When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1988) by Annenberg’s Carolyn Marvin, the Frances Yates Professor of Communication, has been named by the editors of Atlantic Monthly as the number one ranked book on their new “Atlantic Tech Canon” list of the 50 most influential trade and scholarly works about science and technology.
“Nearly every topic has a canon, a set of classics that you need to know. These works are recognized as key touch points of analysis and understanding,” wrote Alexis Madrigal, senior editor and lead technology writer for TheAtlantic.com. “It is precisely because technology does change that its lasting works are so important. What remains after round after round of creative destruction has proven its value. Many of the works that reach that threshold are scholarship, but certainly not all of them. We tried to reach deep and wide with this canon. We began with more than 200 suggestions from tech writers and scholars on Twitter and whittled them down to this core group.”
Concerning Professor Marvin’s book, an innovative model for the cultural history of the popular reception of technology, the editors wrote: “History doesn't repeat nor does it always rhyme, but different elements of society have responded to new technologies in some consistent ways. Carolyn Marvin’s spectacular 1988 treatment of the rise of the telephone and the electric light late in the 19th century teaches us many lessons. Radical groups have seen great potential in new technologies, but the more conservative parts of society have tended to keep their usage from overturning the existing social order. We’ve tended to see the future “as a fancier version of the present.” With finely drawn portraits of a society undergoing the thrills and strains of a massive change, Marvin helps us see that our times are not unprecedented—but that this legacy is actually helpful. We can compare our technological transformation with those of the past to find new insights about how and what’s happening in the here and now.”
Other books on the list include Arnold Toynbee’s Lectures on the Industrial Revolution, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Leo Marx”s The Machine in the Garden, Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, and Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics.