Today I want to ask you and myself if all we are hoping for with the advent of new disruptive technologies and models isn’t simply one big joke. Don’t get me wrong we are doing amazing things and I am truly positive about what direction we are going in terms of technological innovation. I simply wonder if we aren’t fooling ourselves in believing that we live in an age of actual social disruption like we witnessed during other great Revolutions.
Loss of meaning
Every time the word disruption is pronounced, it looses a little bit more of its substance. It is reaching the point where today we can consider that ‘disruption’ wouldn’t be the odd word out in the sentence: “This totally disruptive technology has so many synergies; its innovative power is definitely the future of society… unbelievable”.
The loss of meaning due to the expansion the scope of its’ definition is not a problem in itself. I don’t mind for instance that literally can mean figuratively; languages evolve and we shouldn’t have to be bound by relics of the past. Eg. I can call the word “disruptive” “bullshit”, it doesn’t mean I literally mean that it is a pile of bovine feces.
The problem with this overuse lies in the fact that the word disruption has acquired an important role in defining our shared representation of what direction our civilization(s) are going to take. For instance, when told Uber is a disruptive technology, I see a future where the existing coopted state-endorsed institutions are broken down in favor of a more liberal system allowing individuals to directly exchange services between each other. So I might be tempted to kick my feet up order Ubers to go everyone and passively wait for the social and economic revolution to happen.
Cultural significance of ‘Disruption’
Indeed, disruption is now perceived as more than simply acquiring market shares with a new product or business model. I believe that when we say or hear disruption we think about changes of great magnitude, that have significant direct or indirect effects of different natures on large populations.
It is undeniable that nowadays disruption is part of our cultural doxa. It is so strongly assimilated, that it is often used as a defining expression of the era we are living in: the disruptive era. Companies, people, administrations are on a common mission to disrupt society the same way they were putting civilization on the path of “progress” in other eras.
It is hard for me to make a difference between disruption and progress. Of course, there is a positive connotation to the word progress; where disruption is supposed to be more neutral. Progress can mean better and disruptive can mean different. Disruption implies a challenge of the status quo, which is a neutral mission. However, we live in tormented times and we are deeply critical of the systems we are living in. Thus the status quo, which is a mirror of the ‘past’, of backward times, has a negative connotation. By opposition, forward changes symbolize the future, improvement, progress… Thus, it is undeniable that in today’s language disruption implies a degree of improvement from a past situation.
Disruptive era: same process different results
So what is a disruptive era? I think it is often perceived as a transition period in which innovation (and more specifically technologies) will significantly alter (disrupt) the existing socio-economic order, to better reflect the positive values of society.
You can already see that there is a catch here by introducing the subjective notion of ‘positive values’. In a conversation about disruption, even if people think they are talking about the same process , they have different horizons.
For some, disruption will simply mean access to better products to a large audience, eg: the introduction of cheap reliable solar panels and batteries. It is disruptive because people have access to cheaper power and do not rely on energy providers and dirty energy. Others envision a greater reorganization of social relations with new business models. the Philosophy between P2P networks is not neutral it carries values like giving access to services to a larger population by lowering prices, taking down the big guys, have a greater freedom of choice.
In both these examples, disruption is a tool to change the existing relations between different nodes of a network and their individual experiences. This every definition of ‘disruption’ implies a reorganization of social structures. And anyone talking about social structures is really talking about distribution of wealth (I realize I am making a big and pedantic leap here but I don’t have much space to explore that statement next post maybe!). Whether you are a company making a lot more money thanks to a disruptive technology, or an organisation leveraging technologies to provide better public services; wealth distribution is a critical issue. I think that in a way when we want a fairer society we are thinking wealth being distributed in a way which one considers fair.
Disruptors have an urge to challenge the current way wealth is allocated to better represent their values. So at the end of a disruptive age there should be at least a fundamental redistribution of wealth and at best a complete reorganization of social structures (except if there is no end, then maybe are out disruptions not that efficient!). the only thing that differs from one definition to another is what shape that redistribution should have.
Internet Revolution and socio-economic changes
So let’s come back to our initial question: Are we in a disruptive era? Well… if everything is relative then maybe not. Following our definition of disruption we should focus on distribution of wealth, so we have to look at a highly polemical data set: inequalities. I don’t want to write an economics paper, so I won’t go into details about it. To go straight to the point Piketty observes that the inequalities are growing in recent years and predicts that it will get worse over time. His analysis has been widely acclaimed even though a strong minority have opposed his theory.
The fact that there is even a debate about whether or not inequalities have increased in recent years shows that societies are not becoming “fairer” with the rise of constant disruptive, revolutionary technologies since the 90s. We can notice that during most economic revolutions there are both an increase of inequalities and a rise of the standards of living. The problem today is that with the “Internet revolution”, standards of living don’t seem to be getting noticeably better in the western world (if compared to previous eras).
Let’s focus on the US which is the first country which is supposed to be affected by the digital disruption coming from the Silicon Valley. To me, the most relevant indicator to exemplify the lack of positive improvement in society are poverty and extreme poverty rates. 1 out of 7 American is living in poverty which is huge compared to the situation in the 1990s.
A recent report from IMF points out an “increasingly polarized income distribution, high levels of poverty, falling labor force participation, and weak productivity growth, and policies to combat these trends”. They predict that the wealth distribution and poverty could get worse in the coming years.
Of course, we can all argue that in making macroeconomic analysis we have to take into consideration the whole picture. One can argue that without the Internet Revolution the economy and poverty would be way worse. I’m just want to point out here that there are problems that are claimed to being addressed by ‘digital disruptors’ which are far from being solved. And the burden of proof should lie on the self-proclaimed ‘disruptors’ to show that they are indeed making the world a better place.
The role of technology in disruption
There might be no end to the disruption because we are amazing at tearing things down but not that great at creating new things. The Silicon Valley is giving the impression to be shaking the existing establishment but might be replacing it with a copy of it. At the moment Airbnb is under high scrutiny because it seems like the same problems it was supposed to solve keep resurfacing. Uber as well seems to simply have replaced a bunch of co-opted cab companies with a single giant entity. The services might have improved but at a fundamental level, things have not changed. They might be even worse since the previous oligopoly has been replaced by a monopolistic actor controlling it all.
One can argue that it is not the role of technologies to solve all the problems of the world. And that is probably true. However, numerous modern startups and transhumanist-like movements are making such claims. If we want technology to make such a difference and have a positive disruptive role in society, then we have to seriously think about other ways to leverage it.
We have to be cautious that we aren’t being fed a highly processed ‘disruption package’ to satisfy our need for purpose. The illusion of disruption may distract us from deeper issues that aren’t addressed by technologic innovation. We see that the world is shit, but we believe that we will be making a difference in the future, and forget about the very similar situations of the present and past.
Maybe there is an opportunity for serious disruption with the recent technological changes. Just in case it’s not enough, let’s not put all our faith in technology to solve our problems and let’s be conscious that those disruptive companies will remain companies. They make money, cut down costs, and will prioritize profit making, consolidating their position to social impact. Let’s not forget that one of the characteristics of neoliberalism is to reinvent itself, disruptive companies might simply be one more iteration of it.