There are certain phrases that are central to the sway the tech industry holds over our collective imagination: they do not simply reflect our experience, they frame how we experience it in the first place. They sweep aside certain parts of the status quo, and leave other parts mysteriously untouched. They implicitly cast you as a stick-in-the-mud if you ask how much revolution someone is capable of when that person represents billions in venture capital investment. Among the most influential of these phrases is undoubtedly “disruption”.
The concept of disruption is a way for companies, the press or simply individuals to think about questions of continuity and discontinuity – what lasts and what doesn’t, what is genuinely new and what is just the next version of something older. There is a lot at stake in how we think about these issues. Are the changes the tech industry brings about, or claims to bring about, fundamental transformations of how capitalism functions, or are they an extension of how it has always functioned? The answers to such questions will determine what regulatory oversight we believe is necessary or desirable, what role we think the government or unions should play in a new industry such as tech, and even how the industry and its titans ought to be discussed.
When we speak of disruption, we are usually thinking about the perils of continuity; we express the sense that continuity works fine until it doesn’t. To some extent, this sense that things staying the same for too long is dangerous and makes us risk falling behind, is characteristic of modernity – not in the sense of a specific time period so much as the condition of being modern, living in a modern age. As the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in the 19th century, when the world around him was modernising at a breakneck pace: “The form of a city / changes faster, alas, than a mortal’s heart.” Keep living the way you’re living, and soon enough you’ll find yourself living in the past.
More specifically, though, disruption resonates with our experience of capitalism. Think of all the companies and products that you remember treating as seemingly permanent, inextricable fixtures of your everyday life, that nevertheless slid right out and disappeared with time. Recall, if you’re of the right age, the act of respooling a cassette tape with your pinkie finger, or the phrase “Be kind, please rewind”. Or, for a slightly younger generation, the whistles of a dial-up modem or the mastication of a floppy disk drive. Disruption tells a story that explains how things that seem as if they will last forever nevertheless come to be short-lived. [Continue reading…]