From Bitcoin to Coffee Beans: How We Outgrew Our Allergy to Innovation

Tech scholar Calestous Juma on what disruption really means.

Samantha Bansil
Dec 11, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo courtesy of PIRO4d via Pixabay

Nowadays, the world appears to be swept up in the throes of newness. Every month a new app enters the marketplace, promising to upend everything — from how you order takeout to the way you find love. Investors and Average Joes alike inject billions of hard-earned cash into fledgling IPOs, all for fear of missing out on the Next Big Thing.

Newness is so now ubiquitous that we forget it wasn’t always this way. Historically, emerging technologies have been met with distrust and resistance across all sectors of society. Renown innovation scholar Calestous Juma explores the nature of technological resistance in his book Innovation and its Enemies (2016).

Dr. Juma’s last work, published in 2016

Resisting Innovation

Kenyan-born scholar and Harvard professor Calestous Juma was known for his contributions to the fields of science, technology, and sustainable development. He dedicated a large part of his career to finding new ways to transform agriculture and solve Africa’s problem of food security.

Despite the respect he gained on the international stage, Juma’s efforts were not without controversy. His advocacy for genetically modified crops landed him in the middle of a decades’ long debate that persists to this day.

The backlash Juma faced on GMOs colored the way he approached technological solutions. Its influence can be seen in every chapter of his book Innovation and Its Enemies. A series of lessons on how society responds to change, his book serves as a guidebook for policymakers struggling to navigate the current technological revolution.

Historical Blueprints for Today’s Problems

I saw Dr. Juma once as an undergraduate student at Boston University. Of all the speakers who came to campus, I remember him the most. Known for his captivating presence and “boisterous laughter,” Juma had a talent for storytelling that most academics simply cannot match.

Throughout the book, he weaves together extraordinarily detailed narratives on everything from the impact of the printing press to the Luddite Rebellion. He takes us on a historical journey of disruptive technologies, beginning with the introduction of coffee in the 16th century and ending with more recent innovations like genetically engineered salmon.

Each case study reminds us that what is now commonplace was once new, and each new technology had to fight an upstream battle against ironclad norms and vested interests to get to where it is today.

Now the norm, recorded music was once considered musicians’ greatest threat. Photo courtesy of freeillustrated via Pixabay.

On Country and Context

Openness toward innovation, Dr. Juma argues, is largely a product of context and social learning. It varies from country to country, particularly when it comes to the technology’s perceived risks. As Juma cleverly puts it:

In the United States products are safe until proven risky.
In France products are risky until proven safe.
In the United Kingdom products are risky even when proven safe.
In India products are safe even when proven risky.
In Canada products are neither safe nor risky.
In Japan products are either safe or risky.
In Brazil products are both safe and risky.
In sub-Saharan Africa products are risky even if they do not exist.

He cites transgenic crops and mobile phones as two examples of technologies that were introduced around the same time — but with varying success. While some of us can hardly go a few minutes without reaching for our phones, Europe and Africa remain wary of GMOs (as opposed to more open countries like the United States).

No matter the context, new technologies are always thrown into conflict with the existing incumbents. Juma reminds us that technology is a messy business, entangled with politics and culture and stakeholder interests. In such a complicated environment, convincing societies to welcome change has not been easy.

Innovation vs. Incumbency

Like many other innovation scholars, Calestous Juma frames his arguments in terms of Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction: the idea that technology is in constant evolution, with each new invention bringing about the demise of its predecessor with little regard for any casualties incurred along the way.

According to Juma, societal resistance is about more than the technology. Behind our fear of change lies the fear of loss, from loss of identity to the more tangible loss of livelihood. Such was the case of the Luddite textile workers in England, who opposed the use of power looms and spinning frames. Despite their protests, mechanization would go on to wipe out countless jobs throughout the 1800s.

The same fear struck a chord with musicians in the early 20th century, who feared the negative effect recorded music would have on the demand for live performance. Such concerns are echoed in the growing anxieties over the automation of work today.

New Technology and Social Change

Juma emphasizes innovation’s Herculean power to tear down existing institutions and restructure society. For this reason, coffee, which spurred novel grinding and brewing techniques as well as new social customs, faced enormous difficulty spreading across Europe and the Middle East.

For this strange new beverage gave rise to coffeehouses. Now the bastion of premium roasts and Millennial Hipsterdom, coffeehouses originated as public spaces where individuals could congregate and exchange ideas. These ideas were seen as a threat to religious authorities, resulting in a universal ban on coffee in cities like Mecca.

Coffee: once vilified, now revered. Photo courtesy of pixel2013 via Pixabay.

The Incumbents’ Playbook

Bans were just one way incumbents sought to keep newcomers off the market. Juma discusses their various strategies to reassert their dominance, which included attacking emerging technologies on the basis of negative connotations and public safety.

Following the rise of margarine consumption the late 1800s, the growing dairy lobby in the U.S. launched a smear campaign to squash the competing product. Through public education and false advertising, they framed margarine as “cheap,” “manufactured,” and even “immoral” — in stark contrast to butter, which was seen as “pure” and “pastoral.”

The father of electricity Thomas Edison used a similar approach to discredit alternating current (AC), developed by his rival George Westinghouse. Edison knew that he could not definitively derail AC, which was by far superior to his direct current (DC) technology. So he delayed widespread acceptance of alternating current, using his reputation as the leading electricity authority to paint AC as dangerous and unwieldy.

Juma uses the dairy lobby and Thomas Edison to illustrate how vested interests pull legislative strings to manipulate public opinion and restrict competing products. The same tactics are currently used by incumbents to shape the political discourse around issues like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

What challenges will the future bring? Photo courtesy of geralt via Pixabay.

On Regulating the Wheel

If anything, Calestous Juma reminds us of the exceptionality of our times. With shorter innovation cycles and faster adoption rates, technological change only seems to pick up the pace with no endpoint in sight.

Our sluggish institutions can hardly keep up — but they have no choice. Impending challenges like mass unemployment and climate change require new laws, proactive solutions, and international cooperation.

Juma therefore calls on policymakers to leverage the power of technology to meet these challenges. He calls for political courage and decisive leadership, but fails to give more concrete examples as to what that entails.

However, he does argue for the coexistence between incumbent and new technologies. Today, we use the word “disruption” to describe the complete overthrow of incumbent technologies. Historically, this has not been the case. According to Juma, “technology blending” is one viable way to appease social tensions and establish inclusive innovation.

Calestous Juma: The Anti-Luddite

Dr. Juma succumbed to illness just one year ago in December 2017. He remained a technology optimist until the end, arguing for openness, adaptability, and experimentation in the policy sphere.

Enemies of innovation demonize new technology by romanticizing the past — but this dichotomy does not serve our needs. Our changing world will require both the new and the old, as well as imagination on the part of policymakers to look beyond comfortable patterns and incremental change.

Above all else, Juma makes it clear that we have only one choice: action. Only one direction: forward.

With its lessons from the past and insights for the future, Innovation and Its Enemies is a landmark work on technology policy — a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of innovation and where we can go from here.

This review was written for the course History of Technology Revolution at Sciences Po Paris. The course is part of the Digital & New Technology policy stream and is taught by Laurène Tran, Besiana Balla, and Nicolas Colin.

Samantha Bansil

Written by

Recovering clickbait writer | Expat | Tech policy student @SciencesPo

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