Geek As Citizen: Disrupting Disruption

Planetary Collision

We hear about disruption a lot, especially in techgeekery. Disrupt this. Disruptive technology. Disruptive disruption. If by now you’re anywhere in technology and aren’t sick of hearing about it you have an issue that probably needs to be disruptied because the buzzword is everywhere.

I’m getting a bit concerned about it actually and its use – or frankly misuse. The term “disruption” is getting a bit omnipresent, and that’s a bit of a warning flag that having hammers and seeing nails is starting to happen – and in the case of the hammer of disruption, I’m not sure everyone even agrees what it is.

So since this is part of the technosphere of geek culture,it’s something I’d like to address because it’s something that affects how we relate to our work and what we do.

Because I think it’s distorting our perspectives – disrputing them if you will, and not in the cool-innovative way.

In fact, I wonder if we’re even all talking about the same thing . . .

What Is Disruption?

In the dictionary, a forceable separation into parts or a condition of being disrupted.

Technically, it’s used to mean an innovation that starts a new market then takes over an old one, and seems to be mostly subsumed into the term “disruptive innovation.

Though in most cases I see it used as “we got this thing does does things differently and that’ll shake the hell out of the market”

In other words, business theory aside (and some of the theories are important), I really find disruption is a buzzword that means “doing stuff that shakes things up and replaces old stodgy stuff.”

It’s the buzzword I’ll be talking about because I think that’s part of the problem . . . we’re not even talking “real” disruption.

Disruption as Buzzword

When I see the word “Disruption” used, it usually means people are thinking:

  1. The existing system is flawed, slow, etc.
  2. That the existing system should be shaken up or destroyed/replaced.
  3. That whatever does this shaking up/destruction is good.
  4. That the benefits of said change outweigh the costs they incur.
  5. The disruptive system survives.

If you think about it, it’s a tall order. It’s not hard to look at supposedly “disruptive” technologies or potentially disruptive technologies and wonder if, essentially, they’re worth it – or if anything is going to come of them. I admit many of my concerns about supposedly “disruptive” technologies are that they’re going to go nowhere, though I do have concerns about suddenly altering markets and their repercussions.

But there are innovations that are very questionable, such as the bizarre mess of home loans as investments that got us into the economic meltdown of years past. We’ve had advances in antibiotics that are coming back to bite us in a somewhat literal way because of overuse. There are backfires.

A lot of disruption doesn’t seem so fantastic.

But in some cases, we’re not even talking disruption in the first place. Some of the things that are praised are not hot new technologies that disruptive. Some are amazingly commonplace.

We just call them disruptive.

We’re Not Talking Disruption

“Disruption” is thrown around as a buzzword way too often. But in any cases it seems that we’re talking about other things.

  • A technology is evolutionary – not disruptive.
  • A technology survives by sheer endurance – I’m sure we can all think of things like that.
  • Something is, well, regular success. It may be fun to call it “disruptive” but really it was just a good idea.

To give an example, I consider Netflix a case of evolution, survival, and solid success. It’s “disruptive” elements took years to actually take place, and were largely due to advances in other technologies. I hesitate to call it “disruptive” so much as “someone had a good idea that was well leveraged and competitors were stupid.” That’s not to diss Netflix – in fact I consider Netflix exceptionally well done – I’m not sure it was disruptive in the senses that the term is used.

In fact, sometimes I speculate disruption is really . . .

The Superstar Effect And Others

The Superstar Effect is well known; where slight differences mean vast disparities in income/benefits. Sometimes I wonder how much “disruption” is just this effect in action – a few things came together to produce an outside effect. The disruption is not in the idea or even the timing, but a few things that added up right to produce an enormous effect.

Or to be more blunt, some “disruptive” technologies and innovations may have been lucky, at the right place, or had a not-so-major improvement or addition that happened to be enough to pay off.

As we all known from “human” superstars to earn a ton of money and get a lot of attention may not mean you’re good. Or that talented.  I won’t name names, just check the latest entertainment column for the latest.

So Where We Are In Disruption?

So after all of this, when we look at disruption, we often suffer from:

  • Assuming what it is or that something is disruptive.
  • The danger that we are confusing disruption with other factors.
  • That some of it is after the effect or due to a superstar effect.

What it comes down to in Geekery is that I seriously question the deviation to disruption that we see in some tech journalism, questionable marketing, and endless pitches.

And because there’s a lot of confusion, I’d like to really put this all together and note . . .

“Disruption” May Not Be A Good Thing

I’d like to see the “worship of disruption” be something we can kindly forget about. We’re not always talking about it, we’re missing what’s really going on, and it doesn’t mean that real disruption will actually produce net benefit. It’s become a baggage-infused buzzword.  It’s usefulness is limited.

In fact, as it’s so buzzworded and misused, I think it’s become a negative in most cases.  It’s made us accept bad ideas or not question ones that need questioning.

Instead, I think we need to consider using the word properly – and there’s merit in that because the term, as noted, has been used academically and analytically.  But we should be using it a hell of a lot less.

In addition, I think we’d be well served to ask about the effects of disruptive technologies and all the things we’ve labeled as disruptive.  Are these things good ideas, will the results be beneficial.  Stepping away from the idea of “disruptive is always good’ would be quite helpful in assessing our roles.

In short, it comes around to make us better citizens.

Yet, We Need to Disrupt

I’d also add that I think a lot of us geeks, the people in science and technology and culture, are damned good at creating disruptive stuff – the real stuff. We love to poke and make things happen. We like to innovate. We like to do.

“Owning” disruption by thinking what it really is and what it means lets us better channel those urges. I’m sure a few of us would have liked to see some “disruptive” technology in our careers be a bit more technology and a bit less disruption leading to layoffs (usually of us).

So, consider Disruption and what it means. Use it carefully and appropriately. Let’s own the word and not worship it and let it degenerate into marketing buzz.

Then let’s make sure we know when we’ve done some stuff that turns the world around for good reasons.

– Steven Savage