The Current

From coffee to tractors: Why fear of loss inspires resistance to new technology

The more disruptive the idea, the more pushback it's likely to receive. It's been true again and again of many innovations: from margarine to tractors; recorded music to coffee. The Current looks into why people resist technology.

A cup of coffee as a threat

6 years ago
Duration 0:59
In the case of coffee, the perceived threat was to the social structure — coffee required technology to brew, which lead to coffeehouses, which lead to a secular gathering space for all social classes.

Read story transcript

'The robots will take our jobs!' It's an ongoing and rising fear about developing new technology and the latest in a line of worries about "technological unemployment."

But fear of new technology has had a long and at times unexpected history over the last 600 years — stretching from coffee to tractors to recorded music— says Calestous Juma, author of Innovation And Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. He says the reasons behind those worries haven't changed.
Opposition to technology is about the fear of loss, not fear of the new, says author Calestous Juma. (Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School)

"We are concerned about our livelihoods," Juma tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"We are concerned about identity. But at the same time, we want to be creative, we want to adapt to change. But we want to have control over the pace at which the change actually happens."

Though the fears may be real, the discussions around new technologies often veer far from fact, into emotion or outright deception. 

Margarine, for example, posed a threat to butter and the dairy industry a century ago.

"There were claims that margarine caused baldness, it caused impotence, that it lead to stunting," says Juma. "There were fake studies done specifically to demonize the product."

Tractors, like margarine, posed a threat not only to farm jobs, but also to the rural lifestyle more broadly.

"People had a real opposition to seeing tractors in the landscape, as opposed to seeing horses, a natural and organic part of the landscape" He says.

"And so there were real serious questions about identity, how people ... perceived themselves as farmers."

A cup of coffee as a threat

In the case of coffee, the perceived threat was to the social structure — coffee required technology to brew, which lead to coffeehouses, which lead to a secular gathering space for all social classes.

"That changed the social order," says Juma. 
Calestous Juma calls coffee one of the world's oldest transformative innovations. (Shutterstock)

"Instead of the leaders being the ones who disseminate information about how a society functions, people would gather around coffeehouses and disseminate information. So it became a threat to the way society was organized."

Leaders from the Ottoman Empire to England to Germany tried to restrict — or even ban — coffee.

Today, robots and artificial intelligence have reached a point that mirrors how clunky early tractors compared to horses a century ago.

"We've reached a point where machines are learning and improving faster, in many cases, than we can improve workers," says Juma.

And this is where Juma sees the role of governments. Rather than trying to resurrect manufacturing jobs that are "impossible" to bring back, "we need to democratize the technology," \he says.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.

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