Coping with technophobia

24th November 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD Innovators must recognize that there will be opposition to their innovation, but they must listen carefully to the concerns of those who oppose them

24th November 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

Innovators must recognize that there will be opposition to their innovation, but they must listen carefully to the concerns of those who oppose them

On January 28, 1966, a 21-year-old IIT graduate in the new subject of electronics and computer science interviewed for a job as a trainee systems analyst in a progressive, well-known consumer goods company. At the company’s Kolkata branch office, he was terrified to hear violent shouts from dissident employees and to see huge placards opposing computerisation. There obviously was a virulent demonstration against computers. To his unbiased mind, computers were being adopted increasingly. In fact, the Indian Railways had just begun a massive programme to install IBM 1401s in the nine zonal and three production units of the railways. To the youngster, computers were the sure thing of the future, but even he could not imagine how transformational they would be. But how would this happen in the face of so much opposition, he wondered.

I was that youngster.

As my career developed with Hindustan Lever, I learned about the fierce opposition to Dalda. On April 6, 1947, no less than Gandhiji’s newspaper Harijan carried a report, which quoted research at the Haffkine Institute that vanaspatconsumption could result in inferior growth and even blindness. As subsequent events have proven, this was quite ridiculous.

Over the past 17 columns, I have commented about innovation through four lenses: what happens to the person from within, the influences from the environment, the factors that trigger innovation and the barriers to innovation.

Recently, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana declined to give an NOC for field trials (experiments, not commercial farming) of transgenic mustard. This was despite a clearance from the expert Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. The states seem to crassly disregard a science-based approach. An Indian Express editorial caustically stated, “It points to a complete surrender to Luddite interests.”

Earlier this week, quite separately, the head of the Rice Research Institute in Philippines, Robert Ziegler, expressed the view that “the environment will benefit from the second green revolution, as crops will require less water, fertiliser and pesticides… this is possible so long as the green activists do not succeed in demonising technology.” Quite sharp, especially coming from an environmentalist and plant scientist.

Opposition to innovation has always been around. It is called technophobia, which is the fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices. In 1675, a group of weavers destroyed machines that replaced their jobs. Around 1811, opposition to machines was led by the Luddites. After World War II, the fear of technology grew because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the environmental movement began with investigations into the lead content of petrol. By 1955, DDT had been adopted widely by the World Health Organisation to eradicate malaria. Due to Rachel Carson’s work on the residual toxicity in plants and animals, DDT was progressively banned in developed countries. DDT continues in emerging markets in the absence of a malaria-control substitute. In 1965, Hubert Dreyfus, then a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, criticised the newly emerging work on artificial intelligence (AI). As subsequent work on AI has shown, this criticism was odd, coming from an acknowledged intellectual.

Innovation is slammed by environmentalists, and also by legal and bureaucratic action. Uber is the most recent wonder service. It is not a taxi company but a digital platform that facilitates ride sharing by connecting passengers with taxi drivers. Even an advanced economy like Germany is trying, like King Canute, to hinder the activity. Uber’s senior officer, Emil Michael, stoked his opposition by making offensive comments about the media, an act that the CEO had to publicly disapprove.

The early history of cars shows how fierce the opposition was from “farmers, horse breeders, blacksmiths, carriage makers, and livery stable operators.” The adoption of computers and cell phones also show a similar pattern. Each innovation, like each human action, produces consequences, some unknown and some expected. Progress necessarily means that while one problem is solved, another one may get created.

As protagonists, innovators must recognise and accept that there will be blockers to their innovation, but they must listen carefully to the concerns. Blockers must learn from history that they may delay relevant technologies, but not forever.