Why do people oppose innovations?

Calestous Juma of Harvard’s Kennedy School has written this book: Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.

He summarises the book findings here. The crux is why do people oppose innovations?It is simple, to avoid going out of business:

Technological innovation is often extolled for its power to overcome major development challenges, fuel economic growth, and propel societies forward. Yet innovations frequently face high barriers to implementation, with governments sometimes banning new technologies outright – even those that could bring far-reaching benefits.

Consider the printing press. Among other things, the new technology was a boon to world religions, which suddenly had an efficient means of reproducing and disseminating sacred texts. Yet the Ottoman Empire forbade the printing of the Koran for nearly 400 years. In 1515, Sultan Selim I is said to have decreed that “occupying oneself with the science of printing was punishable by death.”

Why oppose such a beneficial technology? As I argue in my book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, the 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.

By banning the printing of the Koran, 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; after all, beginning in 1727, they did allow non-religious texts to be printed, despite protests by calligraphers, who responded to the edict by putting their inkstands and pencils in coffins and marching to the High Porte in Istanbul.

Religious knowledge was a different matter. It 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.

There was opposition to coffee, margarine, tractors and so on..

People oppose knowingly not out of ignorance:

People almost never reject technological progress out of sheer ignorance. 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.

Avoiding barriers to technological progress requires understanding and addressing its downsides. For example, as machines become increasingly capable, robots are replacing a growing number of workers. It will not be long before those robots will be able not only to perform more complex tasks, but also to learn faster than workers can be trained. The notion that some workers will not go the way of the draft animal is irrational.

But if we recognize these losses and address them head-on, we can avoid a backlash against potentially beneficial technological innovations, including advances in robotics. The key will be to focus on “inclusive innovation,” ensuring that 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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