Innovation and its Enemies

Book Review:

Innovation and Its Enemies Why People Resist New Technologies

by Calestous Juma
OUP 2016 429pp

We all know about the Luddites, the most famous of activists who, between 1811 and 1816, took direct action against new weaving machines that were going to replace their jobs, but as Harvard Professor Calestous Juma shows in this extremely well researched book, the history of opposition to new technology perceived as threatening to the status quo goes much further back, and has taken many surprising forms. New technologies have often been opposed despite the benefits they may confer, not just because of the direct threat to existing jobs and technologies, but also as a result of the challenge they pose to broader issues of social and moral values. In providing this survey, he hopes to show how proponents of innovation need to understand carefully the underlying causes of such opposition, and draws useful lessons as to how the introduction of new and potentially disruptive technologies might be smoothed.

Take the printing press for example. In the Islamic world, the ability to reproduce multiple versions of the Koran which were identical was not just a threat to the social standing of those who had responsibility for transmitting the sacred text orally, but also challenged the oral tradition of memory and repetition which was itself seen as part of the process of worship. Only later was the advantages of spreading the faith through the printed word accepted as a sufficient advantage to allow printing.

Another example considered is that of coffee, which was opposed and met with suspicion, not just since it was a direct competitor with the existing beverage of beer, but because coffee houses provided a new  opportunity for political gossip and organisation.

A common strategy for incumbent industries that might feel directly threatened is the systematic demonisation of the innovation. Coffee was claimed to cause madness and sterility; in a foretaste of contemporary obsessions with the “natural”, margarine- which was originally developed to make up for shortages of butter in a rising population-  was associated with “lower standards” and was “stigmatized as an imposter delivering new dangers and an artificiality that corrupted ‘natural good food.'”

These are methods that continue to surround genetically engineered food, demonised shamelessly by opponents who have claimed it causes everything from cancer to farmer suicides to infertility and pretty much anything else bad that can be imagined. Absence of any kind of evidence for such claims is besides the point: the mere suggestion of risk about something new is enough in many cases to slow its progress and persuade people to err on the side of caution, in this case by paying more for Organic food.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on the introduction of electricity in New York in the mid-19th Century. Edison was hoping for early adoption of his system based on DC, even though he new it was inferior to Westinghouse’s AC system (which did ultimately see general adoption). But he needed to buy himself time to get out of the DC market, so he employed every kind of  negative advertising imaginable, even producing, garishly, publicity directly aimed at linking DC with the first executions by electricity- electrocution.

Conspicuous by its (almost) complete absence from the book is nuclear power. Juma does allude to it briefly in his conclusions, showing how merely providing more information about the relative safety of different energy sources is not necessarily enough to sway public opinion, but makes a rare slip-up when discussing obstacles to addressing climate change by suggesting that renewable energy – wind and solar- have been held-up largely through obstruction by fossil fuel interests. While this may be partly true, a much bigger factor is simply that renewables are many times less energy-dense, and have the problem of intermittency. A more interesting aspect of this story would be to examine why so many advocates of clean energy still resolutely oppose nuclear power, the cleanest and most energy-dense source of all. Fracking would have made another fascinating chapter.

Juma shows how many things have to come together for the smooth introduction of new technologies. Proper regulation needs to be in place with a sufficiently engaged and independent oversight bodies. The deficiency model  is being challenged, and it is now seen not to enough to simply provide more information- public trust is a key concern and needs to be taken seriously. Science must become more democratic, as the public will not simply accept unquestioningly its dictats. Innovation can and does lead to serious disruption in labour markets and can undermine established social networks, and these issues need to be foreseen and allowed for. Perhaps fingering some of the more enthusiastic voices taking on the likes of Vandana Shiva and the anti-GMO brigade, Juma counsels against so much focus on what may ultimately be a small but vocal minority of skeptics, suggesting that energy may be better spent on more general educational campaigns to win over the silent majority who ultimately will make decisions.

An important and stimulating book that should be widely read.