Nanotechnology: utopian, dire, or neither?

Those of us who spend our days looking at innovation would do well to look at the other side now and then. The New Yorker gives us a chance with a book review by Steven Shapin of the book “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900” (Oxford) by David Edgerton.

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”…

Predictions like these [paperless office, high-temperature superconductors, end of cancer] don’t inspire great confidence in the utopian futures now being spun around stem-cell research or nanotechnology.

But neither should we have great confidence in the more dire prophesies.

Probably this book goes too far in arguing that innovation is overrated. But it’s useful to consider alternative perspectives, if only to be ready to argue against them when the time comes. And who knows, we might learn something. For example, I hadn’t known that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been using horses. How…innovative! —Christine

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