Friday, December 11, 2020

Evolution or Revolution 3

Let me start this post with some quotes from @adriandaub's book What Tech Calls Thinking.

Disruption has become a way to tell a story about the meaning of both discontinuity and continuity.

Daub p 119

One ought to be skeptical of unsubstantiated claims of something's being totally new and not following the hitherto established rules (of business, of politics, of common sense), just as one is skeptical of claims that something which really does feel and look unprecedented is simply a continuation of the status quo.

Daub pp 115-6

For example, Uber.

Uber claims to have revolutionized the experience of hailing a cab, but really that experience has stayed largely the same. What it has managed to get rid of were steady jobs, unions, and anyone other than Uber's making money on the whole enterprise.

Daub p 105

Clayton Christensen would agree. In an article restating his original definition of the term Disruptive Innovation, he put Uber into the category of what he calls Sustaining Innovation.

Uber’s financial and strategic achievements do not qualify the company as genuinely disruptive—although the company is almost always described that way.

HBR 2015

However, as I pointed out on Twitter earlier today, Christensen's use of the word disruptive has been widely diverted by big tech vendors and big consultancies in an attempt to glamorize their marketing to big corporates. If you put the name of any of the big consultancies into an Internet search engine together with the word disruption, you can find many examples of this. Here's one picked at random: Discover how you can seize the upside of disruption across your industry.

The same experiment can be tried with other jargon terms, such as paradigm shift. By the way, Daub notes that Alex Karp, one of the founders of Palantir, wrote his doctoral dissertation on jargon - speech that is used more for the feelings it engenders and transports in certain quarters than for its informational content (Daub p 85).

@jchyip thinks we should try to stick to Christensen's original definitions. But although I don't approve of vendors fudging perfectly good technical terms for their own marketing purposes, there is sometimes a limit to the extent to which we can insist that such terms still carry their original meaning.

And to my mind this is not just a dispute about the meaning of the word disruptive but a question of which discourse shall prevail. I have long argued that claims of continuity and novelty are not always mututally exclusive, since they may simply be alternative descriptions of the same thing for different audiences. The choice of description is then a question of framing rather than some objective truth. As Daub notes

The way the term is used today really implies that whatever continuity is being disrupted deserved to be disrupted.

Daub p 119

For more on this, see the earlier posts in this series: Evolution or Revolution (May 2006), Evolution or Revolution 2 (March 2010)

In a comment below the March 2010 post, @cecildjx asked my opinion on the (relative) significance of the Internet versus the iPhone. Here's what I answered.

My argument is that our feelings about technology are fundamentally and systematically distorted by glamour and proximity. Of course we are often fascinated by the most-recent, and we tend to take the less-recent for granted, but that is an unreliable basis for believing that the recent is (or will turn out to be) more significant from a larger historical perspective.

What I really find interesting (from a socio-historical perspective) is how quickly technologies can shift from fascinating to taken-for-granted. Since I started work, my working life have been transformed by a range of tools, including word processing, spreadsheets, mobile phones, fax machines, email and internet. Apart from a few developers working for Microsoft or Google, is anyone nowadays fascinated by word processors or spreadsheets? If we pay attention to the social changes brought about by the Internet, and ignore the social changes brought about by the word processor, then of course we will get a distorted view of the internet's importance. If we glamorize the iPhone while regarding older mobile telephones as uninteresting, we end up making a fetish of some specific design features of a particular product.

If we have a distorted sense of which innovations are truly disruptive or significant, we also have a distorted sense of technological change as a whole. There is a widespread belief that the pace of technological change is increasing, but this could be an illusion caused (again) by proximity. See my post on Rates of Evolution (September 2007), where I also note that some stakeholders have a vested interest in talking up the pace of technology change.

Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor, and Rory McDonald, What Is Disruptive Innovation? (HBR Magazine, December 2015)

Adrian Daub, What Tech Calls Thinking (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2020)

Thanks to @jchyip for kicking off the most recent discussion.

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