The whole point of reading book reviews is to find the one book in a thousand that you absolutely have to read (and do), and to learn what the other 999 are about. So it’s just perverse to read Steven Shapin’s review in last week’s New Yorker (excerpts here if that link goes away) and find that it mentions several must-reads, some more than a decade old. They’re all about how we misunderstand technology when we think it’s all about world-changing inventions.
Shapin’s reviewing David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. “Edgerton notes that as things get older they tend to move from rich countries to poor ones, from low-maintenance to high-maintenance environments. In many African, South Asian, and Latin-American countries, used vehicles imported from North America, Western Europe, and Japan live on almost eternally, in constant contact with numerous repair shops. Maintenance doesn’t simply mean keeping those vehicles as they were; it may mean changing them in all sorts of ways—new gaskets made from old rubber, new fuses made from scrap copper wire.
“‘In the innovation-centric account, most places have no history of technology,’ Edgerton writes [because nobody invented the car or the microchip there]. ‘In use-centered accounts, nearly everywhere does.’ John Powell’s marvelous study of vast vehicle-repair shops in Ghana, The Survival of the Fitter: Lives of Some African Engineers (1995), describes a modern world in which vehicles imported from the developed world initially decay, and then something changes: ‘As time goes by and the vehicle is reworked in the local system, it reaches a state of apparent equilibrium in which it seems to be maintained indefinitely. . . . It is a condition of maintenance by constant repair.”‘