Reproduction of Disruption

How Innovation Regimes Reproduce Culture

Media Ecology Association, Toronto, June 20, 2014

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”  John Culkin, SJ (Usually attributed to his friend, Marshall McLuhan)

We live in a technogenic culture – a society that generates ever more technology, whether necessary or not. Mainstream culture celebrates the economic value of technological ingenuity, and worships innovation.

Our desires become captured and entranced by the tools of tech. In this post-age of ubiquitous smart-things, everyone now “owns technology,” or gadgets – whether a smartphone, stack of computers, soon personal robots.  For the first time in history perhaps, there is little differentiation between generational ownership – children, the elderly, very poor people – all have similar gadgets. There may finally be little or no cachet to having the latest hardware or gadget.

The desirable commodity has become the capacity to produce technology. The capacity for mass self-production with 3D printing and “desktop app publishing” represents an entry point toward the ownership of technology as the medium itself.  Owning an app or a capacity says more about your technological self than owning any device. It is not enough just to communicate – in fact, we may be communicating ever more poorly. But the desired distinction will be reproduction.

We may have started with a hosted blog, but now wish to own a cloud site or “have” a startup (as a high-end reference point.)  The emerging new media in this regime are not merely the ecology of “apps” but the media of technology production, the ability to spin off dozens of apps. Whether this is fruitful, desirable or socially beneficial does not matter, as in media ecology terms reproduction has become the ground. Apps and startups themselves are figures emerging from the ground.

The global Internet has made technogenic culture universally accessible. Globalization has exported and socialized a culture driven by economic values associated with Silicon Valley venture capitalism. We are all startups now, giving pitches, we’re all watching or giving TED talks. But these are the surface behaviors.  All modern economies, and their associated societies and cultures, now value technological innovation as a desirable public good.

Developing nations, universities, and research enterprises are encouraged to behave as entrepreneurs, placing the outcomes of research, and increasingly culture, into the realm of global competition and market valuation. As such, it isn’t enough to just win as an entrepreneur – we are taught to look for the Exit Strategy, to cash out on our ideas. We hope to Disrupt something thereby, the grail of Impact and the aim of every startup.

As a self-reinforcing socialized process, our capability to produce technological efficiencies has become a societal norm and even a public good. Only crank critics bother to suggest that economic efficiency may have unwanted consequences. But there seems to be no limit to our demand for efficiency – we may have maximized the ways in which technology production  makes life easier or better for people, as robotic labour becomes a reality. So as innovation elites we now seek the super-productive power to “disrupt worlds.”

If it were possible, I’d roll back this penchant toward disruption as we will see this misconstrued notion carried along into all avenues of commerce and design. A startup bent on disrupting its stolid traditional competitor is to be expected. But now we have institutions, hospitals and cities, banks, trying to disrupt themselves. We will see radical disruption in human services and socially-critical industries, such as energy and education. And we will have no right to expect these services to serve society better. The point of disruption is economic values, not human betterment.

We might just ask, would you trust “radical system change” to inexperienced enthusiasts with little patience to understand the systems they are hoping to change?

Leave a Reply