Innovation and Its Enemies

Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has a recent article based on his new Oxford-published book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. He explains,

[T]he answer is not simply that people are afraid of the unknown. Rather, resistance to technological progress is usually rooted in the fear that disruption of the status quo might bring losses in employment, income, power, and identity. Governments often end up deciding that it would be easier to prohibit the new technology than to adapt to it.

He uses the example of the Ottoman Empire forbidding the printing of the Koran for nearly 400 years. “By banning the printing of the Koran,” he writes, “Ottoman leaders delayed employment losses for scribes and calligraphers (many of whom were women who were glorified for their mastery of the art). But protecting employment was not their main motivation…[Religious knowledge] was both the glue that held society together and a pillar of political power, so maintaining a monopoly over the dissemination of that knowledge was critical to maintaining the authority of Ottoman leaders. They feared going the way of the Catholic pope, who lost considerable authority during the Protestant Reformation, when the printing press played a key role in spreading new ideas to the faithful.”

The list goes on, from English women petitioning against coffee in 1674 to American dairy farmers spreading misinformation about margarine in the 1800s to the resistance to tractors in the early 1900s. “People almost never reject technological progress out of sheer ignorance,” Juma concludes. “Rather, they fight to protect their own interests and livelihoods, whether that be operating a dairy farm or running a government. As we continually attempt to apply new technologies to improve human and environmental wellbeing, this distinction is vital.” The key in Juma’s mind is “inclusive innovation,” which seeks to help “those who are likely to lose from the displacement of old technologies are given ample opportunity to benefit from new ones. Only then can we make the most of human creativity.”

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