Buzzword, promise and declared goal of many start up-ventures, technology endeavors and fintech-products. The term was first popularised by Clayton Christensen, a Professor at Harvard Business School. In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen introduced the idea of ‘disruptive innovation’. He used it to describe the way in which successful companies might anticipate customers’ future needs as well as current ones, and the term was used to explain how a small company with limited resources could enter a market and displace established providers.
Hence, a disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior. Recent disruptive technology examples include e-commerce, online news sites, ride-sharing apps, GPS systems, and blockchain technology. In their own times, the automobile, electricity service and television all were disruptive technologies.
Looking at “disruption” as a buzzword that is passed around especially in start up culture can be helpful to understand investing and economy as an exercise in storytelling and worldbuilding as much as in creating an actual product. The carefully crafted promise of a company’s disruptive potential targets the narrative fallacy all humans are subject to. It fuels imagination and phantasy and thus facilitates the attraction of venture capital and media resonance. Closely linked to this form of storytelling and worldbuilding are individuals, so-called “visionaries,” figures who are supposed to embody a company’s or product’s genuinely disruptive radical character. Recent examples are Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Tesla’s Elon Musk, who are pumped up to become quasi-superhuman beings. Note the eerie, but perhaps unsurprising absence of women and People of Color from this environment.
Whereas the term disruption in its quasi-religious fervor may be new, the practice of mythological figures spearheading disruptive enterprises is at least as old as cut-throat capitalism. In their own days, the aptly labelled “robber baron” industrialists of the late 19th and early 20th century may have played that role.
Arguably, the way in which (technology) products are being developed and released itself has undergone a process of disruption: The advent of the internet (a genuine moment of disruption) and processes that were labelled as “democratizing” has seen businesses—especially those in the tech industry—turn product development on its head, releasing and selling products that are essentially prototypes, to be optimized and completed with the help of its users (“help” frequently meaning involuntary, e.g. by gathering user data or included in other products via gatekeepers, such as the (now almost legacy) Captcha-technology). Nicholas Negroponte’s famed dictum “demo or die” is flipped, here and the demo, i.e. the unfinished product, the prototype spills out from the simulated and encased environment of the laboratory into the “real” world, turning it into a giant testbed.
Adrian Daub contains all this in one beautiful sentence when he states that “Disruption is a theodicy of hypercapitalism.”