Enemies of Innovation

Professor Calestous Juma, a Kenyan at Harvard, details a history of resistance to technological innovation: from the printing press to genetically modified food, resistance is rarely irrational.

By Calestous Juma | July 1, 2016

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.

Of course, the erection of barriers to technological innovation does not always start with the government. Those with a vested interest in the status quo may push their governments to impose bans. They may do so through protest, as the Ottoman calligraphers did, and as Irish opponents of genetically modified potatoes did in 2002, by marching in Dublin to express their opposition to the “death of good food.”

Opponents of new technologies may also employ slander, misinformation, and even demonization – an approach that has certainly succeeded in the past. In 1674, English women issued a petition against coffee, alleging that it caused sterility and thus should be consumed only by people over 60 – a very small market at the time. The following year, King Charles II ordered the suppression of coffeehouses, though he was probably motivated more by the desire to protect the market share of local beverages, such as alcoholic drinks and then-newly introduced tea, than by the infertility rumors.

In the 1800s, the American dairy industry spearheaded a similar misinformation campaign about margarine, claiming that it caused sterility, stunted growth, and male baldness. Derided as “bull butter,” opponents claimed that margarine contained “diseased and putrid beef, dead horses, dead hogs, dead dogs, mad dogs, and downed sheep.”

In response, the federal government introduced new restrictions on margarine, covering everything from labeling (as with genetically modified foods today), the use of artificial coloring, and interstate movement. New taxes reinforced butter’s primacy further. In 1886, a Wisconsin congressman declared outright his “intent to destroy the manufacture of the noxious compound by taxing it out of existence.”

About the author

Leave a Reply