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Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies

Author(s):Juma, Calestous
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (January 2017)

Calestous Juma, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xii + 416 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-046703-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Department of Economics, Northwestern University.

Technological progress is, by general consensus, the chief engine of modern economic growth. It is also an untidy and highly non-linear historical process. Any notion that in the real world some kind of good-ideas-drive-out-bad-ideas rule obtains should be abandoned from the outset. Many old and bad ideas are retained for many years, even centuries, and many good ideas are rejected, resisted, maligned, and at times abandoned. In 1679, William Petty, the founder of political economy, wrote that “when a new invention is first propounded, in the beginning every man objects, and the poor inventor runs the gantloop of all petulent wits … not one [inventor] of a hundred outlives this torture … and moreover, this commonly is so long a doing that the poor inventor is either dead or disabled by the debts contracted to pursue his design” (The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, Charles Henry Hull, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1899, Vol. 1, p. 74).

In the interest of full disclosure: the title of Calestous Juma’s engaging and informed book is identical to the title of a paper written by this reviewer and published in 2000 and elaborated upon in my Gifts of Athena (2002). Juma graciously acknowledges this in the first footnote to the book. There is no question that he has taken the idea a great deal further, yet it is written very much in the same spirit. Resistance to new technology has three major origins. First, there are the incumbents who fear a threat to the stream of rents generated by their physical capital, human capital, market power, or political influence. Innovation inevitably disrupt such rents. Second, there is the concern about broader repercussions: innovations have unintended ripple effects on a host of social and political variables that may generate additional costs and pain to people even if they themselves have no direct say over whether to adopt the innovation. And beyond that there is risk- and loss-aversion, the often well-founded fear than a new technique may have unanticipated and unknowable consequences. These three motives often merge and create powerful forces that use political power and persuasion to thwart innovations. As a result, technological progress does not follow a linear and neat trajectory. It is, as social constructionists have been trying to tell us for decades, a profoundly political process.

As the late Nathan Rosenberg pointed out in a classic essay entitled “Uncertainty and Technological Change,” by definition innovation is a journey into the unknown. The unforeseen and unintended consequences could be negative, making what seemed at the time to be an improvement actually welfare-reducing. The classic case of reducing engine-knock by adding lead to gasoline in the 1920s with horrid consequences that only now are becoming fully known stands as a classic example, but many others come to mind. Knowing this has biased the popular view of innovations — and various organizations have played upon these fears. Yet it is striking that the bias is not distributed uniformly: while transgenic salmon is still not available to consumers despite the complete absence of any evidence of harmful effects, cellular phones and GPS have spread like wildfire, perhaps because they were able to align themselves with the forces of globalization.

In a series of fascinating case studies arranged in separate chapters, Juma illustrates these principles over and over again. The chapters have clever titles (my favorite is the one on the fierce and persistent resistance of the American dairy lobby to margarine, entitled “smear campaigns”) and are well-written and documented. A few of them deal with well-known cases, such as the resistance of Moslem society to the printing press and the struggle of European farm lobbies and environmentalists against transgenic crops. Others concern little-known episodes, such as the tale of AquaBounty, an aquaculture firm founded by Elliott Entis, which ingeniously devised a slightly genetically-altered salmon that matures in half the time of regular salmon. The technique offers considerable cost savings and environmental advantages, yet has no discernible negative side effects. Yet the idea was fought tooth and nail by well-meaning but misguided environmentalists as well as salmon fishers, who worried about competition and denounced Entis’s idea using inflammatory terms such as “Frankenfish.” The product is still not available and environmentally correct chain stores such as Whole Foods have already announced they will not carry it. Yet with fishery depletion one of the major environmental disasters looming, such techniques are exactly what is needed.

Juma is at his most eloquent and informative in his chapter on transgenic crops. The use of such crops, as he points out, is not only a way to increase agricultural productivity but also environmentally responsible, as it leads to lower use of pesticides and fertilizer. Yet it is ironically opposed by a coalition of environmentalists that led to the formulation of the infamous Cartagena protocols of 2000. As he points out, the main thrust of this emblematic manifestation of resistance to transgenic crops, known as the “precautionary principle,” was to reverse the burden of proof: the originator of the biological innovation had to show it was harmless before it could be marketed — basically an impossible task. As he stresses over and over again, the logical error of those driven by loss- or risk-aversion is to assume that the status quo is risk-free.

One could quibble about some of Juma’s decisions to include certain episodes and not others. The struggle between Edison’s DC and Westinghouse’s AC (the “war of the currents”) is not really a case of “resistance to innovation” as much as a struggle between two incompatible new network standards. Most readers will be disappointed that there is no chapter on the long and fascinating history of popular resistance to nuclear power, one of the paradigmatic cases of technological conservatism that is still with us. This reviewer would have liked more discussion of the Luddites — the resistance movement that gave the phenomenon its name — as well as the fanatical resistance to medical innovations such as the anti-vaccination campaigns conducted by certain groups mostly affiliated with Christian and Muslim radical philosophy. Religious authorities, whose beliefs are often based on “not-playing-God,” get little attention despite their record of resisting many new ideas. To economic historians, the absence of much discussion of workers’ resistance based on the fear of technological unemployment and dystopian scenarios in the Player Piano mode seems a bit disappointing, as this seems to be a main concern of modern-day critics of innovation, such as Jeremy Rifkin, as well as more serious academics. The cost of innovation in terms of accelerated depreciation of human capital should have been stressed a bit more. Yet these minor quibbles do not detract from the value of a timely and insightful book.

In the end, perhaps the surprising thing is not that there has been so much resistance to technological progress, but that humanity has actually been able to overcome most of it. For much of human history, the heavy hand of conservatism and neophobia (what Timur Kuran has called the “tenacious past”), suppressed intellectual innovators of all kinds, condemning many past societies to a fate of virtual technological stasis. When reactionary forces were weakened in Europe after 1500, innovation slowly found its way to the surface, but even then it had to struggle against opponents every inch of the way. In that sense our globalized age must consider itself lucky. While some societies may try to resist certain innovations, original and creative minds can always go offshore and develop their ideas in more hospitable places. In the end, if an idea is truly superior, it will catch on, if with a disastrous delay. After all, Islamic countries in the end overcame their reluctance to the printing press (in no small part thanks to a Hungarian-born convert to Islam named Ibrahim Muteferrika, as Juma recounts). Yet the absence of printing and inexpensive books in Arabic or Turkish for centuries has had inestimably deleterious consequences for the intellectual and political development of the Middle East. As Juma stresses repeatedly, doing nothing is risky too, especially if your competitors storm ahead.

Joel Mokyr is the author of A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII