Saturday, September 26, 2020

"The disruption con: why big tech’s favourite buzzword is nonsense"

From The Gueardian:

How one magic word became a way of justifying Silicon Valley’s unconstrained power 
There are certain phrases that are central to the sway the tech industry holds over our collective imagination: they do not simply reflect our experience, they frame how we experience it in the first place. They sweep aside certain parts of the status quo, and leave other parts mysteriously untouched. They implicitly cast you as a stick-in-the-mud if you ask how much revolution someone is capable of when that person represents billions in venture capital investment. Among the most influential of these phrases is undoubtedly “disruption”.

The concept of disruption is a way for companies, the press or simply individuals to think about questions of continuity and discontinuity – what lasts and what doesn’t, what is genuinely new and what is just the next version of something older. There is a lot at stake in how we think about these issues. Are the changes the tech industry brings about, or claims to bring about, fundamental transformations of how capitalism functions, or are they an extension of how it has always functioned? The answers to such questions will determine what regulatory oversight we believe is necessary or desirable, what role we think the government or unions should play in a new industry such as tech, and even how the industry and its titans ought to be discussed.

When we speak of disruption, we are usually thinking about the perils of continuity; we express the sense that continuity works fine until it doesn’t. To some extent, this sense that things staying the same for too long is dangerous and makes us risk falling behind, is characteristic of modernity – not in the sense of a specific time period so much as the condition of being modern, living in a modern age. As the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in the 19th century, when the world around him was modernising at a breakneck pace: “The form of a city / changes faster, alas, than a mortal’s heart.” Keep living the way you’re living, and soon enough you’ll find yourself living in the past.

More specifically, though, disruption resonates with our experience of capitalism. Think of all the companies and products that you remember treating as seemingly permanent, inextricable fixtures of your everyday life, that nevertheless slid right out and disappeared with time. Recall, if you’re of the right age, the act of respooling a cassette tape with your pinkie finger, or the phrase “Be kind, please rewind”. Or, for a slightly younger generation, the whistles of a dial-up modem or the mastication of a floppy disk drive. Disruption tells a story that explains how things that seem as if they will last forever nevertheless come to be short-lived.

Neither those who argue for continuity nor those who are in favour of discontinuity are disinterested parties – everyone has a stake in these things. I have to include myself in this. I confess to being very wary of claims of disruption, but then again, as a professor of literature, I’m in a profession that pretty much depends on the idea that the past matters a lot and that messing with it in any meaningful sense entails spending a lot of time studying it. As Mandy Rice-Davies put it when she was told that the politician Lord Astor denied having an affair with her: “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” And I would argue that stewardship of the past is more important than riding roughshod over it, wouldn’t I?

Nonetheless, I think at least some of the rhetoric of disruption depends on actively misunderstanding and misrepresenting the past. We can call this the infomercial effect. You don’t see quite so many of them today, but they were once ubiquitous, and they would follow the same template: “Don’t you hate it when,” they would ask, and name an extremely minor problem with some mundane task you honestly couldn’t say you had ever encountered. Then they’d offer their revolutionary solution to the problem they had invented about 30 seconds prior. The infomercial deliberately misinterpreted whatever it was seeking to disrupt. One of the greatest works of collective satire of the internet age are the 6,069 and counting Amazon reviews for the Hutzler 571 banana slicer, which mock exactly the mania for buzzy solutions in search of a problem – “No more paying for those expensively sliced fruits- i can just stay at home,” joked one user.
The reason infomercials use this template is that it taps into a pretty pervasive sense of boredom. We get excited when things get shaken up, for the big and powerful to get taken down a peg. There is a joy in seeing “the system” shaken up, old hierarchies up-ended, Goliaths falling to Davids. Such narratives play to our impatience with structures and situations that seem to coast on habit and inertia, and to the press’s excitement about underdogs, rebels, outsiders. If you look back at coverage of Theranos, until the fateful article by John Carreyrou in the Wall Street Journal that brought the company down, few journalists really bothered to ask whether or not Theranos could do what it claimed to be able to do – they asked what would happen if it could. Disruption is high drama. The claim that “things work the way they work because there’s a certain logic to them” is not.

The idea of disruption has a particularly strange backstory. Probably its oldest ancestors are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the modern capitalist world is characterised by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions”, so that, as they put it, “all that is solid melts into air”. Whereas the premodern world was defined by a few stable certainties, by centuries-old tradition, and governed by ancient habits of thought, in modernity all fixed relations “are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify”. You can sense their giddiness, even though the situation they describe is disorienting and ultimately nightmarish. And yet they are giddy, because they feel that this accelerating cycle of constant destruction and replacement ultimately destroys itself.

This idea made its way from the Communist Manifesto into business jargon by way of the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who, in a 1942 book, coined the phrase “creative destruction”. Although hardly a communist himself, Schumpeter derived the term from Marx and intended it to be descriptive rather than affirmative. Born in Austria in 1883, Schumpeter was steeped in both Marxian economics and in the work of classical liberal economists such as Ludwig von Mises. He became one of the great analysts of the business cycle, but also of its social ramifications. In 1932, he became a professor at Harvard. Schumpeter thought that capitalism would almost gradually lead to some kind of state socialism, a fact that he didn’t exactly welcome but thought inevitable....