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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shifting Paradigms and Disruptive Technology

Why on earth would technologists wish to claim that their favourite innovation is a "disruptive technology", let alone a "paradigm shift"?

Disruptive technologies are like awkward adolescents - rude, unreliable, difficult. As Tim O'Reilly pointed out several years ago

"Disruptive technologies are often not "better" when they start out -- in fact, they are often worse. Case in point: the PC. It wasn't better than the mainframe or minicomputer. It was a toy. Similarly, the WWW was far less capable than proprietary CD-ROM hypertext systems, and far less capable than desktop apps. And developers of both derided it as slow, ungainly, and ineffective. This is a typical response to disruptive technologies." [Lunchtime Keynote at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, May 8, 2002]

More examples from the IT world: relational databases, object orientation, anything by Christopher Alexander.

Paradigm shifts are even worse. In science, the new paradigm is supposed to be incommensurable with the old one. As Paul Feyerabend pointed out, even the basic concepts have to be reinterpreted to fit the new paradigm. So if something is easy to understand and quick to adopt, then it probably isn't a paradigm shift. [For a quick introduction, see Steven Shaviro on Against Method.] Bruno Latour's sociological take on science and technology is probably more relevant than Kuhn/Popper/Feyerabend/Lakatos these days, but even his account doesn't exactly encourage us to overuse these terms.

I guess we aren't supposed to take these terms literally. Randall C. Willis, the Executive Editor of Drug Discovery News, reckons the presence of these two terms is a dead giveaway for unfounded hype. His article Hopped up on Hype (October 2005) presently ranks top in an internet search for "paradigm shift disruptive technology".

Presently coming second, somewhat to my surprise, is the piece that made me put aside my other work to write something here - a blogpost called Event Servers, A Disruptive Technology by one Perren Walker of Oracle, extolling the virtues of Event Servers in general and Oracle's Event Server in particular. I arrived at this piece via Opher Etzion of IBM, who responded with a piece called On Event Processing as a paradigm shift.

Opher make the paradigm shift sounds like an exercise in navigating through some topological space - avoiding barriers and finding new avenues. I certainly agree that this is a good source of metaphors for change management, including technology change management.

But why call it a paradigm shift? What's so cool about paradigm shifts, and why are vendors boasting of the disruptive qualities of their products?

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