What Disruption Is, and Isn’t

As I sat down to start the new year, I was thinking about an interesting Vanity Fair article I’d just read by Emily Chang, detailing the sexually predatory parties of Silicon Valley. In it, she describes a group of tech industry “hotshots [who]… proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule.”

I juxtapose this with conversations I’ve had recently with Trump supporters, one of whom said to me, “Yes, I know he’s a sociopath, he’s a fool, but he has tapped into the spirit of our time for many of us.” I try assiduously to avoid betting political on these posts, but the two quotes I just shared crystallized for me something that has been concerning me for sometime; namely, what “disruption” is and what it isn’t.

As a therapist and social worker who focuses on the impact of emerging technologies on our human condition, I am extremely interested in the concept of disruption. I do think we are seeing the disruption of our economies by Bitcoin, our news media by Twitter, and our politics by Facebook. I do think technological advances are disrupting the Post-Industrial concept of work, and Khan Academy and gamification are disrupting the relevance and primacy of traditional education. And from the Arab Spring to live streaming police brutality and organizing activists by the thousands by using a hashtag, I think social media has begun to disrupt systems of power that have been in place for centuries. I do think these forms of disruption have some things in common: They are often unforeseen by most if not all of us; and they call to society for a response.

There is nothing unforeseen to me about what is detailed in the Vanity Fair article, except the idea that the participants in her “Brotopia” are disrupting anything. There is nothing disruptive, nothing innovative about the use of gender inequality for power plays and gratification. And although we may feel called to respond to the article itself, that is what is disruptive. (In fact Vanity Fair, has been disrupting in an amazing way recently.) Nor is the current administration unforeseen, backlashes never are, really.

In my workshops I talk about how technology always amplifies things. Whether it be hate (books like Mein Kampf), information (Google,) misinformation (Russian bots,) attachment (Skype,) connection (pencils to write letters, LinkedIn,) reach (telegraph) or impact (hammers,) technology always amplifies. There is a big difference between disrupting existing systems of oppression and amplifying existing ones.

I am deeply concerned that people have begun using the concept of disruption to cover up or justify the actual attempts to amplify hatred. It is hard to notice what we are NOT seeing. We are not seeing parties of Silicon Valley women preying on aspiring young men, or in fact non-gender binary elites preying on cis gender people. When people talk about making America great again, that is not the language of disruption. The use of social media to “cyberbully” is not disruptive either, but an amplification of bullying that research has shown is often present in the physical environment of victim and perpetrator.

Technology often disrupts with no regard to the humans using it, because a hammer doesn’t tell you whether you “ought” to use it. But technology itself does not have an agenda. Technology does, however, as Martin Heidegger said, reveal us. Technology uncovers who we are, and sometimes that is not pleasant. Other times technology reveals human phenomenon like attachment.

As we enter a new year, I invite all of you to think carefully about what disruption is and is not. What and how are we using technologies? Are people claiming to be “disrupters” actually innovating and changing existing systems; or are they in fact a backlash from the existing systems against innovation and change? Does it feel surprising or unforeseen, or does it feel tedious? Do you feel called to respond or avoid? And as 2018 begins I’ll ask you what I often ask my audience: What do you want to amplify?


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