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Innovation and Its Discontents

Technological innovation is often extolled for its power to overcome major development challenges, fuel economic growth, and propel societies forward. Yet innovations frequently face high barriers to implementation, with governments sometimes banning new technologies outright – even those that could bring far-reaching benefits.

CAMBRIDGE – Technological innovation is often extolled for its power to overcome major development challenges, fuel economic growth, and propel societies forward. Yet innovations frequently face high barriers to implementation, with governments sometimes banning new technologies outright – even those that could bring far-reaching benefits.

Consider the printing press. Among other things, the new technology was a boon to world religions, which suddenly had an efficient means of reproducing and disseminating sacred texts. Yet the Ottoman Empire forbade the printing of the Koran for nearly 400 years. In 1515, Sultan Selim I is said to have decreed that “occupying oneself with the science of printing was punishable by death.”

Why oppose such a beneficial technology? As I argue in my book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, the answer is not simply that people are afraid of the unknown. Rather, resistance to technological progress is usually rooted in the fear that disruption of the status quo might bring losses in employment, income, power, and identity. Governments often end up deciding that it would be easier to prohibit the new technology than to adapt to it.

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