Lepore on disruption

by Eric on June 24, 2014

Jill Lepore deserves an award for her New Yorker essay against the gospel of disruption. The last paragraph alone is a sufficiently fine piece of writing to warrant reading the whole thing.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the theory of disruptive innovation, it goes like this: Everyone, every institution that is superb at providing a product or service is in truth a Goliath, merely waiting for a little innovative David to topple him with a better way to do his job. Why work up your muscles to carry a cudgel if you can deal death with a slingshot?

Amazon has disrupted book-selling. Online commentary has disrupted journalism. MOOCs will disrupt the university (people swear).

You who are merely doing your job exceptionally well and profitably – you are a complacent fool.

In her essay, Lepore beats the tar out of the scholarship that gave rise to this preaching. Apart from pointing the article out to you, I want to comment briefly on how she says what she says. In truth, Lepore gives two arguments for the price of one, and it’s the second that I find more fetching and worth a little extra remark.

Mainly, and entertainingly, she points out the entire theory of disruptive innovation is bunk on its own terms. It neither explains what it’s meant to explain, nor predicts what it’s meant to predict. It’s a fable that comforts the comfortable, by depicting their rapacious waste as the inevitable manner of capitalism’s progress. I won’t try to summarize what Lepore says about the embarrassing failures of the theory, because she already says it well.

But Lepore makes a secondary argument you could almost miss. She notes that even if the theory of disruption were sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Lepore says all this, but spends little time on it; having noted that people aren’t disk drives, she spends most of her essay observing that the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t really apply to disk drives anyway.

I’d hazard a guess Lepore knows her essay works better this way. A significant portion of her readership would find it tedious to be told less briefly that we need to remember, or revive, the language of public trust, public interest, public service.

Lepore’s choice of emphasis reminds me of the origins of American liberalism in a different age. Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit. You had, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment), to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus. Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.