Is Innovation Overrated?

24 June 2007 at 11:16 pm Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Technological innovation is not as important as we think, argues David Edgerton in The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford, 2006). Edgerton’s book, writes Steven Shapin in the New Yorker,

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.” (HT: Against Monopoly)

Edgerton provides numerous examples, mainly from military history, of old technologies proving more important than new technologies (horses, for instance, were more important in World War II than V-2 rockets or atomic bombs). Useful innovation, not innovation per se, is what matters.

Most of us are attracted to novelty; it’s no wonder that we tend to overrate its importance. We also forget that many new technologies are modest variations on existing technologies.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Institutions, Myths and Realities.

Against Holism: The Boudon-Montaigne Farting Example No, Innovation is Not Overrated

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