Beware disruption for disruption’s sake

Even though it seems like a negative word, people often talk about disruption as a good thing in the tech world. VC firms say they only invest in ‘disruptive’ technologies, founders want to pitch at ‘disrupt’ conferences, companies fear being incremental (often seen as the opposite of disruptive) because it means they will fall behind. As Google’s Larry Page says:

Incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.

But there’s a lot more bound up in disruption than just the out-size returns founders and investors are looking for.

First of all, there are the startups who claim to be disruptive but aren’t, as Andy Rachleff writes in this piece. Just making something cheaper isn’t disruptive unless it’s accompanied by a complete reorganisation of the industry concerned. The rail industry was disrupted by the car. The music industry was disrupted by Napster. Advertising was disrupted by Google. People get a bit carried away because the internet is making it possible to disrupt lots more industries, but just because something is on the internet or uses digital technology, it doesn’t make it disruptive.

Secondly there’s the question of whether disruption is a good thing anyway. Disruption can mean people lose their jobs, prices fluctuate wildly and financial security can be compromised for investors and customers. And as Paul Carr points out, without proper checks and balances, disruption can also be a synonym for breaking the law.

In economic terms, the love of disruption comes from a Schumpeterian view of the world. The phrase he popularised was ‘creative destruction’ which, while I agree with the analysis, is something I don’t think we’ve come to terms with. Our society – and particularly social welfare – isn’t very well set up for constant change.

I think that’s where the tension with technology can come from. When I look at systems like the NHS, schools or local government individual members of staff might be very skilled and trying their best, but the system acts against a good outcome because it can’t cope very well with change – disruptive or otherwise. But is the best way of doing that to sack people and replace them with technology? No, for two reasons.

Firstly every job that’s disrupted is a tragedy and has huge knock ons for the people concerned. But secondly because when the system is leading to more and more automation something else happens to society – it hollows out in the middle. As Chrystia Freeland writes:

Technology has really changed the distribution of occupation. That doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with reduced unemployment, but it creates a more bimodal set of opportunities. There is an abundance of work to do in food service and there is an abundance of work in finance, but there are fewer middle-wage, middle-income jobs.

I don’t think we’ve found the answer to the conundrum of putting technology to work in ways that avoid polarising society yet, but I’m pretty sure that an unfettered love of disruption isn’t the best way forward.

  • Hugh Knowles

    Agree disruption for its own sake should be avoided and that much that is claimed to be disruptive in tech is not. However, given the range of enormous challenges we face in the next couple of decades we urgently need disruption or at least radically different solutions in our energy and food system for example. There is huge potential for recent developments in technology to create or faciliate the level of change we need. We don’t need apps that make our transport slightly more efficient – we need technology systems that completely change the need and use of transport.

  • Paul Miller

    Yes, I guess it’s the old problem of unintended consequences that I worry about if we don’t think through how disruption will affect other systems. For example I think it’s only now that I think we’re starting to realise how software has affected the labour market and what that’s going to mean for social welfare.

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