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Disrupt Everything! (as long as it’s profitable)

The blaring of the foghorn interrupted the executive’s line of thought.

From his seat on the stage the executive’s words turned into mutterings as he looked out on the alternately shocked and bemused audience. With mouth slightly ajar the moderator searched the crowd for the source of the sound whilst making gestures that the executive should continue. Clearing his throat the executive prepared to speak once more – to finish his point about the new app, new device, new privacy settings, or whatever he had been saying (he had forgotten) – but before he could get through another five words the foghorn screeched out again. Luckily, this time the event’s security team was ready and they hastily worked to eject the interloper. Though as the foghorn blower was ejected from the event another voice called out from the audience:

“Wait…so you don’t like it when people decide to just go ahead and disrupt you?”

_            _            _            _

The above story is not a recounting of actual events. Yet it is the type of story which one might hope to find nestled somewhere in the various reams of reporting done about the tech conferences that seem to occur every three minutes. In particular it would have been the type of occurrence that might have been enlivened the recent conference held by the tech site TechCrunch, a conference series with the title: “Disrupt.”

There is certain degree to which you have to give a conference that so merrily displays its ideological core credit – it is not as if they were trying to be subtle. “Disruption” is something of a mantra for the tech world, a buzzword that evokes a range of topics and stances without clearly having to explain their details. And one important detail that often goes unstated is that disruption flows in one direction. Conferences like “Disrupt” are bacchanals wherein the tech sector drinks of its self-given right to disrupt the lives of those who were not invited to the conference in the first place. After all, they would want there to be some kind of disruption.

“Disruption” is a complicated term, made all the more difficult as an argument could easily be advanced that most things cause some form of disruption. Indeed the history of technology is replete with incidents and developments that can easily be construed as disruptions. The printing press was quite disruptive, as was the telescope, as was the telephone, as was…you get the point. Nevertheless, a shift arises when we move from a situation wherein technological change causes disruptions as a side effect, to one in which technological change is seen as an excuse to cause disruptions. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that disruption is no longer an aspect to be considered, minimized, and mulled over – rather it is becoming an ideology in and of itself wherein disruption has become synonymous with equally sticky terms like “progress” and “innovation.”

No linger linked to terrestrial or ethical concerns disruption is able to charge ahead without needing to worry about the consequences. The internal logic being that consequences are just a trade-off, one in which the “upside” makes the “downside” worth it – though this assessment tends to be made by those whose position ensures that they will not personally experience the downside. The power to disrupt is one that is a result of little more than financial power – the wealth of a large corporation, or the wealth of a venture capitalist – and though it may attempt to encase itself in a vaguely humanistic glow (“this will help people do thing Q better”), the lack of concern for those being disrupted reveals this glow to be toxic fallout (and it sometimes literally is toxic).

The logic of disruption can clearly be seen whenever a proprietary platform changes its terms of service in such a way that millions of users are suddenly shifted into a setting different from that to which they had agreed – the rate of these changes, lack of notification, and difficulty to leave all serving as signifiers of the one directional flow of disruption. Likewise one encounters disruption in the flow of devices that encounter outsized public hostility but to which a company simply shrugs – Google Glass is an object lesson in a company asserting its right to totally disrupt the public sphere – legitimate concerns be damned. Disruption is actually built into many of the consumer electronics people encounter as the regime of planned obsolescence continually keeps people having to adjust to the newest model. Eventually the embrace of the logic of disruption turns into a self-fulfilling right – allowing tech executives to casually contemplate questions like: “Which industry will tech put out of business next?

It is imperative to see past the buzzword aura of “disruption,” past its faux-rebellious cyberpunk chic, to recognize that “disruption” is just another way of saying “corporate power.” And yes, those wielding this power tend to be a group of straight, white, wealthy men from industrialized nations confident that they know what’s best for everybody. Because…the devices may change but the ideology has not. It’s just that now we get “what’s best for us” not from men in military uniforms or suits, but men in turtlenecks and hooded sweatshirts.

If some seem eager to assert a right to disrupt, it raises the question whether or not people have a right not to be disrupted. After all, most notions of freedom are premised upon some degree of autonomy and control over oneself and one’s environment – how can this be achieved if one is constantly at the mercy of disruption? Yet here – once more – it is the strangeness of the word “disruption” that makes us stumble. For it is not about the right to “disrupt” it is about the desire of those commanding power to use their power in their own interests, but the tech industry knows that “disruption” sounds sleeker (less corporate and less imperial) than power.

Nevertheless , the power dynamic of “disruption” is evident whenever an incident occurs in which – for even a moment – the one directional flow of disruption gets altered. When stores ban Google Glass from their premises this strikes Google as a grotesque disruption – insofar as it dares to question Google’s “right” to disrupt whatever it wants without consequences. Likewise – as is seen of late in parts of California – the tech sector is happy to disrupt the functioning and running of communities and neighborhoods, but when residents of those areas organize in defense of their homes their disruptive acts are cause to call the police. To a certain extent one can even see the mad scramble by tech companies to buy up possible competitors and start-ups (Nest, Oculus, WhatsApp, GoodReads, Tumblr, etc…) as a way in which the major firms are ensuring that their powerful positions will not be disrupted. Heck, they even seem opposed to the “disruption” that actually paying their taxes would pose (another way of saying this is really about financial power [but I digress]).

Disruption and the ability to disrupt are not neutral or ambivalent categories. Indeed, they make it ever more evident that behind our digital devices stand actual human beings with very real ideologies and agendas – and at the core of these agendas is the maintenance of these people’s own positions. When a man on stage at a tech conference (and it is usually a [white] man) unveils a new “disruptive” device – it is worth remembering that the “disruptive” qualities of that device were not inevitable. Rather, they were the result of a set of decisions by a group of people in a position of power.

Furthermore, one should not fall victim to the argumentative distraction that one can “simply not use that device” – for technological change does not simply disrupt the individual using it but the wider society in which it is used. You need not use Google Glass, Facebook (with its deepface function), or the new (biometric enabled) iPhone personally to experience larger societal disruptions these systems usher in. At the core of the doctrine of disruption – as tech firms seem to recognize – is a recognition that things are disruptive at first, but then people become accustomed (or inured). After all, people may be hesitant to Glass now, but Google remains confident that if they keep up the disruptive pressure people will eventually just get used to it (or give up).

The printing press was an extremely disruptive invention. It upended orthodoxy and ushered in an era where learning could be more easily (and inexpensively) spread. It is true that similar claims are often made about new computerized technologies – that they too will upend orthodoxy and usher in an era where learning can be more easily (and inexpensively) spread. Yet the basic tools of printing are (and were) relatively cheap, relatively accessible, and relatively easy to use – but most importantly the inventor of the printing press was not able to continually alter the terms of service for use of the printing press, was not able to control what was printed on it, and was not able to turn the printing press into a ready made surveillance tool.

No, the true glory of the printing press was that it allowed disruption to flow in many directions – without such flow really being the reinforcement of the dominant group’s power. The printing press was less an invention of disruptive power than it was an invention that gave more people the power to disrupt. To borrow the language of Lewis Mumford we could say that a tool that gives people the ability to disrupt power is a “democratic technic” while a tool that gives power the ability to disrupt people is an “authoritarian technic.” While the disruptive tools of power (think of the “social media revolts” [a meaningless and historically incorrect term]) may give people the ability to disrupt some power structures – the larger powers (including the first-world tech companies) remain. A disruptive technology can in some situations be used for democratic purposes, but that does not make that technology democratic.

When we encounter new technological devices in our daily lives we can easily assess the power dynamic in which we have become embroiled with a simple question: does this device disrupt me (and other people) to a greater or lesser extent than it allows me to disrupt those who designed it? Though we should also ask: what are the unseen disruptions this causes?

These are questions that raise serious ethical and societal questions – if the task of answering them is left to those in power we should not be surprised that the answers they come up with entrench their position.

When a new technological toy or tool primarily disrupts the users than “disruption” is just being used as a better sounding way of saying “power” and “control.” And those singing the praise of “disruption” are drunk on their own power, as they know that the disruption does not flow in both directions.

Or, to return to the opening tale, how much would the “disrupters” like it if it was their power and position that was being disrupted?

There’s a reason one does not see such tools – ones that aim to really disperse power – on the dais at most tech conferences.

Tools that threaten those in entrenched positions of economic power? Those would be far too disruptive.

_            _            _            _

 

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“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on May 9, 2014 by in Activism, Books, Capitalism, Ethics, History, Society, Technology, Technophiles, The Internet and tagged , .

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