Created together with Carolyn Manion
Disruptive Innovation always meets a good deal of skepticism at its advent. Throughout history, leaders, influencers, and the media have provided ominous forecasts regarding all kinds of new machines, inventions, and ideas.
Check the current news, and stories are quick to zero in on isolated disaster incidents of new technology, rarely on the potential benefits. Articles abound spinning long harangues of how tech will hurt rather than help our society. Is big data a boon for industries or a wide open door for mass privacy breach? Will automation kill jobs and cause those less fortunate to suffer? Is artificial intelligence a Trojan horse inviting our technological overlords to take over? How can we already implement AI services when we have no clear ethical system for how to treat robots? Governments are quick to impose regulations on things they don’t understand, and fear of the unknown defies even the most promising unfamiliar novelty.
It is easy to face these skepticisms and questions with uncertainty, as modern technology such as we have today is unprecedented in human history. However, such reactions are not unprecedented at all. A quick look at history reveals that new ideas have always bred skepticism, and we can use the past to build our attitude toward the future.
Where would we be today without the printed word? Well, 500 years ago, the printing press was a challenger, a threat even. Gutenberg’s plan to mass produce bibles was originally seen as a welcome complement to the Catholic Church’s monopoly on truth and information. Most of Western Europe at the time was firmly under the thumb of Church leadership in the spiritual and political realms. However, not only did the production of bibles transformatively spread intellectual independence and literacy, it pitched Europe into the reformation, an ideological upheaval that tore down previous hierarchies and paved the way for a new era of free thinking and revolutionary ideas.
Opposition to new ideas extends beyond the realm of strict technological advancement. In the 17th century, rulers like Charles II even banned the proliferation of coffee houses, as love for coffee spread across Europe. Propaganda condemned coffee from both a religious and a medical perspective—its effects were supposedly akin to drunkenness. Sure, the pretense was health and religious compunction, but the reality was that these places presented opportunity: they became hubs for disruptive ideas where philosophers could gather in public to sip espresso and challenge the status quo.
Fast forward to the twentieth century. In the early days, the gramophone, which allowed listeners to enjoy amazing music outside of concert-halls, met with a myriad of ideological challenges. Critics were horrified at the idea of listening to music alone—it would doubtless sap the experience of engaging with performance and make listeners narcissistic and anti-social. And what would happen to the livelihoods of music teachers? Their expertise would would no longer be needed to bring music into the home, and the amateur talent that had enlivened so many household parties would fade away.
On the contrary, music lessons grew in popularity as people were exposed to new and exciting types of music through the capabilities of the gramophone. Cultural contributions of those traditionally considered lower class bloomed into popularity through music genres like Bluegrass and Jazz. New music could now travel worldwide and was no longer limited to a particular branch of society–from bluegrass to opera the gramophone was hard at work expanding the cultural palette and enriching communities far and wide. Skepticism faded away and the music industry continued developing revolutionary technology for the next hundred years.
Why do people regard innovation with such mistrust? Political leaders might see a challenge to their monopoly over peoples lives and opinions, but more importantly the everyday person sees a challenge to the beloved status quo—to comfort, tradition, and routine. And such doubts are nothing if not human-disruption can prove disastrous if done by the wrong people. History shows that with the proper use of innovation, we can purpose it for human good despite rampant skepticism. If we keep these attitudes in mind, we can secure a future where technology goes hand in hand with human progress and free thinking.
With whom does the responsibility lie to make sure the technology takes the route of the gramophone, encouraging positive effects in society? In the past, the users and developers of innovation have proved that a majority want to use new ideas to promote good, and inevitably find ways around any attempts to shut down their projects. The media and leadership who predict disaster do, indeed, have a human reaction to scary challenges, but the use of innovation to drive society forward is human as well. The opportunities for social good abound, let us not let nay-sayers curb innovation before it has the chance for impact on human flourishing.