In a recent interview Clayton M. Christensen linked “disruptive innovation” to God’s desire that “all of mankind . . . be successful. The only way to make this happen is to help individual people become better people, and innovation is the key to unlocking evermore opportunities to do that.” But “disruption,” according to its Latin origin, signifies “rupture,” tearing apart, and violently dissolving continuity. As a metonym for progress, since the nineties it has spread the illusion that innovation is always an improvement regardless of its social consequences. Its association with Silicon Valley and business culture in general has led us to disregard the reckless adverse effects of progress without responsibility. In fact, this indifference is vital to understanding the meaning of disruption and our fascination with a notion that is constantly deployed to exploit our hope that innovation will save us. “Disruption,” as Bernard Stiegler noted, “radicalizes the reversal of all values,” whether technological, political, or religious.
Like other concepts whose meanings are eroded by overuse, such as nihilism, postmodernism, and populism, disruption requires a philosophical elucidation. In recent decades, technological disruptions were heralded as collective life-shaping events, but is necessary to question this disruption is seen as a value worth pursuing even though its worship is tearing apart the possibilities for a sustainable future.
As a variation of Josep Schumpeter’s “planned obsolescence” and “creative destruction,” Christensen’s “innovative disruption” has become a koiné— a common language—transferred from the realm of capitalist business and now used to predict success in arenas (social, political, and cultural) with very different values and goals. Christensen’s theory is based on the idea of indifference to the present and focus on an always about-to-arrive futurity. This indifference is manifest in the difference between “sustaining innovations” and “disruptive innovations” in business: companies that make only careful, small, gradual refinements are often overrun by companies that make big changes that allow them to produce a cheaper, poorer-quality product for a much larger market. “Disruption,” as a leaked New York Times management report quoted by historian Jill Lepore states, “is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago).” For Christensen, “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”
Without the internet, Christensen’s book and theory would not have become a business bible for entrepreneurs and innovators. It provided a theory to justify the methodology used by the profits-above-all mindset when launching new products in an age of rapid change, uncertainty, and indifference. The internet provides a global machine for revealing surprises, which encourages disruption regardless of its social consequences. Although its designers did not express it in these terms, the disruptiveness of the internet, as John Naughton points out, is a feature, not a bug. During the advent of internet disruption became a watchword for innovators (“Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough,” Mark Zuckerberg said), whose model of business and economic citizenship shifted radically from one that involved dialogue to one driven by tweeting. This new culture of indifference in the name of profit eliminates possibilities for solidarity.
Disruptive innovation, as Lepore illustrates, holds out the hope of salvation from the very damnation it encourages because the idea of progress has been stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment. The West in the eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; in the nineteenth, evolution; and in the twentieth, growth and innovation. And the problem today is that the idea of disruption dominates the rhetoric of not only Silicon Valley but also other industries and contemporary societies all over the world. Disruption has taken over as a common language in which to project not just success but also a future of unforeclosed possibilities. This success is premised on technology’s capacity to continuously offer cheaper alternatives to established products—and on the promise that innovation is always an improvement, regardless of its consequences.
Disruptive innovation in journalism, education, and medicine has emerged as an all-purpose replacement of traditional methods with new ways that value novelty and speed. This valuation of progress without quality has allowed these pillars of democratic nations to be further subverted by capital, prey to market drives that ignore the value of the product for the value to shareholders. The belief that companies and industries that failed were somehow destined to fail is at the heart not only of Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation but also of a neoliberal age that holds that government should play no role in restraining corporate behavior. Giving corporate behavior a free pass has facilitated the application of disruption’s indifference to arenas that affect society, politics, and culture. Numerous conferences, centers, summits, and labs established even in just the most recent decade demonstrate that “disruptive” has become an admiring adjective, a positive valence, even a brand.
In order to resist disruption it is not enough to demonstrate that its benefits are based on shaky evidence. This has been the approach taken by Lepore (“Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable”), Michael Porter (“disruptive technologies that are successful in displacing established leaders are extremely rare”) and Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh (“only seven of the 77 business case studies covered by Christensen’s fit his own criteria of what constitutes disruptive innovation”), among other scholars. While these analyses are useful to debunk the illusion that innovation is always an improvement, they do not modify the widespread enthusiasm for it. “Exaggerated claims for disruption,” as Mark C. Taylor points out, “usually result from a failure of memory, which is symptomatic of a preoccupation with the present in a culture addicted to speed.”
This addiction can be overcome by thinking through longer stretches of time. It requires practices that reexamine our existential narratives, such as politics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, though each of these contemplative fields faces disruptive forces of its own in, respectively, populist pronouncements delivered through Twitter, over-prescription of drugs, and scientistic analytic thought that displaces existential questions. But when these existential narratives manage to provide citizens with a picture of world events and a sense, however limited, of political community, disruption rather than a value to follow becomes an sign of indifference, displacement, and alienation that must be prevented.
It should not come as a surprise, as Stiegler points out, that disruption was “announced and foreshadowed not just by Adorno and Horkheimer as the ‘new kind of barbarism’, but by Martin Heidegger as the ‘end of philosophy’, by Maurice Blanchot as the advent of ‘impersonal forces’, by Jacques Derrida as ‘monstrosity’, and, before all of these, by Nietzsche as nihilism.” If disruption is the culmination of these events we must pursue these authors’ experimental responses, which called for different conceptual platforms where existence can continue to strive.
Image: Filippo Minelli, “Silent Shapes,” 2005. http://www.