Book Review: The Shock of the Old

The most interesting non-fiction books I read have something in common with the most interesting project we get in the office: they fall in between usual categories in a manner that requires thinking in more than one discipline at a time.

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton is a book on the history of technology. I’ve read a lot in that field, but there is not enough on some topics. Buildings are technological objects – arguably everything is, but that’s a different discussion – but very little architectural history has been written with the history of technology in mind. (Time for a plug: my recent soon-to-be-published research addresses this topic.) History of technology only emerged from the inaccurate “great inventor” snoozefest within the last thirty or forty years; architectural history still sometimes falls into hagiography.

I choose the picture above because it shows one of Edgerton’s points. That street in Milwaukee has the Pabst headquarters tower (a modern skyscraper for its era), modern trolleys, electric wires, modern bicycles, and…horse carts. The building in the foreground is a wood-joist, brick-bearing-wall building that has structure that would be immediately recognizable thousands of years ago. The introduction of new technology may drive out new uses of the old (but usually doesn’t) but it does not magically make existing instances of the old disappear.

Going further, sometimes technology use moves from the new to the old. I live in a high-rise apartment house built in the 1970s where all of the vertical supports are reinforced-concrete shear walls. The structural form of the building is identical to the masonry bearing-wall buildings that were superseded by steel-frame technology some 120 years ago. It turned out that the old form still had its uses, particularly when updated with various new materials. Edgerton also points out that we often use older, simpler, more robust technologies as back up in case our new tech fails: keeping candles in a cupboard in case the power goes out, or OSE’s practice of giving engineers iPads and notebooks for field work.

The core of the book is discussion of the implications of looking at technology from the users’ perspective rather than the inventors’. This is analogous in our field to looking at what actually gets built and how it is used rather than what people have to say about it. And this discussion is, in my opinion, so important that I’d recommend the book just for that. Fortunately it’s also well-written and has numerous good arguments, so I can recommend it in general.

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