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After Jobs: Apple and the Cult of Disruption

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I have a list of some words that really should be banned in polite conversation. The only reason not to ban them is that they're useful indicators, an unambiguous warning that the speakers are going to be a serious waste of our time. The use of any of these words is like wearing a giant invisible hat that says: "I have no insight or experience to offer and talking to me represents a huge opportunity cost."

Many of the most enthusiastic users work in consultancy or academia or punditry or new media - the parasitic professions. So what might be on my little list?

One is "meme", obviously.

Another is "business model". Nobody in business ever used the word "business model"; it's the sign of an outsider who has never run a business. But people in consultancy or academia use it profusely. It's like virgins talking about complicated sexual practices.

The word I'll look at today, the first day of the reign of Apple's new full-time CEO Tim Cook, is “disruption”.

Apocalypse Now. Or soon

man_with_propeller

What, another wave? Where did that come from?!

The principal reason intelligent people avoid such words is not just a healthy distrust of jargon, but that these words confuse and obfuscate rather than clarify. If you ask for a definition of "disruption", you'll get five different definitions. Try it. And that's if you're lucky. More likely you'll get five anecdotal examples, which isn't very helpful. As someone remarked after first attending a Net Neutrality Conference, when 80 per cent of the time and energy in a debate go into arguing over what the word means, it is a dead end and the substance will certainly be elsewhere.

The word "disruption" and its dim-witted cousin "disruptive technology" were popularised by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma.

New things challenge old things. Is there any other motivator for scientific enquiry or technological innovation than to do something dramatically better? I suppose there is the orderly accumulation of government grants as motivation, but when it comes to innovation that has never been very useful. I don't think Herr Haber and Herr Bosch were motivated by grants when they made one of the great breakthroughs of the last century – one which may keep such discussions in perspective.

So technology creates new markets and upsets existing markets. Uh-huh? When you look at the examples of "disruptive technologies" proffered by the Priests of Disruption, it looks very like a list of "popular technologies you may have heard of and see lying around the house".

Steady State

Consumer electronics technology has been "disruptive" for as long as I can remember. Many apparently new technologies are new only to the average consumer, a result of falling prices. Examples include the integration of tape recording into radios and hi-fi equipment, which meant your average listener could tape the Top 40. The VCR is also such an example. And such technology arrives in wave after wave, each new iteration a little disruption of its own. How many tides does one need to experience before we can describe it as the everyday motion of the sea? Surely by this point it has become a continuous phenomenon – and we should be remarking on the waves' modulation and amplitude rather than marvelling at a single wave's occurrence. Continuous is the very opposite of disruptive – but continuous is a lot less sexy. The management consultant who deals intelligently with continuations doesn't have the dramatic appeal of an End-Times Evangelical, which is really why "disruption" sells so well. It may be the case that obsession about "disruptions", and the time spent obsessively looking for them, may even mean you're looking at the wrong things, ignoring trends that cause real change in markets. Nokia is a good example. The Innovator's Dilemma was mandatory reading there – and a fat lot of good it did them.

Yet the term must stand for something, or it wouldn’t have captured any interest, and wilfully pretentious people wouldn't be able to hold forth on "disruption" with confidence.

Which brings us to Apple.

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