James Thornton Harris is a contributing editor to the History News Network. For more information, see www.JamesThorntonHarris.com.
Tom Standage is the author of six history books, including A story of the world in 6 glasses, The Victorian Internet (a history of telegraphy) and An edible history of humanity. His latest book, A brief history of the movement, traces the development of personal transport, from the introduction of the wheel (around 3500 BC) to the 21stst century developments in electric cars, autonomous vehicles and services like Uber.
In addition to writing his books, Standage, who lives in London, is Associate Editor of The Economist. HNN spoke with Standage about his take on technology, writing history, and the global push to move to electric vehicles.
Q. Your previous books, including The Victorian Internet and A story of the world in six glasses focused on new technologies as drivers of societal change. Your stories differ from more traditional historical narratives that place more emphasis on political change (eg, a new prime minister or president). Do you think technological change is undervalued in most of the traditional stories of European and North American nations?
Yeah, I think it’s undervalued. My particular interest is the social impact of technology and the way people react to it. So it’s a form of social history, with a focus on how adoption of technology can bring about bottom-up change. In this sense, it is in a way an antidote to the top-down view of the âgreat manâ of history. But then there is the danger of falling into the trap of technological determinism: the idea that technology is the only thing that drives societal change. In my work, I try to show the interplay between “technological push” and “societal pull” – between what new technologies can offer and what people actually want – because new things don’t take root. only if they respond to a real need or align with a wider societal change. So I think you need to consider both the technology and the prevailing social and political environment, rather than focusing on one or the other.
Q. Your new book, A brief history of the movement, begins with the development of the wheel around 3500 BCE and continues through contemporary automobiles. You limit your account to “personal transportation”, including horse, carriages and the rise of the automobile. You have ignored sea and air transport. Why did you target your focus?
I’m especially interested in the impact of the automobile and how it reshaped the world in the 20e century. To understand why the automobile was adopted so quickly, especially in the United States, it is important to understand the context in which it arose and the earlier development of wheeled vehicles such as cars, steam trains, and cars. bikes. The car promised to combine their best elements: it offered the speed of a train, but could travel on existing roads like a horse-drawn vehicle, but also allowed personal freedom for spontaneous movements, like a bicycle. We can’t understand what happened with the car, and what might happen next, if we look at these earlier technologies. Hence my interest in wheeled vehicles, and why I ignored maritime and air transport.
Q. You are currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Economist. How do you reconcile that with writing books? Are your journalistic functions complementary to your literary research?
I find they fit together very well. In my work as a journalist, I focus on future trends and extreme cases where we can see aspects of the future in the present. As an author, I focus on the patterns of history and what they can tell us about the present and the future. The two approaches are therefore very complementary. I have less time than before to write books, so the gap between my books keeps getting bigger. It’s been up to eight years now, when my first three books have appeared in the space of five years.
Q. Unlike many academic historians who limit their writings to past events, you are not afraid to make predictions about the future. In a chapter called âThe Road Aheadâ you discuss the concept of âadvanced carâ and state that âenthusiasm for (personal ownership) of cars is finally waningâ. You go on to state that the coronavirus pandemic has discouraged the use of public transport, but that it is “unlikely to herald a global boom in car sales.” This did not turn out to be the case. In New York State in 2020, car registrations are up 18% from 2019. Why has this happened and do you still think the public’s desire to own cars will decrease at the to come up ?
Yes, I think the increase in driving in the era of the pandemic, which is largely due to an understandable reluctance to use public transport, will prove to be temporary, and in the medium term people will drive less, no more, because more people are spending more time working from home. The longer-term trends are very clear: The number of kilometers driven per vehicle per person each year is declining, even in the United States, where both peaked in 2004. The fraction of people with a driver’s license is declining in all age groups. Owning a car is becoming more expensive and less convenient, and alternatives to owning a car, at least for people who live in cities, are becoming more and more attractive as smartphones allow us to combine public transport, VTC, bicycle rental, etc. an âinternet of movementâ. Smartphones can also directly replace the use of the car for shopping, meeting friends, going out to eat, etc. Cars won’t go away, but owning a car will, I think, make less sense for many people in the future.
Q. In the United States, President Biden announced the goal that 50% of all new cars sold by 2030 will be electric vehicles. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set himself a more ambitious target: to ban the sale of all gasoline and diesel cars by 2030. Is that a valid target and do you think the UK can reach it?
Absolutely yes. Electric vehicle sales have grown from nowhere five years ago to around 10% of vehicles sold in Britain in 2021, and 16% if you include plug-in hybrids. I bought a plug-in hybrid myself last year, with only 40 miles of battery range, so it’s basically an electric car, except on long trips out of town. The big challenge, both in Britain and America, and even elsewhere, is to improve the infrastructure so that there are enough charging points. This is why I did not buy a pure EV: for long journeys, finding a charging station is very uncertain. I always look for one when I’m in another city, and often times they’re busy, or not working, or not compatible with the charging networks I belong to. This area needs massive investment, and it will create jobs, so this is something politicians are looking at on both sides of the Atlantic.
Q. Can you share with HNN readers any new projects you are working on?
I always like to have something to cook, so to speak, and lately I’ve been digging into another area of ââinterest, which is the scientific revolution of the 1660s, and its relationship to the history of medicine. At the time, medicine was extremely unscientific, based on the ancient theory of moods, and the theory of germs only prevailed for two centuries. So I dug this and I suspect there might be a book somewhere. But, at this rate, not until around 2031!