Up until about 20 years ago, it was simply another, somewhat uncommon way to speak about interference. Now, “disruption” is a thing each of us knowingly permits, and that purported leaders both intend and seek — without really asking whether there is some value worth preserving in whatever order we’re upsetting.
To disrupt is the raison d’etre of seemingly every startup. The rowdy children of the business world, startups are eager to disrupt for the sake of it. Merely improving upon a product or service seems weak in comparison to upending an existing industry. There is even a tech conference called Disrupt, offering a Silicon Valley American Idol for hopeful moguls with a side of hype and occasional outbursts of casual misogyny.
Disruption is the dominant language of self-help for business. Publishers offer dozens of books: Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation. Disrupt or Be Disrupted. Disrupt! Think Epic. Be Epic. Disrupt Together. Do Disrupt: Change the Status Quo. Or Become It. Disruption by Design: How to Create Products that Disrupt and then Dominate Markets. And, naturally, Beyond Disruption. Just so we don’t get carried away.
As with Facebook, this dubious proposition came to us in crimson. Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, coined the term “disruptive innovation” in his 1995 article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave.” In an established market, he argued, a cheaper, more convenient way to solve the same problem may emerge unnoticed at the bottom. The nascent threat is initially unremarkable. So simple. So obviously inferior. And over time, more and more customers, even those with more money and choices, decide that the new way is clearly better. And there is nothing the incumbents can do. They can’t compete, because economics. The market has totally changed. And with it, the balance of power.
From scribes to the printing press. From telegraphs to telephones. From mainframes to personal computers to smartphones. New technologies don’t merely replace existing products — they radically reconfigure human culture and interaction.
When Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma came out in 1997, the consumer internet was newly-hatched and he was still writing about minicomputers and steel mills. Since then, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented mass extinction of business models and product categories. You’d be as likely to find a passenger pigeon as a payphone on most city streets. Newspapers suffered a double blow and lost both their ad market and their local monopoly. A guy named Craig gutted the Fourth Estate with a crude list of blue links. And Mr. Christensen seemed to be mighty right.
Since disruption emerges from below, the companies on the bottom seek to see themselves as toppling giants, and the big guys run afraid — or not, ignoring what goes on beyond the margins of their attention. But disruption is destruction. Even in the company of true innovation, havoc is just a byproduct of offering something of surpassing value, not the impetus or aim. In the absence of a positive proposition, you’re just kicking up a fuss for attention. That’s what’s lost in the discussion. Solving a problem no one actually has? You aren’t disrupting jack.
And often competition is simply that, even if the competition has an app. Über isn’t “disrupting” taxis. I’m still paying some stranger by the minute and the mile to get me across the city in a car. They certainly haven’t made transportation more accessible. A regular cab requires only cash, not a smartphone and a credit card. For their additional fee, Über offers choice, reliability, and luxury.
Epic disruption has arrived — in a package the size of a deck of cards, with the destructive power of a sci-fi disintegration ray. The smartphone has replaced calculators, wristwatches, cameras (still and video), alarm clocks, voice recorders, radios, remote controls, notes passed in class, libraries, books, bus schedules, cash registers, portable game systems, maps, compasses, GPS, telephones, and, increasingly, even the calls themselves. I use my iPhone for its nominal purpose only under extreme duress.
The next physical object on the list may be us humans, as well. Or at least the way we experience our humanity, mediating our relationships through our embodied limitations. Now our devices, by extending our perception across space and time, disrupt both society and solitude. It is no longer possible (in areas of reliable service) to be innocently out of touch, to go out for a stroll and reconnect upon return. Being present is now opt-out rather than opt-in, and all absences require an excuse.
A combination of Maurader’s Map and Palantir, the smartphone is magic. But it is the opposite of the ring of power — once you have acquired one, everyone can see where you are, or expect to get in touch with you, because where you are no longer matters. The loving heart lacks any opportunity to grow fonder because true absence is impossible.
Where you are hardly matters anymore. Area codes once reflected the physical location of each disembodied voice. These days the prefix is vestigial, and at most signifies the town you call home, or merely the place you activated your mobile.
Actual presence dissolves into a backdrop for insidiously addictive interconnection. It is painful, even arduous, to put the “out there” aside and focus on the here and now. Any excuse, the most trivial question or point of fact (please just mention the weather), and our hands and eyes have returned to the glow and away from one another. An intimate dinner for two expands to accommodate an infinite contact list. Live concerts devolve into FOMO-fodder, each shining screen angling to transmit a single dismal fragment, when once an entire stadium would reverently hold its collective breath in the light of twenty-thousand tiny flames. We can’t even feel complete watching TV without the company of a “second screen.”
Where does it stop? What are we really experiencing of life when tablet-taught tots pinch and tap a printed page, and even the cat gets an iPad app, so we can record its antics to upload to YouTube for someone else to view on a piece of haptic glass, their own cat at their feet while they watch a suited hologram on CNN read tweets? These gleaming surfaces that look like so many windows might just be creating more walls.
We have disrupted ourselves and chosen an inferior but more convenient world. Looking through glass and touching the absence of texture, we let our other senses go begging while the material world goes on around us, mattering less than what we have in mind. Our swipe exceeds our grasp. Everything is in our pocket and nothing is in our hands.