Book Review: Calestous Juma’s “Innovation and Its Enemies”

by on July 29, 2016 · 0 comments

Juma book cover

“The quickest way to find out who your enemies are is to try doing something new.” Thus begins Innovation and Its Enemies, an ambitious new book by Calestous Juma that will go down as one of the decade’s most important works on innovation policy.

Juma, who is affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has written a book that is rich in history and insights about the social and economic forces and factors that have, again and again, lead various groups and individuals to oppose technological change. Juma’s extensive research documents how “technological controversies often arise from tensions between the need to innovate and the pressure to maintain continuity, social order, and stability” (p. 5) and how this tension is “one of today’s biggest policy challenges.” (p. 8)

What Juma does better than any other technology policy scholar to date is that he identifies how these tensions develop out of deep-seated psychological biases that eventually come to affect attitudes about innovations among individuals, groups, corporations, and governments. “Public perceptions about the benefits and risks of new technologies cannot be fully understood without paying attention to intuitive aspects of human psychology,” he correctly observes. (p. 24)

Opposition to Change: It’s All in Your Head

Juma documents, for example, how “status quo bias,” loss aversion, and other psychological tendencies tend to encourage resistance to technological change. [Note: I discussed these and other “root-cause” explanations of opposition to technological change in Chapter 2 of my book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, as well as in my 2012 law review article on “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.”]  Juma notes, for example, that “society is most likely to oppose a new technology if it perceives that the risks are likely to occur in the short run and the benefits will only accrue in the long run.” (p. 5) Moreover, “much of the concern is driven by perception of loss, not necessarily by concrete evidence of loss.” (p. 11)

Juma’s approach to innovation policy studies is strongly influenced by the path-breaking work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who long ago documented how entrepreneurial activity and the “perennial gales of creative destruction” were the prime forces that spurred innovation and propelled society forward. But Schumpeter was also one of the first scholars to realize that psychological fears about such turbulent change was what ultimately lead to much of the short-term opposition to new technologies that, in due time, we eventually come to see as life-enriching or even life-essential innovations.  Juma uses Schumpeter’s insight as the launching point for his exploration and he successfully verifies it using meticulously-detailed case studies.

Case Study-Driven Analysis

JumaShort-term opposition to change is particularly acute among incumbent industries and interest groups, who often feel they have the most to lose. In this regard, Innovation and Its Enemies contains some spectacular histories of how special interests have resisted new technologies and developments throughout the centuries. Those case studies include: coffee and coffeehouses, the printing press, margarine, farm machinery, electricity, mechanical refrigeration, recorded music, transgenic crops, and genetically engineered salmon. These case studies are remarkably detailed histories that offer engaging and enlightening accounts of “the tensions between innovation and incumbency.”

My favorite case study in the book discusses how the dairy industry fought the creation and spread of margarine (excuse the pun!). I had no idea how ugly that situation got, but Juma provides all the gory details in what I consider one of the very best crony capitalist case studies ever penned.

In particular, in a subsection of that chapter entitled “The Laws against Margarine,” he provides a litany of examples of how effective the dairy industry was in convincing lawmakers to enact ridiculous anti-consumer regulations to stop margarine, even though the product offered the public a much-needed, and much more affordable, substitute for traditional butter. At one point, the daily industry successfully lobbied five states to adopt rules mandating that any imitation butter product had to be dyed pink! Other states enacted labelling laws that required butter substitutes to come in ominous-looking black packaging. Again, all this was done at the request of the incumbent dairy industry and the National Dairy Council, which would resort to almost any sort of deceptive tactic to keep a cheaper competing product out of the hands of consumers.

And so it goes in chapter after chapter of Juma’s book. The amount of detail in each of these unique case studies is absolutely stunning, but they nonetheless remain highly readable accounts of sectoral protectionism, special interest rent-seeking, and regulatory capture. In this way, Juma is plowing some familiar ground already covered by other economic historians and political scientists, such as Joel Mokyr and Mancur Olson, both of whom are mentioned in the book, as well as a long line of public choice scholars who are, somewhat surprisingly, not discussed in the text. Nonetheless, Juma’s approach is still fresh, unique, and highly informative. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many distinct and highly detailed case studies assembled in one place by a single scholar.  What Juma has done here is truly impressive.

Related Innovation Policy Paradigms

Beyond Schumpeter’s clear influence, Juma’s approach to studying innovation policy also shares a great deal in common with two other unmentioned innovation policy scholars, Virginia Postrel and Robert D. Atkinson.

Postrel’s 1998 book, The Future and Its Enemies, contrasted the conflicting worldviews of “dynamism” and “stasis” and showed how the tensions between these two visions would affect the course of human affairs. She made the case for embracing dynamism — “a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition” — over the “regulated, engineered world” of the stasis mentality. Similarly, in his 2004 book, The Past and Future of America’s Economy, Atkinson documented how “American history is rife with resistance to change,” and in recounting some of the heated battles over previous technological revolutions he showed how two camps were always evident: “preservationists” and “modernizers.”

When Juma repeatedly recounts the fight between “innovation and incumbency” in his case studies, he is essentially describing the same paradigmatic divide that Postrel and Atkinson highlight in their works when they discuss “dynamist” vs. “stasis” tensions and the “modernizers” vs. “preservationists” battles that we have seen throughout history. [Note: In my 2014 essay on, “Thinking about Innovation Policy Debates: 4 Related Paradigms,” I discussed Postrel and Atkinson’s books and other approaches to understanding tech policy divisions and then related them to the paradigms I contrast in my work: the so-called “precautionary principle” vs. “permissionless Innovation” mindsets.]

Finally, Juma’s book could also be compared to another freshly released book, The Politics of Innovation, by Mark Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s book is also essential reading on this lamentable history of industrial protectionism and the resulting political opposition to change we have seen over time. [Note: Brent Skorup and provided many other high-tech cronyist case studies like these in our 2013 law review article, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.”]

To counter the prevalence of special interest influence and poor policymaking more generally, Juma stresses the need for evidence-based analysis and a corresponding rejection of fear-mongering and deceptive tactics by public officials and activist groups. He’s particularly concerned with “the use of demonization and false analogies to amplify the perception of risks associated with a new product.”

Accordingly, he would like to see improved educational and risk communication efforts aimed at better informing the public about risk trade-offs and the many potential future benefits of emerging technologies. “Learning how to communicate to the general public is an important aspect of reducing distrust [in new technologies],” Juma argues. (p. 312)

On the Pacing Problem

But Juma never really adequately squares that recommendation with another point he makes throughout the text about how “the pace of technological innovation is discernibly fast,” (p. 5) and how it is accelerating in an exponential fashion. “The implications of exponential growth will continue to elude political leaders if they persist in operating with linear worldviews.” (p. 14) But if it is indeed the case that things are moving that fast, then are we not potentially doomed to live in never-ending cycles of technopanics and misinformation campaigns about new technologies no matter how much education we try to do?

Regardless, Juma’s argument about the speed of modern technological change is quite valid and shared by many other scholars. He is essentially making the same case that Larry Downes did in his excellent 2009 book, The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces That Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age. Downes argued that lawmaking in the information age is inexorably governed by the “law of disruption” or the fact that “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.”  This law, Downes said, is “a simple but unavoidable principle of modern life,” and it will have profound implications for the way businesses, government, and culture evolve going forward.  “As the gap between the old world and the new gets wider,” he argued, “conflicts between social, economic, political, and legal systems” will intensify and “nothing can stop the chaos that will follow.”

Again, Juma makes that same point repeatedly throughout the chapters of his book. This is also a restatement of the so-called “pacing problem,” as it is called in the field of the philosophy of technology. I discussed the pacing problem at length in my recent review of Wendell Wallach’s important new book, A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping beyond Our Control. Wallach nicely defined the pacing problem as “the gap between the introduction of a new technology and the establishment of laws, regulations, and oversight mechanisms for shaping its safe development.” “There has always been a pacing problem,” he noted but, like Juma, Wallach believes that modern technological innovation is occurring at an unprecedented pace, making it harder than ever to “govern” using traditional legal and regulatory mechanisms.

New Approaches to Technological Governance Needed

Both Wallach in A Dangerous Master and Juma in Innovation and Its Enemies struggle with how to solve this problem. Wallach advocates “soft law” mechanisms or even informal “Governance Coordinating Committees,” which would oversee the development of new technology policies and advise existing governmental institutions. Juma is somewhat ambiguous regarding potential solutions, but he does stress the general need for a flexible approach to policy, as he notes on pg. 252:

It is important to make clear distinctions between hazards and risks. It is necessary to find a legal framework for addressing hazards. But such a framework should not take the form of rigid laws whose adoption needs to be guided by evidence of harm. More flexible standards that allow continuous assessment of emerging safety issues related to a new product are another way to address hazards. This approach would allow for evidence-based regulation.

Beyond that Juma wants to see “entrepreneurialism exercised in the public arena” (p. 282) and calls for “decisive leaders to champion the application of new technologies.” (p. 283) He argues such leadership is needed to ensure that life-enriching technologies are not derailed by opponents of change.

On the other hand, Juma sees a broader role for policymakers in helping to counter some of the potential side effects associated with many emerging technologies. He highlights three primary areas of concern. First, he suggests political leaders might need to find ways “to help balance the benefits and risks of automation” due to the rapid rise of robotics and artificial intelligence. Second, he notes that synthetic biology and gene-editing will give rise to many thorny issues that require policymakers to balance “potentially extraordinary benefits and the risk of catastrophic consequences.” (p. 284)  Finally, he points out that medicine and healthcare are set to be radically transformed by emerging technologies, but they are also threatened by archaic policies and practices in many countries.

In each case, Juma hopes that “decisive,” “adaptive” and “flexible” leaders will steer a sensible policy course with an eye toward limiting “the spread of political unrest and resentment toward technological innovation.” (p. 284)  That’s a noble goal, but Juma remains a bit vague on the steps needed to accomplish that balancing act without tipping public policy in favor a full-blown precautionary principle-based regime for new technologies. Juma clearly wants to avoid that result, but it remains unclear how or where he would draw clear lines in the sand to prevent it from occurring while at the same time achieving “decisive leadership” aimed at balancing potential risks and benefits.

Similarly, his repeated calls in the closing chapter for “inclusive innovation” efforts and strategies sounds sensible in theory, but Juma speaks in abstract generalities about what the term means and doesn’t provide a clear vision for how that would translate into concrete actions that would not end up giving vested interests a veto over new forms of technological innovation that they disfavor.

[CARTOON] Consider Every Risk Except

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Generally speaking, however, Juma wants this balance struck in favor of greater openness to change and an ongoing freedom to experiment with new technological capabilities. As he notes in his concluding chapter:

The biggest risk that society faces by adopting approaches that suppress innovation is that they amplify the activities of those who want to preserve the status quo by silencing those arguing for a more open future. […] Keeping the future open and experimenting in an inclusive and transparent way is more rewarding that imposing the dictum of old patterns. (pgs. 289, 316)

In that regard, the thing I liked most about Innovation and Its Enemies is the way throughout the text that Juma stressed the symbiotic relationship between risk-taking and progress. One of the ways he does so is by kicking off every chapter with a fun quote on that theme from some notable figure. He includes gems like these:

  • “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome.” – Samuel Johnson
  • “Only those will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot
  • “If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.” – Geena Davis
  • “Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast.” – Tom Peters

Of course, I was bound to enjoy his repeated discussion of this theme because that was the central thesis of my latest book, in which I made the argument that, “if we spend all our time living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy upon such fears—then many best-case scenarios will never come about.” Or more simply, as the old saying goes: “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

CARTOON - Protesting Against New Technology - the Early Days

On Pastoral Myths

I also liked the way that Juma used his case studies to remind us how “the topics may have changed, but the tactics have not.” (p. 143) For example, much of the fear-mongering and deceptive tactics we have seen through the years are based on “pastoral ideals,” i.e., appeals to nature, farm life, old traditions, of just the proverbial “good old days,” whenever those supposedly were! “Demonizing innovation is often associated with campaigns to romanticize past products and practices,” Juma notes. “Opponents of innovation hark back to traditions as if traditions themselves were not inventions at some point in the past.” (p. 309)  So very true!

That was especially the case in battles over new farming methods and technologies, when opponents of change were frequently “championing a moral cause to preserve a way of life,” as Juma discusses in several chapters. (p. 129) New products or methods of production were repeatedly but wrongly characterized as dangerous simply because they were not supposedly “natural” or “traditional” enough in character.

Of course, if all farming and other work was to remain frozen in some past “natural” state, we’d all still be hunters and gathers struggling to find the next meal to put in our bellies. Or, if we were all still on the farms of the “good old days,” then we’d still be stuck using an ox and plow in the name of preserving the “traditional” ways of doing things.

Humanity has made amazing strides—including being able to feed more people more easily and cheaply than ever before—precisely because we broke with those old, “natural” traditions. Alas, many vested interests and even quite a few academics today still employ these same pastoral appeals and myths to oppose new forms of technological change. Juma’s case studies powerfully illustrate why that dynamic continues to be a driving force in innovation policy debates and how it has delayed the diffusion of many important new goods and services throughout history. When the opponents of change rest their case on pastoral myths and nostalgic arguments about the good old days we should remind them that the good old days weren’t really that great after all.


In closing, Innovation and Its Enemies earns my highest recommendation. Even though 2016 is only half done as I write this, Professor Juma’s book is probably already a shoo-in as my choice for best innovation policy book of the year. And I am certain that it will also go down as one of the decade’s most important innovation policy books. Buy the book now and read every word of it. It is well worth your time.


Additional material related to Juma’s book:

Other Related Books

In addition to the books that I already mentioned throughout this review, readers who find Juma’s book and the issues he discusses in it of interest should also consider reading these other books on innovation policy, technological governance, and regulatory capture.  Although many of them are more squarely focused on the information technology sector or other emerging technology fields, they all relate to the general subject matter and approach found throughout Juma’s book. [NOTE: Links, where provided, are to my reviews of these books.]


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