Feeling a bit queasy these days? Small wonder. We are awash in disruption. “Leading in a disrupted world,” boasts one company. Another announces a new subsidiary that will be “one of the most disruptive brand companies in digital.” Entire industries, we are told, are “ripe for disruption.”
Clearly, the d-word has long since become a trend in its own right. If “disruption” were a stock, I’d be trying to unload all my shares. It’s the linguistic equivalent of a real estate bubble.
Americans have always had a weakness for vacuous marketing-speak. That’s the logical outgrowth of a culture obsessed with business. Yet I’d argue that this particular fad has a more insidious side. What started off as a Silicon Valley provocation is now turning into something akin to an ideology.
This particular nugget of jargon goes back to the management guru Clay Christensen, who coined the phrase “disruptive innovation.” The tech industry embraced the term, seeing it less as a diagnosis than a mission statement. Gradually the idea took hold that the whole point of innovation was to shake things up, to spark revolutionary change — as an end unto itself.
Slang often functions by taking negative concepts and turning them into something cool. (My son uses “sick” as a compliment.) In just the same way, the apostles of disruption took a word that originally meant “destruction” or “disturbance” and transformed it into a heroic act, redolent of rebels and Robin Hoods.
In fact, like so many glamorous things, the cult of disruption — not only technological but also financial and political — can disguise a lot of ugliness. For a variety of reasons, the disruptors tend to be really good at blowing their own horns; the disrupted, not so much. Disruption’s apostles generally have little to say about the costs of their inventions: homes lost, factories emptied, industries gutted.
And why should they? Disruption, you see, is inevitable. Those who can’t keep up are the losers, the slowpokes, the sad folks who just can’t get with the program. (In one recent article, memorably titled “the disruptive force of disruption,” the author urged companies to be “digital predators” rather than “digital prey.”) It’s oddly reminiscent of Marxism-Leninism: Jump on the express train of history, or prepare to be crushed. As one recent commentator put it: “Disruption is here to stay — resistance is pointless.” Pass the Dramamine.
The problem with this mind-set is that it strips away all sense of agency. What’s the point of trying to craft social policy or devise political solutions if nothing can hold back the disruptive tsunami? What’s the point of even having elections?
Which brings us to President Trump, our disruptor in chief. He rode into office on the votes of those traumatized by change, and he has promised them revenge through his own brand of disruption. So far he has been making good on his pledge, mainly in ways that don’t appear to have been thought through very well. I think most of us would be happy to see a good-faith effort to reform government. But Trump’s version of shaking things up is starting to look more like simple incompetence alternating with bits of aimless slash-and-burn.
All of this taps into a long tradition of American suspicion of established institutions — a habit of thinking that is especially hyped in the business world. Cue the predictable headline: “Can entrepreneurs learn something about ‘disruption’ from Trump?”
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a Luddite. I believe that technology can be a force for good. And I realize that the phenomenon described by “disruption” is a real thing. We live in a world of immense and tumultuous change, and we certainly can’t ignore that.
But instead of treating disruption as a virtue unto itself, surely it’s time that we started thinking about its political and social consequences as well — and to remind ourselves that we have the power to put policies into place that can cushion the blow. There’s no time to waste. As the more thoughtful Silicon Valley folks have been pointing out, we need to start preparing society for the next wave of technological change, which is going to put everything we’ve experienced so far in the shade. A gentle euphemism such as “disruption” isn’t going to cut it. (How about “apocalypse”?)
It’s probably unfair, and unrealistic, to expect the techies and the businesspeople to offer solutions to all the side effects their inventions may create (though I’ve been intrigued to see Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, publicly confronting the negative sides of his own innovation and thinking about ways to fix them. More power to him.)
No, what we need most of all is the simple realization that we aren’t slaves to the things we make. We have the capacity to look ahead, to develop resilience, to adapt and improvise. We can shape our own fates. And we can start by treating the lazy notion of “disruption” with a lot less respect.