Appetite for Disruption

Peter JonesHuman Values, Innovation, Media Ecology

The goal of a startup is no longer just user engagement or viability. A “preference for disruption” is celebrated, without reservation, whether a small or big business. (Only recently were reservations even fussed over – Jill Lepore’s critique of Disruption culture was published the week after this conference talk, June 23.)  She states (without critical analysis of causation):

“Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book.”

As an ethnographer of innovation practices, I have always appreciated Christensen and his contribution to theories of change. I also observe the trend signified by Lepore, the increasing meta-narrative of “disruption is good.” Disruptive innovation is not always beneficial to a society or even markets.  In Design for Care I fret over the preference for disruption in current business thinking and its unjustified hubris in the healthcare field.  With the mantra of disruption, we can gain attention by claiming the long process of disruptive innovation is occurring, for whatever it is we supposedly want to change. Much of this talk is (technically) bullshit, technology-centric wishful thinking promulgated as a rhetoric of winning, that ignores the realities of institutional practice and the complex forces and demands in healthcare that function differently.

Lepore starts to critique the social effects of disruption rhetoric, but she doesn’t go far enough in critique of cultural effects. However, she’s wrong to blame Clay Christensen for the wave of current disruption talk, as disruption has become a theme of startup and business culture only loosely based on Christensen at this point. She unfairly critiques The Innovator’s Dilemma, the 1997 work based on Christensen’s earlier research on the disk drive industry. But Christensen describes a very real systemic effect within business cycles, that new markets grow around inexpensive but viable alternative products and services, and that these markets can grow under the new cost structure and shift market share to the new provider. I observed the  struggles and barriers to effective innovation practices in my own research of within-organizational innovation, discovering causes resulting from shifts in a company’s values (which of course are influenced by success and a growing customer base, also consistent with Christensen’s Resources-Process-Values theory).  When successful products prevent strategic innovation. Design Management Journal, 2002, 13 (2).

Disruption has become in itself desirable, presumably preferred because of the theory of displacing entrenched regimes. It is the ultimate asymmetric power play, as the algorithmic efficiency of the startup is believed the inevitable winner in a technocentric future. We have culturally created a preference for technological innovation as a “disruptive” force, even in social domains such as education and healthcare. We now expect technology to save us, to provide ready-made “solutions” for supposedly entrenched problems, problems which are often framed as stupidly as “healthcare is broken. Obviously we must fix it.”

Evgeny Morozov eviscerates the Silicon Valley business of solutionism in his recent work, aiming to shift discourses from technological fixes of everything to shore up our collective ability to think and speak well about concerns.  In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review his book To Save Everything Click Here is framed as an attempt

“to integrate the debates about technology into the broader debates about politics, economics, history, and culture—areas of study with much richer traditions and far greater intellectual resources for tackling the many challenges that technology presents. Such a shift in discourse, he feels, would limit the influence of those advocating narrow technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems—like spreading democracy—and would rob a word like “disruption” of the positive connotation it has acquired as a force for progress, allowing it to be seen instead as a painful example of neoliberal economics.”

The medium has become the message again, as disruption is not the fix itself but signifies the capacity for innovation, which has become celebrated as a cultural value, not the content of specifically valued developments. Any startup can be disruptive if we merely pivot it enough; any innovation is inherently and perhaps equally desirable to another. The embedded values that accompany technological disruption are rarely questioned, as the headline value of disruption and its promised effects sweeps away the questions that might be asked with a lesser fate. Our own values and social responses are increasingly mediated by technological culture, by apps, by “context”.  As a result, citizens become increasingly unable to imagine effective collective responses to actual shared concerns. Issues deemed too complex for political agreement and deliberation are deferred to the technological solutions of “innovation.”

Critics of Lepore (there were many) come down on her “incompetent” analysis of the Dilemma or her weakly-supported claims of an emerging “faith in disruption.” As she’s a business academic and not a cultural observer, she may have missed the larger system in which disruption fever is happening. We now live in a technogenic culture, a much larger cultural system that has disrupted several generations in society by replacing these “broader debates” with the promises of a frictionless future enabled by an ever-smaller number of ruling figures in Silicon Valley.