these reeking factories of death, it is illuminating to cross ... the Mediterranean a century later, against a new tide of migration into Europe. In late twentieth-centure Tunisia, on several main roads through the desert there were concentrations of nearly identical small buildings lining each side of the road. Tethered next to many were a few sheep; hanging from the buildings were the still fleece-covered carcassas of their cousins. For these were the butchers' shops and restaurants. As the heavy traffic roared by one could dine, on plastic tables, without plates or cutlery, on delicious pieces of lamb taken straight from the displayed cadaver and cooked on a barbecue crudely fashioned from sheet metal. Clealy this spectacle was not a left-over from the past, or the sort of thing which attracted tourists. It was something new; a drive-in barby for the Tunisian motorist and lorry-driver in a hurry.

Page 189, on belief in technical progress:

There is an old Soviet joke which goes to the heart of the issue: an inventor goes into the ministry and says: "I have invented a new button-holing machine for our clothing industry." "Comrade," says the minister, "we have no use for your machine: don't you realise this is the age of Sputnik?" Such sentiments shaped policy, not only in rockets, and not only in the Soviet Union.


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