"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On the Banality of Disruptive Innovation

When a herd grabs hold of something, odds are that its original meaning will not only get trampled over, but also in a way that turns it up-side down before spreading it all over as if it were sweet-smelling manure. Particularly striking is the ensuing willfulness that typically contravenes efforts to pen in the herd to the confines of the term’s definition. I have in mind the erroneous and even tautological self-aggrandizing trajectory of the term disruption in the business sector of society. Drawing on Nietzsche, I submit that the offending sickness is centered in an interlarding presumptuousness to define an existing word conveniently, even in ways that are antithetical to the received meaning. That is to say, this cultural problem involves more than garden-variety ignorance.

In his essay in New York Magazine, Kevin Roose maligns all the efforts by business practitioners to fly the flag of disruption as “an all-purpose rhetorical bludgeon” that “can distract.”[1] In spite of disruptive innovation being defined as the process by which “’technologically straightforward’ services target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders,” many “disruptive” start-ups do not actually follow this route.

Tesla Motors, for example, may render fossil fuels obsolete for cars, but the innovation “is not disruptive in the classic sense, since its approach has been to start selling to high-end buyers with the hope of eventually moving downmarket.” Nor are Google’s  “smart” thermostats disruptive either, going at $249 each. According to Maxwell Wessel, “If a start-up . . . launches a better product, at a higher margin, to an incumbent’s best customers—that’s not distruption. That’s just . . . innovation.” I contend that it is precisely such “just innovation” that the self-aggrandizing herd animals are refusing to accept in over-reaching to misappropriate the label of disruption. Undoubtedly, a hardened refusal to go back to mere innovation confronts any effort (such as Roose’s) to defend the integrity of the word. That is to say, a refusal to accept a realistic rendering of one’s achievement is at least one of the sources of the presumptuousness in ignoring or even dismissing such correction.

If my theory holds, the operative dynamic is not a lack of education. To be sure, instructors in business schools may have joined in with the herd, using disruption as a buzzword without pointing out that a tautology—something that applies to virtually everything in a domain—is actually void of any substantive meaning. If disruption is in every company, then disruption is actually the order of the existing status quo. If every innovation is disruptive, then why bother to say so? Why boast of breathing air when everyone is doing it?

Did Mark Zuckerberg know the meaning of the word in its business sense when he was presumably pontificating about it? That he dropped out of Harvard in his second year may imply something about how much he values "book learning." Yet more than just disvaluing the vaults of knowledge in academe is involved in the adoption of a fashionable buzzword and refusing to back down from a tautological and even an erroneous usage. (Image Source: Business Insider)

So ignorance is not extraneous. Not all disruptive change is good; the financial crisis of 2008 resulted in large part from the innovations in derivative security products and the related risk-swaps made infamous by AIG. The corporate managers “blindly waving the flag of disruption” are indeed ignorant of what the term means in terms of innovation. Even if the intent is to engage in “meaningless rhetoric” for motivational purposes, the “incessant droning on” must surely connote a more generalized condition of ignorance to anyone who knows what the term actually means.

Should an attempt to correct the incorrect or tautological use be rebuffed, the ignorance that can’t be wrong manifests something else: presumptuousness like that of ignorance on stilts during a flood—the presumption to being entitled to more than is justified by the facts on the ground. Although a refusal to face the handwriting on the wall is doubtless in the mix, this does not exhaust the explanation for why a person would join the buzzword chorus in the first place. Presumption resides even in assuming a sort of license to use a word to suit one’s own situation without bothering to find out what the word actually means. Ironically, the attempt to vaunt one’s venture by adopting a buzzword gives the manager—and, by extension, the company—a pedestrian, or low-class, air; for in over-reaching in a banal way, a person becomes a grasping herd-animal whose will to power, Nietzsche tells us, extends beyond whatever strength it has innately.

[1]This an all other quotes in this essay are from: Kevin Roose, “Let’s All Stop Saying ‘Disrupt’ Right This Instant,” New York Magazine, June 16, 2014.