June 4, 2013

Dr. Dre has a college program now, at the University of Southern California. You might assume that the program would focus on music production, or the music business, or maybe hip-hop as a genre. Instead, as a splash panel on the program’s page proclaims, “THE DEGREE IS IN DISRUPTION.” This sort of exciting meaninglessness would be perfect for a professional master’s program, but what USC’s offering, terrifyingly, is an undergrad degree; woe betide the bright youngster who comes out of a four-year program with a degree in, essentially, believing in yourself.

Moreover, it highlights just how prevalent “disruption” has gotten as a buzzword. Of course, buzzwords in any era are awful, and each era has its own characteristic strain of viral word-horror. In the ’40s and ’50s, buzzwords were squared-off and flat, evenly skipping over syllables, like in “dynamics,” then in the ’60s and ’70s they were all As and long vowel sounds you could drawl out, round and loose. In the ’80s and ’90s, American buzzwords became more brusque and consonant-focused, leaning heavily on quick vowel sounds. (“Buzzword” is a ’90s buzzword.) Now we’ve got a lot of Us and “ooh” sounds, “Google” and “Tumblr” and “disruption,” alongside the Apple-spawned “i”-plague. It feels technocratic and rational without being too synthetic; it’s the round glasses of an architect who designs living spaces, not the square frames of a chemist making artificial industrial compounds.

But “disruption” in particular hides a worrisome message. (It also always makes me think I’m about to hear an “Interrupting Cow” joke. “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Disrupting innovator.” “Disrupting inno—” “CROWDFUNDING!”) As a new word, it implies that the process in general is something new, a break with what’s come before. Each individual instance is thus new, too: industries have never been changed before in this particular way, or with this particular frequency. And it’s a positive thing, carrying with it the rhetoric of rebellious cool so beloved by Steve Jobs. “Disruption” would seem to derive from economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction,” a Marxist theory that capitalism would sow the seeds of its own destruction; it was later taken up by pro-capitalist commentators to mean the destruction of industries rather than the economic system in general. In moving from destruction to disrupion the term gains a much more positive connotation, and a real marketing boost. Nothing’s being destroyed here, just, you know, disrupted!

But “disruption” as a process is hardly new, of course. App-based taxi companies like Uber and Lyft are “disrupting” the paying-people-to-drive-you-places business, but such changes have happened innumerable times in the past. In New York, the whole transportation network was initially run by private companies until the government intervened to take over the mass transit network of buses and subways, while enforcing regulations on taxicabs. That was a “disruption,” too, but not one we’d likely champion today. (“Disruption” often seems to mean “deregulation” in practice.) The effect is to enforce a historical blindness that’s entirely too common when we’re thinking about tech. If what we’re seeing now is totally new, there are no historical analogies to apply, no worker protections or regulations from the past that we might want to preserve — it’s all new, after all! And, therefore, all good.

In a way, the USC program is emblematic of the problem with “disruption.” The excitement the word conveys covers up a lot of hand-waving: the USC program is said to feature courses in “Creativity” (which one thinks would have been better acquired before enrolling) and “Developing, Managing and Marketing Radical Innovations.” If you have access to a radical innovation, why would you get USC involved? Probably, then, the program will make you feel like you could come up with one of them sorts of things. And that promise of a future that is yet unseen but definitely better than what we have now is why “disruption” is such a detestable word. It’s an argument that any objections to change are irrelevant, because change itself is necessarily good. And any cursory overview of history will quickly demonstrate how frequently that’s untrue.

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