“When a new invention is first propounded in the beginning every man objects and the poor inventor runs the gauntloop of all petulant wits.” said William Petty in 1662.
You may have noticed that I have a fondness for quotes, it is not because I think quoting famous people gives my message more authority and makes it less open to criticism, but rather I think it is fair that just because you are dead you not should be left out of the conversation today.
I think even those who have died should have an opportunity to have their say in our conversations. 🙂
Innovation is a source of prosperity, as Efosa Ojomo [he is alive and well] would always say in his book Prosperity Paradox, but yet innovation is often unpopular.
The irony about humanity is that is we want progress, but we don’t like change.
When coffee was first introduced to the world from Ethiopia, Africa, it was roasted beans that resulted in a stimulating drink.
When coffee became popular resulting in a rapid number of coffee shops and cafes opening in Europe and Middle East, it was something that was rejected in certain quarters.
As coffee spread through Arabia, Turkey and Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, it encountered fierce opposition and was eventually banned.
In Arabia, coffee shops were closed, coffee beans were burned, and anyone who was caught with coffee was beaten.
In the 16th and 17th century, coffee was repeatedly outlawed by religious and political leaders in Cairo, Istanbul and parts of Europe as it spread north from Ethiopia and Yemen.
Their objection was ostensibly to its “intoxicating” qualities or on some spurious religious ground, but the real motivation was usually to ban coffee-houses’ alarming tendency to encourage the free exchange of ideas.
King Charles II sought to close down all coffee houses explicitly because he did not like people sitting “half the day” in them “insinuating into the ears of people a prejudice against” rulers. He would have hated Starbucks.
In other parts of Europe, the banning of coffee failed. In fact, providing coffee in your house became law, to a point where if a man fails to provide coffee to his wife, that was grounds [grown] for divorce.
But why was coffee banned? What was so wrong about it, that it had to be banned?
It was banned mainly because coffee shops were places of gossip and therefore potential sedition, and those in power fear that coffee could to be a stimulant that results in revolutions.
This [fear by those in power] is but one characteristic of opposition to innovation.
Other characteristics are: an appeal to safety [it is not good for your health], a degree of self-interest among vested interests [we might lose business if coffee is allowed], and a paranoia among the powerful [it might drive uprisings].
These are similar reasons you hear when certain countries ban social media.
The same reasons are used when resisting the banning of coal and fossil fuels because they are harmful to the climate.
In his book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, Calestous Juma, share similar stories of resistance to innovation.
The margarine is another innovation that was rejected. Margarine was invented in France in 1969 in response to Napoleon III’s call for a cheap alternative to butter for French workers and for his armies in the Franco-Prussian war.
Margarine was subjected to a decade long of smear campaigns [Prof Juma’s pun] from the American dairy companies.
Even Mark Twain denounced margarine.
Margarine was called an abomination, state legislators passed laws increasing taxes on margarine in an effort to make it inaccessible to people, it was even banned in about 2/3 of American states on health grounds.
Professor Juma chronicles how cab drivers in London furiously opposed the introduction of the umbrella, how doctors refused the use of anesthesia during childbirth, how musician unions temporarily prevented the playing of recorded music on the radio, how the horse association of America for many years fought against the tractor, how the natural ice harvesting industry frightened people with scares about the safety of refrigerators.
I wrote about when Sam Panopoulos experimented with putting pineapple on pizza calling it Hawaiian pizza, he riled up Italians, specifically in Naples, where the pizza originated from. They were not so happy with his innovation.
There will always be a backlash against any new technology, usually driven partly by vested interest, disguised as precautionary principle.
When Alexander Graham Bell introduced his telephone in March 1876, for the first time, you could talk in real time to someone blocks or kilometers away.
Instead of embracing this innovation, social critics began to wonder: “Was all this phone chatter good for us? Was it somehow a lesser form of communication than what had come before?”
“Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” wondered the Knights of Columbus in a 1926 meeting.
“Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”
“Wouldn’t it create Too Much Information?”
“We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” a London writer moaned in 1897.
Others we scared that the telephone made life to move to fast, because people will start demanding instant reactions.
“The use of the telephone gives little room for reflection,” wrote a British newspaper in 1899.
“It does not improve the temper, and it engenders a feverishness in the ordinary concerns of life which does not make for domestic happiness and comfort.”
On and on and on, went the complains against the telephone.
The thing about innovation is that it is going to upset someone. If you are not upsetting anyone you are not innovating enough.
Short-term opposition to change is very strong among incumbent industries and interest groups, who often feel they have the most to lose.
Your innovation will be met with resistance using two weapons: demonisation and delay.
Making claims of danger [demonise] about your innovation and demanding delay to implementation with the hope that the innovator or potential investors will lose faith.
The same reasons are given for resisting vaccines against viruses, for resisting to stop the use of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, for resisting the use uber and other hauling services, for resisting the use of contraceptions for birth control, for resisting the use of cannabis for health reasons, etc.
Humanity has made amazing strides through innovation, we have increased life expectancy, we are able to feed more people more easily and cheaply than ever before, precisely because we broke with those old, “natural” traditions.
Unfortunately, many vested interests and even a few academics today still employ the same tactics and myths to oppose new forms of technological change.
As an innovator, the fact that your innovation is resisted is no reason to despair, in fact it is the reason to persists.
As Professor Calestous Juma says:
“The quickest way to find out who your enemies are is to try doing something new.”
Innovation is critical to the solution of domestic and global problems, and any risks and social consequences of innovation [the dangers of AI as raised by Elon Musk, or privacy of information as revealed by Cambridge Analytica] should be fully ventilated and corrective measures taken.
Innovation is how we move the world forward.
Salute to innovators.