From Coffee to Tractors: The Thrills and Fears of Technology

Posted by Richard on August 9, 2018

Consider the advent of digital music and those who hated it.

Fans didn’t hate it: they were trading tracks for free on the internet. It was CD makers, album artists, music stores — and, most of all, the record labels, which attempted to copyright, block, sue or otherwise stop digital music. Their efforts were futile.

According to Harvard professor Calestous Juma, new technology is often unwelcome, especially by those who benefit from existing technology, as in the case of record labels. As early as 1878, Leo Tolstoy was writing in his novel Anna Karenina about how peasants resisted farm machines, preferring to reap and sow in the old ways. But, by the 1900s, technology triumphed as it inexorably made farming faster and less expensive. Farm workers were replaced by tractors and other machines, forcing farm workers to flock to the cities.

Juma says it isn’t the tractor the farm workers feared, instead they feared what they would lose — their jobs and identities. That tends to be the case with all new technology.

But, surprisingly, new technology is also often opposed by those who would benefit from it.

In his book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, Juma notes that genetically modified crops were opposed by people who hated pesticides, which modified crops could potentially eliminate. At the same time, they were also supported by people who opposed pesticides.

As new products and technologies are adopted, people who oppose them make bold, often spurious claims, Juma writes. Coffee was enthusiastically adopted by imams who found it the best stimulant at prayer times. But as coffee spread, its opponents claimed it would make people sterile and drive them to hysteria.

Technology that makes people more independent and mobile win in the end, Juma told The Washington Post.

The obvious example is cellular phones that were instantly adopted and beloved. People no longer had to be at home or at a desk to get that important call. Humans could now move around, at their own convenience, without being tied to a device in their home or office.