Disruption Is A Stupid Word Anyway

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.

Let’s disrupt “disruption.”

My boss, ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas, and I disagree, feistily and frequently, about a variety of topics. We had profound differences of opinion on how to cover Brendan Eich’s departure as CEO of Mozilla and PayPal’s role as a company in the payments space. But we both agree on one simple fact: “Disruption” as a technological fetish object is a childish, lazy concept thrown about by people who think their laundry-stain-removing app is changing the world.

Here at ReadWrite, where we map the changes to technology over a grand scale of time and impact, we prefer the term “evolution.” All systems evolve, be they ecological, biological or technological. When Charles Darwin defined evolution, he espoused the concept that dominant features would be selected in a system and bred through generations until those features become the norm. The metaphor works especially well for today’s technology, where the rapid improvement and iteration of hardware and software resembles the Cambrian radiation. It’s a flourishing of variety, with old alongside new. 

When Owen and I had this conversation, we were standing next to Ben Milne, the CEO of payments company Dwolla, at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last year. Carelessly, I mentioned something about a company “disrupting” a market of some sort.

Owen stopped me and said, “Disruption is foolish. Look at what people like Ben are doing at Dwolla. That’s not disruption, that’s evolution.”

Disruption Disrupted

The idea of disruption has gone on trial this week. Jill Lepore, in an article published in The New Yorker, had the audacity to question the very gospel of the technological community: that “disruption” is inherently a positive achievement, one all innovators should strive towards. Disrupt an industry, make a billion dollars. In her article, Lepore attacks the concepts of acclaimed author and father of “disruptive innovation,” Clayton M. Christensen, the author of the seminal 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Christensen’s frequently echoed claim is that companies need to develop products that disrupt their own products, lest another entrepreneur comes along and do it for them, putting the incumbents out of business. In his book (and several others since then), Christensen points out  a variety of companies and industries where upstarts undercut their business model and put them out of business. In her article, Lepore presumes to tear down this entire structure by more or less arguing that disruption does not actually exist.

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

Lepore’s piece aptly attacks Christensen’s examples. The startup, the favored vehicle of disruption, is occult and reckless, Lepore writes. But her essay veers into get-off-my-lawn territory when she laments how some startup or another has crippled her own beloved institutions. 

Where Lepore is best is where she attacks the language of “disruption.”

Lepore writes:

The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.

Or as I might put it: Disruption is a stupid word anyway.

Throughout history, different eras have prescribed different words to fundamentally similar concepts. “Disruptive innovation,” as prescribed by Christensen, really falls into one of the most undeniable facts of life on this planet: The ruthless march of evolution will naturally select winners and losers.

New Niches For New Technological Life

Let’s take the last seven years of “disruption” as an example. In 2007, two extremely important things happened. First, Apple introduced the iPhone. Second, Facebook opened its platform, allowing any developer to build on its valuable storehouse of online identities and lists of friends. These two evolutionary events, more than anything else in the last 10 years, have fundamentally changed the technological landscape.

The iPhone brought many desirable traits to the realm of computing. Apple created a device that was always on, always connected to the Internet, on your person wherever you go and with a pleasing touchscreen interface that turned out to be an extremely convenient and efficient way to handle everyday tasks. As per Darwin’s theory of natural selection, these traits were favored above all others; the iPhone (and its imitators) advanced to the next realm of evolution over different traits from other devices.

Apple didn’t disrupt the cellphone market: It just forced it to evolve. Those that adopted the right traits in the most efficient and attractive manner (Google’s Android and Samsung, for instance) succeeded. Those that failed to evolve (BlackBerry) failed and withered away, crushed by the selection process. But the result was a far fitter range of gadgets.

In the example of Facebook, the evolutionary change was its effect on the environment in which other companies evolved, by turning the Internet into a platform where other companies could more rapidly rise up and develop new traits. The most drastic and visible consequence of Facebook’s evolutionary step was the almost-immediate demise of Myspace, a similar entity that failed to successfully adapt to this evolutionary step. Other companies that have succeeded on the Internet in the last seven years have taken advantage of this evolutionary concept—the ability to create a desirable platform for others to build on top of—and have become behemoths of industry.

Yes, their growth came at the expense of other industries that could not (or would not) evolve, like the newspaper and media industry. But those businesses weren’t disrupted. They just failed to evolve.

All Systems Evolve

In biological systems, evolution is difficult to see as it happens. Evolution is a slow process that takes several generations before any meaningful difference can be measured. Technology works on faster timelines. Every year when Apple releases the new iPhone, the common lament is that the new model is really not all that different from the last one. But if you look at what the iPhone was in 2007 and what the iPhone is in 2014, the evolutionary progress is astounding. 

As we take stock of the technological landscape in 2014, we consistently note winners and losers in this evolutionary progression. Now, the evolutionary traits of ubiquitous, mobile computing and open platforms are moving beyond the confines of our screens. Their impact is now being felt in all manner of human enterprises, from the doctor’s office to the farmer in the field. The Web is rewiring the world.

“Disruption” has its own evolutionary strength as an idea. Even as it has become emptied of meaning and value, it will still attract widespread circulation—sort of like the copper penny. The technologists and entrepreneurs who parrot the term may themselves get pushed aside by stronger, more thoughtful souls, who recognize technology’s pace of evolution. The successful entities will adapt; those bound for ruin will not.

In the end, the arguments of both Christensen and Lepore have traits which argue for their survival.  Disruption is not a goal. It is something that sometimes happens, when evolution takes an abrupt turn. It’s an accident of natural selection.

In the end, it was Charles Darwin who was right the whole time.

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