Behind the hype of disruptive technology
Disruption has become somewhat of an industry buzzword, but what does it actually mean? And do the key players claiming to have ‘disruptive’ tech or ideas live up to the hype?
Disruptive vs sustaining
The term ‘disruptive technology’ was coined as a term by Clayton Christensen, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Writing in a paper written for the Harvard Business Review in 1995, he describes technology as having two qualities: sustaining or disruptive. Sustaining technology takes existing technology and improves it slightly along what he calls the “a critical performance trajectory”. He illustrates this with the example of a mechanical excavator – an excavator aims to clear a certain metric tonne of earth in a given time. A sustaining technology might be a minor redesign to the bucket design to shave a few minutes off the excavation time. A disruptive technology looks beyond the arbitrary measure of success to the user’s need. The user needs to remove the earth – what if you could invent a huge drone to remove the earth instead? Or some sort of bacteria that dissolves it instead? Both products solve the customer need, but the disruptive technology thinks outside of the box instead of looking for gradual improvement.
Christensen suggested that being aware of the potential for disruption existing companies could guard against unlikely competitors. Products such as the iPod, which obliterated the market for portable CD and tape players, came completely out of the blue to existing tech companies. Apple had identified the need (listening to music) and scrapped the need for flimsy bits of plastic to listen to it, instead of trying to design a slightly better portable CD player.
On his website, Christensen suggests some key historical examples of disruptive technology:
- Personal computers
- Mini mills
- Cellular phones
- Community colleges
- Discount retailers
- Retail medical clinics
The rise of the disruptors
Suddenly everyone wanted in on the act. Investors and businesses began touting the new ‘disruptive’ companies who would change the way we lived. But do they live up to the hype?
The rise and fall of WeWork is the Icarus tale of the 21st century. Touted as disruptors of the office space and landlord sectors, WeWork got into trouble when they attempted to float on the stock exchange and were found to be vastly overvaluing their worth. They attempted to bill themselves as a tech company – describing their office portfolio as a ‘global platform’ and opening their prospectus with “We dedicate this to the energy of we – greater than any one of us but inside each of us.”
With the rise of homeworking through COVID-19 and the almost universal adoption of virtual conferencing softwares, it could be that the future of work is in the home. I would classify WeWork as very much a sustaining technology – a slight improvement or adaptation of the traditional high-rise office building, which we may well abandon and save ourselves the commute and the planet the extra pollution.
Christensen was critical of ride sharing apps being labelled as ‘disruptive innovators’. He wrote a follow up article, almost 20 years after his original piece, which specifically called out Uber. He said:
The theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood and its basic tenets frequently misapplied
He argued that Uber is not a disruptive tech company – and I wholeheartedly agree. Uber is, essentially, a multi-national taxi company. The improvements they have made to the classic taxi company have been the addition of the app and the move away from cash. This hasn’t upended the transport sector – in fact it’s having huge negative effects on the labour markets across the world. There have been Uber strikes on several continents, they have had their London operating license removed twice and they are opposing a proposition in California as we speak that would give their drivers more rights. Tech publications may disagree – but finding loop holes around labour rights and protections and seeking to pay as little tax as possible isn’t disruption. It’s neo-liberalism.
We’ve all seen the breathless news coverage over the development of driverless cars, but if there is a better example of sustaining technology I can’t think of it. This removes only one component from the transport industry – humans. This would certainly benefit the ridesharing companies like Uber, looking to eliminate the workforce who keep striking against unfair conditions. It will also benefit shipping and freighting companies, who already pressure their drivers to work long hours in dangerous conditions, adversely affecting their health. There is nothing new or disruptive about automating the workforce – the luddites protested this very process by smashing automated looms across the north of England. Quite separately from this tech being supposedly disruptive, it is very dangerous. Experiments using AI driven cars are regularly cancelled after hitting pedestrians like this example from Arizona where an Uber driverless car hit and killed a woman. An inquest concluded that the system’s AI did see the pedestrian but simply disregarded her as it hadn’t been programmed to react to ‘jaywalking’ – a highly political term, as it was initially a slur invented to demonise pedestrians by the automotive industry.
We’re frequently told AI is going to revolutionise the world – the truth is, AI is already here. AI and algorithms help companies hire people – although Amazon found their program rejected all female applicants. An algorithm designed to allocate grades to students in the UK during the pandemic reinforced classism by awarding lower grades to students who attended schools in lower socio-economic areas. AI helps sort through passport photos – but doesn’t seem to be able to recognise black women.
AI is not really artificial intelligence. It’s just software based on a combination of machine learning and algorithms – and algorithms are only as good as the people who program them. It’s been found that so called machine learning actually amplifies biases. Imagine a scenario where an AI driven car is faced with the trolley problem. It must choose: to hit several people or change course and hit only one. What if the algorithm can’t see several of the group in danger because they are black? What if the group is made up of women and the single pedestrian is a man? What if it’s a group of children, who have almost no economic output, and the the other person is a venture capitalist? If the car is programmed by mostly white, male programmers based in California with all their biases, we have to ask ourselves not whether we trust the technology, but whether we trust this anonymous programmer to decide who lives or dies across the whole world – and almost certainly without consequence to them. If AI is unaccountable and anonymous – would you trust it?
AI isn’t disruptive. It’s the world being planned by educated, white men who are protected from the consequences of their decision making. We can pretend its a magical tool removed from humanity – but an algorithm is a set of directions very much written and controlled by humans. Humans employed by large, capitalist corporations.
Christensen sadly passed away in February 2020, but his ideas have shaped the way we view investments, start-ups and the economy. The capitalist system is set up to value what looks like it will make the most profit, and Christensen’s term has been coopted by those seeking good investments. As he says himself, its at risk of being completely uncoupled from its original meaning. When we think about the types of changes that could really be game-changing for our planet – that could help us meet our core fundamental needs in revolutionary ways, I don’t think many of the so-called disruptors of Silicon Valley fit the bill.