Who’s disrupting who?

The joke's on us. We're not in control of the 'disruption'. And we're all the disrupted.


If the word ‘disruption’ hasn’t already won ‘most irritating new buzzword of the year’ somewhere, it’s high time it did. (Hint: Hey, The Writer, I’m nominating it.)

Everybody wants a piece of it. Obviously, there’s people like Spotify, disrupting the listening-to-music-business, and Uber, disrupting the getting-from-A-to-B-business. Bitcoin are disrupting the whole what-it-means-to-place-and-exchange-value-business. And these things do feel disruptive. Entire industries are being turned upside down. People’s lives are being directly affected. We start to think and act differently because of these ‘disruptions’.

Then there’s the irritating low-level adoption of the idea because it sounds bold without actually having to be bold. Like the client who asked me recently if I could run a ‘disruptive’ creativity workshop for her team. (But also, I could only have two hours, and no, I wouldn’t be able to take people out of the meeting room, and also, could I provide her with a list of exactly what the outcomes of the workshop would be before I ran it?)

Tom ‘The Idler’ Hodgkinson has an excellent pop at the word in theGuardian today. He also wonders whether The Idler Academy could be said to be ‘disrupting’ education? He says, though, that it feels more creative than disruptive.

That sparked a train of thought about how innovation tends to work. I’m not entirely sure where this is going to go. But let’s see:

Just think what happens with a new musical genre. When the genre is new, artists are exploring all permutations of it. They rush off in all directions, innovating like crazy within the new-found creative constraints. It may take a year or two, or it may take a few decades, but eventually, pretty much everything that can be done, gets done. I’m a massive fan of ragtime piano, bebop jazz and punk rock — and it’s great when people find a way of keeping things fresh and interesting, but I think it’s also fair to say that as genres, they’re ‘done’. Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ is an astonishing album (my dad once said ‘it made everyone realise that we’d just been listening to cartoon music before’), but I also know that if it hadn’t have been him, someone else would have given jazz the kick up the arse it needed to get all ‘modal.’

On one level, we rightly celebrate the creative, innovative, inspirational genius of, say, Miles Davis. And at the same time, we also know that once a genre gets started, it’s just a matter of time before we’ve explored all its permutations. Nobody decides that. No one keeps a tally (‘And this week on Art Watch, we look at how cubism is now 76% complete.’)

It seems to me that that’s what’s happening with the genre of digital-always-on-connected-big-data-ish tech stuff. It’s a genre that is just going to play out until we’ve explored every last permutation of it.

I wonder whether we’re calling this ‘disruptive’ because it makes us feel like we’re in control of it? It makes it feel better to go ah, those Black Cab drivers, with their monopolistic ways and their slightly crappy customer service attitude, they deserve to be disrupted. When in truth, that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s just the genre starting to play itself out.

The big difference, though, is that new artistic genres tend to create new ways for people to see the world. They enrich our experience, add to our sum total of knowledge, are just good fun to look at, listen to, talk about, eat or dance to.

With disruptive tech, as the genre starts to play out, it’s becoming clear that many of those permutations don’t really involve people at all. (Say, when Uber meets driverless cars.)

OK. So I said I wasn’t sure where that was going. And it appears that I’ve started with a point about the loosey-goosey-ness of the term ‘disruptive’, and ended up with some fairly obvious hand-wringing about the ‘rise of the robots’, via a segue which manages to diss the genius of Miles Davis.

Which leaves me feeling I’ve probably let someone down a bit. And also like I haven’t really dealt with AirBnB, which is surely disruptive and people-y? Plus, I have a nagging sense that Rob Poynton would tell me that Borges has already said all this, much better, in The Library of Babel. So it goes.

Edit: Rob Poynton has pointed out, in a satisfyingly Borgesian moment, that he would actually tell me that it’s Kevin Kelly who’s already explored this, in his book Out of Control, in which he discusses Borges’s library…