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Disruption? May 19, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Jane Ruffino had another excellent column in the SBP this weekend. I think it’s worth making appoint. Ruffino’s analysis is particularly good given that it is infused with a clear understanding of equality and how commercial entities have on occasion massively disproportionate power. But aspects of her critique could easily be made by people a lot less egalitarian than her – though I think her understanding adds particular weight. And some of it is just basic good sense.

For example, this week she takes to task that abysmal term ‘disruption’. I’ve long been antagonistic to jargon in business or academia or indeed politics – and hugely so when it is self-serving or meaningless. Disruption is a term which is an excellent example of same.

As Ruffino notes the idea of products that are ‘disruptive’ or disruptively innovative is actually deeply problematic both in terms of being inaccurate and in terms of the meanings behind it. As she notes ‘disruption narrative feed our need for stories about plucky little rogues taking down giants’. Her example is of blood-testing start up Theranos which ‘was going to disrupt the health care industry with its ‘Edison device’, a means of ‘revolutionising blood-testing by replacing venipuncture with a finger prick’. The great and the good flocked to Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. But the problem was the device is unreliable and hasn’t been approved by the FDA.

And Ruffino argues that disruption ‘misleads us into thinking that for example, the iPhone was developed overnight, or that cloud computing is a sudden development of the mid-2000s. It allows us to think that innovation is a watershed movement, when even the most exciting new development is usually years in the making and only succeeds thanks to the work of busy maintenance crews’.

She goes further and notes that there is now research into what are called ‘maintainers’ that would be ‘the other 99 per cent of us, the ones who do the labour that keeps the world going after innovation has occurred’. Interestingly she argues that the research points to the 1960s as the time when this rhetoric or innovation came in and she makes an explicitly political point – that ‘technological novelty provided a safe way to celebrate progress without expecting too much social improvement’.

She also notes that the term disruption amongst many issues – not least ‘ignoring consequences’ also shift the Overton window for arguments that pit public spending on infrastructure against private companies like Uber, as if the latter could solve the problems of the former’.

She also makes a deeper point again later in the piece when she suggests that:

Maintenance doesn’t bring the kinds of data-driven results that innovation does. For example, pinprick tests might revolutionise the diagnostic process, but a good relationship with your doctor is more likely to make you healthier than a big data innovation.

Excellent thought provoking stuff.


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