The Machine Age: An Idea, a History, a Warning by Robert Skidelsky - review by David Edgerton

David Edgerton

Human Says No

The Machine Age: An Idea, a History, a Warning


Allen Lane 373pp £25

Robert Skidelsky is a distinguished economic and political historian whose first books were published in the 1960s. Many decades (and volumes) later, he has turned to giving us a warning from history about the dangers not only of techno-hype but also of overreliance on standard ways of understanding and interacting with machines. It is an attempt to empower criticism of hubristic boosters of technology. That is certainly needed.

Yet this is not a book about machines, but about books. It is best characterised as a conversation with a collection of philosophical, literary and economic greats, from Plato and Aristotle through Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley to Marx and Keynes. Along the way Skidelsky not only gives (very) potted accounts of their books but also adds ex cathedra criticisms. We have the perspectives of leading thinkers on the rise of capitalism, the Enlightenment, reason, modernity, the West and the rest, and so on. But the problem is that most of the books discussed are not about machines at all, and where machines are dealt with in them, this aspect seems to be played down.

This, then, is neither a history of the machine nor a history of how machines have been thought about. Nor is it particularly insightful about the books the author has chosen to discuss. Yet Skidelsky is trying to say something about an issue he clearly believes is important: the

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