How Human Nature Is Holding Back Technology


Innovation has been resisted for centuries. From refrigeration to margarine, recorded music and, more recently, robotics and artificial intelligence, new technologies face opposition by people. In a newly released book, Professor Calestous Juma of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs chronicles the history of this opposition to change over 600 years. The Conversation Africa’s Samantha Spooner asked Juma about his main findings.

Your study tracks resistance to new technologies and innovations. What were the main drivers of this resistance?

The main driving force behind the cases of resistance to new technologies that I address in the book is the perception of loss. People do not oppose technologies simply because they are new or because they are ignorant. They resist loss. The loss can be in the form of income, identity, worldview or power.

The key point here is that resistance to new technologies is driven by perceptions, not actual evidence. The perception of loss can be amplified by factors such as social inequity. For example, resistance to new technologies is intensified by the perception that its benefits are likely to accrue to a small section of society while the risks could affect a wider section of society.

Similarly, the perception that new technologies could lead to immediate impacts while the benefits will be realised in the long run tends to intensify opposition. Providing scientific evidence as a way to address the opposition may intensify the resistance if it doesn’t address the underlying factors related to loss.

What form did the resistance take?

The resistance takes many forms, which include delaying adoption, seeking additional information on the risks and benefits of new technologies, or engaging in outright opposition. In cases involving outright opposition, political tactics are usually used. This often involves seeking to expand the base for opposition through recruitment campaigns. In these cases the end tends to justify the means, so it is not uncommon to see opponents rely on demonisation, misinformation, downright lies and innuendo.

Legal means have often been used to block the spread of new technologies. This takes the form of demands to prove that new products are safe. As was done in the case of margarine in the US, laws related to taxation, labelling, production and sale are introduced, but with the intent of blocking the product. There are also many examples where research facilities have been vandalised as a way to prevent the generation of information that could be used to approve new products.

Can you give examples of interactions between new technologies and African cultures?

Cultures are dynamic and co-evolve with new technologies, as has been shown in the case of mobile phones in Africa. Early concerns that mobile phones could cause cancer waned as the benefits of the technology became more evident. Today mobile phones have become part of the culture.

Transgenic crops, however, continue to be challenged across Africa, partly because of theperceived risks that they create for incumbent farming systems. Adoption of these crops is selective, reflecting the slow pace at which agricultural systems change. Other examples of tensions between technology and incumbent agriculture include opposition to the adoption ofmechanical harvesting of tea in Kenya. Another area of technological anxiety includesconflict between traditional and Uber drivers, also in Kenya.

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Why is resistance to change a problem?

Resistance to innovation is a problem because it may deny society the opportunity to use new technologies to address a variety of economic, environmental and governance challenges. This is why it is important for society to have a better understanding of the sources of opposition to technology rather than rely on clichés such as “resistance is futile” or a dismissive reference to Luddites.

There is a paradox of mounting economic and ecological challenges and accelerating technological advancement. This would suggest that humanity has more opportunities to address the challenges using new technologies. However, the rate of change is now manifestly so rapid that it is creating technological anxiety. This could lead to low rates of technology adoption and general disenchantment with innovation.

There is general disquiet over emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, gene editing, robotics, drones and 3D printing. This is mainly because the potential impact of these technologies is likely to be qualitatively different from historical experiences when large sections of society had sufficient time to adjust to change.

Today machines can learn to perform certain functions faster than we retrain the affected workers. This type of scenario is largely unprecedented and technologies will need to be governed differently.

Is resistance to innovation today as strong as it was, say, 100 years ago?

The dynamics of resistance to innovation have hardly changed over the 600 years that my book covers. This is partly because human nature has not changed over that period. Even more important is the fact that uncertainty, which is a key trigger of public controversy, is only compounded by technological advancement and diversity.

What is different, however, is that the pace of advancement is manifestly rapid and that we now live in a world where the effects of new technologies are more manifest. Equally important is the fact that neoliberal ideologies have helped to create a world in which inequality is accepted and supported by business models that glorify social disruption. These developments are no good for innovation.

What innovations are being resisted today that could have a dramatic effect in addressing major global challenges such as poverty and climate change?

In the 1980s I did my graduate studies on renewable energy. My MSc thesis at the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex was on solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. Then the cost of PV was about US$20 per kilowatt hour. Today the price is about 25 US cents. With this drop we have also seen resistance to renewable energy from the fossil fuel industry. Such opposition could compromise our ability to address climate change.

Another important area is artificial intelligence, which will affect every aspect of human life, including the manufacture of top hats and, in the near future, the generation of cartoons. Leading technologists and scientists such as Bill Gates and Martin Rees at Cambridge University are sounding their caution and urging society to reflect deeply about the implications of such technologies.

The point here is not to oppose the technology but to find a new modus vivendi that reflects contemporary times.


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