Disruption’s a magical buzzword these days, uncritically seized upon wherever you go. Far more than it ever was with new technologies, anyone who raises questions is an obvious counter-revolutionary, a luddite, a fan of the inefficient status quo. There’s precious little quality critical thinking around innovations like taxi apps, selling restaurant reservations, and market regulation – most of the discourse is either bandwagon fandom or knee-jerk anti-ism. Lepore, more a cultural than economic historian, seems to get the organizational and economic sociology of disruption and contributes a useful bit of provocation into an otherwise too often one-sided conversation.
From The New Yorker
In the last years of the nineteen-eighties, I worked not at startups but at what might be called finish-downs. Tech companies that were dying would hire temps—college students and new graduates—to do what little was left of the work of the employees they’d laid off. This was in Cambridge, near M.I.T. …. We’d work a month here, a week there. There wasn’t much to do. Mainly, we sat at our desks and wrote wishy-washy poems on keyboards manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation, left one another sly messages on pink While You Were Out sticky notes, swapped paperback novels—Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, that kind of thing—and, during lunch hour, had assignations in empty, unlocked offices. At Polaroid, I once found a Bantam Books edition of “Steppenwolf” in a clogged sink in an employees’ bathroom, floating like a raft. “In his heart he was not a man, but a wolf of the steppes,” it said on the bloated cover. The rest was unreadable.
Porter was interested in how companies succeed. … Clayton M. Christensen… was interested in why companies fail. In his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he argued that, very often, it isn’t because their executives made bad decisions but because they made good decisions, the same kind of good decisions that had made those companies successful for decades. (The “innovator’s dilemma” is that “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”)
In “The Innovative University,” … Christensen and Eyring wrote, “will allow us to move beyond the forlorn language of crisis to hopeful and practical strategies for success.” … Christensen and Eyring’s recommendations for the disruption of the modern university include a “mix of face-to-face and online learning.” The publication … in 2011, contributed to a frenzy for Massive Open Online Courses…. Shortly afterward, the University of Virginia’s panicked board of trustees attempted to fire the president, charging her with jeopardizing the institution’s future by failing to disruptively innovate with sufficient speed….
- June, Anna North. 2014. “Arguing About the Truth of Disruption.” NYT OpTalk June 18, 2014
- Roose, Kevin. 2014. “The Problem With Profitless Start-ups,” New York Magazine, April 11, 2014
- Yglesias, Matthew. 2013 “Stop ‘Disrupting’ Everything: How a once-useful concept turned into a meaningless buzzword,” Slate, May 1, 2013