Disruptions and Technology-NY Times

From: Spudboy100@aol.com
Date: Sat Dec 22 2001 - 11:48:05 MST

This is an article worthy of an Edge.org edition

If you wish to view it online you'll need to sign up with the (free) NY Times
online service.



The Unforeseen Disruption of Moving Ahead

December 22, 2001


It is lonely at the top, but it also seems secure. The view
is intoxicating. Every potential challenge is visible. The
perch seems to guarantee invulnerability.

But then, from an unexpected direction, comes an almost
insignificant challenge, one that at first can seem a minor
annoyance, hardly worth concentrated attention. And then
unexpectedly the leader is toppled.

This pattern of military confrontation is a model that has
been increasingly used to describe progress in the worlds
of business and technology; its emphasis on
unpredictability, on the dangers of assault from below and
on the possibly permanent disruption that results have
undermined many preconceptions about the course of
innovation and change.

The Internet-business bubble, for example, was supported by
claims that smaller companies without the prospects of
profits had the power to disrupt "bricks and mortar"
empires. The Internet itself was also hailed by its
acolytes in the early 1990's, when it still had minor cult
status, as a disruptive force with revolutionary
implications that had the ability not just to transform
society but also to alter the nature of human

Economists and historians, though, have been taking
low-level disruption seriously for decades. The economist
Joseph Schumpeter coined the term creative destruction to
explain how advances in technology, often small ones, can
overturn the powers of established companies. More
recently, Clayton M. Christensen, a professor of business
administration at the Harvard Business School, argued in
his 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," that disruptive
innovation is unavoidable and almost always unforeseen. He
notes that such disruption becomes all the more effective
when a dominant company is best managed, when it takes care
of its work force, focuses clearly on the marketplace and
works to produce the highest profits. That is when it is
least likely to give credence to a seemingly insignificant
challenge. Before long, it is too late and the old
conditions may never return.

Mr. Christensen gives several detailed examples of this
process, including the overturn of Sears, which pioneered
chain stores and catalog marketing, by once-insignificant
discount retailers. Other examples are legion. Kodak and
Xerox faltered because of the unanticipated powers of
digital reproduction. I.B.M. was once considered so
unassailable that in the early 1980's it was the object of
a two-year antitrust investigation by the Justice
Department; it has since lost power and prestige to
companies like Microsoft - itself a classic example of a
onetime small disrupter whose dominance could not have been
imagined, let alone an antitrust case challenging that

This sort of disruption from below might seem to be limited
to capitalist economies, but it also seems common to many
cultural transformations. Small innovations can end up
having large consequences. The stirrup has been credited
with transforming the nature of war. And as the historian
David S. Landes pointed out in "The Wealth and Poverty of
Nations," the invention of eyeglasses may have transformed
the West: glasses extended the work life of artisans,
scientists and inventors and allowed more attention to
finely detailed machine work.

Almost by definition, the impact of disruption comes as a
surprise. An innovation may have one purpose, but its
ripple effects are unpredictable, which is one reason an
established power can miss the implications. A few years
ago the historian Edward Tenner argued in "Why Things Bite
Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended
Consequences" that for every technological action, there is
an equal, opposite and unpredicted reaction: technology's
revenge. That revenge can show up even in paradoxical ways:
the invention of a safer football helmet actually led to
increased injuries because the new helmets increased the
game's aggressive possibilities.

The history of technology is riddled with distorted
predictions and unexpected consequences. The telegraph, it
was believed, would create stronger communal bonds; instead
it permitted greater dispersion. The airplane, it was
guessed, would make the world smaller, leading to a new era
of peace; instead it became an instrument of war. Thomas A.
Edison envisioned the phonograph's being used primarily for
transcribing business transactions. Many contemporary
imaginings of the future seem just as unlikely. Michael
Dertouzos, who directed the Laboratory for Computer Science
at M.I.T., seriously suggested that later in this century
people would dress themselves by asking their "bedroom
monitor" to put together a suitable outfit.

Innovation and change, then, occur in a world so complex
that the unexpected must always be expected.

Twenty-five years ago no one predicted the influence of the
fax, the VCR and the desktop computer. Most communications
and software companies recognize that eventually the
telephone, television and the Internet will be closely
bound; contemporary notions of the computer will seem
grossly limited.

Such may be the stumbling course of all progress and
accomplishment. The current recession, the plunge in
venture-capital spending and the traumas facing many
companies are bound to slow innovation, leading to
consolidation and retrenchment. But this shift is also
bound to be temporary, for innovation occurs in waves. And
the pace of technological change has been particularly
breathless during the last century, and even more
particularly, it seems, in the United States. For
technological disruption does not just affect culture but
is also affected by it. It flourishes in certain
environments and flounders in others.

Disruption is at least in part an intellectual phenomenon
in which new ideas arise unconstrained by dominant
preconceptions. It may be, for example, that the spirit of
disruption, as outlined in Mr. Christensen's model, was
latent in the very origins of the United States, helping to
account for its persistent recurrence here.

The United States was itself an invention based on a set of
disruptive ideas; its Revolution succeeded partly because
of the strength of those ideas in the face of a seemingly
immutable power that never expected the attack by inferior
forces. Those ideas also helped create a society - as
Alexis de Tocqueville recognized - that cultivated novelty;
the lack of social hierarchies even allowed individuals to
remake themselves as Gatsby does in Fitzgerald's novel.

In a recent book, "American Literature in a Culture of
Creative Destruction" by Philip Fisher, a professor of
literature at Harvard, this spirit is seen as one of the
guiding themes of American literature: the "apparent
completeness and perfection of the world just as it is now"
is continually overturned. American culture, with its
pursuit of novelty and change, provides fertile ground for
technological disruption.

But these patterns of disruption are more complicated than
they seem. Their consequences are often unseen by their
creators as well as by those being displaced. In technology
they can lead to periods of confusion in which helpful
standards are dismantled. In culture, valuable knowledge
may end up being discarded. Political disruption can become
bloody, leading to power that ruthlessly quashes any hint
of future upheaval.

There have even been serious challenges to disruption
itself, seeking to eliminate it if possible. In business,
this is one reason monopoly power is viewed with such
suspicion; it attempts to eliminate all forms of
disruption. In cultural life, in the face of the Industrial
Revolution, romantics and Luddites rejected the pace of
social change in favor of the "natural," treating nature as
if it were free of disruption. And in the face of Western
modernity, with multiplying social and cultural
disruptions, full- scale attacks have unfolded.

Destructive innovation, then, is full of ambiguities,
dangers and unpredictable consequences. But even during
these times of economic caution, its complexity and its
potency demand new strategies, Mr. Christensen shows, for
disruption can never be avoided or fully eliminated.


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