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DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION WILL NOT SOLVE THE PANDEMIC

Santiago Zabala

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This pandemic is closer to a disruption than a crisis or emergency. While all three refer to unexpected and dangerous events requiring immediate action not all involve a rupture. Crises and emergencies have become chronic conditions in finance and politics. This is why we prepare for them through financial contingency plans, safety drills, and disseminating information for the public. These, according to some political scientists, can also socialize people into better democratic habits and attitudes. Disruptions, by contrast, are meant to tear apart our existence. To take a prominent contemporary example, think of the industries that Uber and Amazon have disrupted by offering cheaper services and products.


According to some experts the current pandemic is affecting our lives to a greater degree than the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the economic crisis of 2008 combined. This is why many say that we are “at war” with the virus. But of course a virus does not pursue political victories or demand changes in our foreign policies. Thinking in these terms is likely to lead to muddled and ineffective responses. Just think of a similarly misguided war, specifically the “war on terror,” which has trapped us in an ineffective cycle of militarized responses to a problem that cannot be solved by military means.

This same logic should also be applied to those politicians, business leaders and entrepreneurs who think the Covid-19 virus must be approached through “disruptive innovation”. This is how Donald Trump has approached the emergency. For example, his suggestion that medical experts should expose the human body to heat and light, inject disinfectants, or simply follow his own treatment of hydroxychloroquine provide cheap and quick solutions to a problem that requires permanent ones, irrespective of their cost. His “quick fix” approach has only wasted valuable time that could have been spent better preparing his country for a crisis that will last for years. As several virologists have explained, the discovery of a vaccine will not solve the pandemic as its production and distribution will require global cooperation and distribution that will take years to put in practice. We do not need further disruptions; rather, we need to regain the balance and continuity that has been disrupted by the virus. In the face of calls for disruptive innovation, it is necessary to clarify its meaning as too often the indifference that lies at its core is overlooked.

President Donald J. Trump engaging in some
blue sky thinking with Dr Deborah Birx

DISRUPTION, ACCORDING TO ITS LATIN ORIGIN, SIGNIFIES "RUPTURE", TEARING APART, AND VIOLENTLY DISSOLVING CONTINUITY. 

In one of his last interviews the academic and business consultant Clayton M. Christensen linked “disruptive innovation” to God’s desire that “all of mankind … be successful. The only way to make this happen is to help individual people become better people, and innovation is the key to unlocking evermore opportunities to do that.” But disruption, according to its Latin origin, signifies “rupture”, tearing apart, and violently dissolving continuity. As a metonym for progress since the nineties, it has spread the illusion that innovation is always an improvement regardless of its social consequences. Its association with Silicon Valley and business culture in general has led us to disregard the reckless adverse effects of progress without responsibility. In fact, this indifference is vital to understanding the meaning of disruption and our fascination with this idea that is constantly deployed to exploit our hope that innovation will save us. “Disruption,” as French philosopher Bernard Stiegler noted, “radicalizes the reversal of all values,” whether technological, political, or religious.


Like other concepts whose meanings are elided by overuse, such as nihilism, postmodernism, and populism, disruption requires philosophical elucidation. As a variation of Joseph Schumpeter’s “planned obsolescence” and “creative destruction,” Christensen’s “innovative disruption” has become a koiné – a common language – transferred from the realm of capitalist business and now used to predict success in arenas (social, political, and cultural) with very different values and goals. Christensen’s theory is based on the idea of indifference to the present and a focus on an always about-to-arrive futurity. This indifference is manifest in the difference between “sustaining innovations” and “disruptive innovations” in business: companies that make only careful, small, gradual refinements are often overrun by companies that make big changes that allow them to produce a cheaper, poorer-quality product for a much larger market. Disruption, as a leaked New York Times management report quoted by historian Jill Lepore states, is “a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players.” For Christensen, “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”

Without the internet, Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma (and its associated theory of disruptive innovation) would not have become a business bible for entrepreneurs and innovators. It provided a theory to justify the methodology used by the profits-above-all mindset when launching new products in an age of rapid change, uncertainty, and indifference. The internet provides a global machine for encouraging disruption regardless of its social consequences. Although its designers did not express it in these terms, the disruptiveness of the internet, as John Naughton points out, is a feature, not a bug. During the advent of the internet, disruption became a watchword for innovators (“Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough,” Mark Zuckerberg said), whose model of business and economic citizenship shifted radically from one that involved dialogue to one driven by tweeting. This new culture of indifference in the name of profit eliminates possibilities for solidarity.


Disruptive innovation, as Lepore illustrates, represents the culmination of the Enlightenment notion of progress that has been progressively stripped of its noble aspirations. In the eighteenth century, the West embraced the idea of progress; in the nineteenth, evolution; and in the twentieth, growth and innovation. And the problem today is that the idea of disruption dominates the rhetoric of not only Silicon Valley but also other industries and contemporary societies all over the world. Disruption has taken over as a common language in which to project not just success but also a future of unforeclosed possibilities. This success is premised on technology’s capacity to continuously offer cheaper alternatives to established products – and on the promise that innovation is always an improvement, regardless of its consequences.

Disruptive innovation in journalism, for example, has emerged as a paradigm for replacing traditional methods with new ways that value novelty and speed. A notable example is the transformation of The New Republic after it was brought by the co-founder of Facebook Chris Hughes in 2012. Editor Franklin Foer was replaced, editorials were not run anymore, and the magazine was reduced from twenty issues per year to ten, thus becoming a “vertically integrated digital-media company.” It should not be surprising that sixty percent of Americans get their news through social media and a third of all traffic to media sites flows from Google. “This has placed media”, as Foer explained, “in a state of abject financial dependence on tech companies. To survive, media companies lost track of their values.”


This valuation of progress without quality has allowed these pillars of democratic nations to be further subverted by capital, falling prey to market drives that prioritize the value to shareholders over the value of the product. The belief that companies and industries that failed were somehow destined to fail is at the heart not only of Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation but also of a neoliberal age that holds that government should play no role in restraining corporate behaviour. Giving corporate behaviour a free pass has facilitated the application of disruption’s indifference to arenas that affect society, politics, and culture. Numerous conferences, channels, and summits established even in just the most recent decade demonstrate that “disruption” has become a source of veneration, a positive valence, even a brand.

ONE STRATEGY FOR RESISTING DISRUPTION IS TO DEMONSTRATE THAT ITS BENEFITS ARE IN FACT BASED ON SHAKY EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE 

One strategy for resisting disruption is to demonstrate that its benefits are in fact based on shaky empirical evidence. This has been the approach taken by Michael Porter (“disruptive technologies that are successful in displacing established leaders are extremely rare”) and Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh (“only seven of the 77 business case studies covered by Christensen’s fit his own criteria of what constitutes disruptive innovation”), among other scholars. While these analyses are useful to debunk the illusion that disruption is always an improvement, they seem to do little to check the widespread enthusiasm for it. “Exaggerated claims for disruption,” as Mark C. Taylor points out, “usually result from a failure of memory, which is symptomatic of a preoccupation with the present in a culture addicted to speed.”


This addiction can be overcome by thinking through longer stretches of time. It requires practices that reexamine our existential narratives, such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, and politics although each of these contemplative fields faces disruptive forces of its own in, respectively, scientistic analytic thought, over-prescription of drugs, and populist pronouncements delivered through Twitter. But when these existential narratives manage to provide citizens with a picture of world events and a sense, however limited, of political community, disruption comes to be seen less as a value to follow than a sign of indifference, displacement, and alienation that must be prevented.


It should come as no surprise, as Stiegler points out, that disruption was “announced and foreshadowed not just by Adorno and Horkheimer as the ‘new kind of barbarism’, but by Martin Heidegger as the ‘end of philosophy’, by Maurice Blanchot as the advent of ‘impersonal forces’, by Jacques Derrida as ‘monstrosity’, and, before all of these, by Nietzsche as nihilism.” If disruption is the culmination of these events we must pursue these authors’ experimental responses, which called for different conceptual platforms where existence can continue to strive.


The disruption caused by the pandemic cannot be resolved by more disruption. This is not the time for “doing the wrong thing” or “breaking stuff” (as Christensen and Zuckerberg would say). Instead of cheaper and inferior alternatives through new technologies for a much larger market, balances must be restored in spite of higher costs and losses incurred. This is also the objective of the vaccine scientist: to restore health. Discovering a vaccine will not be a disruption so much as a solution, and any vaccine will only work alongside basic social and public co-operation. It should not come as a surprise that Trump, as a true disruptor, instead attempted to secure exclusive rights to the vaccine. 

 

In sum, this pandemic requires global collaboration, responsibility, and solidarity in which there is no place for indifference in the name of profit. Searching for disruptive innovations is a sign of indifference rather than solidarity.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author or editor of 13 books and has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, and Al-Jazeera. His most recent book is Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). His website is: http://www.santiagozabala.com

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