What does it mean to be disrupted?

Updated on 15 September 2020

It felt to me as if the refrain that technology is disrupting our lives had reached a crescendo in 2019 and early 2020. For most people, it feels as if the implications of technological advancements are creeping slowly but surely into their everyday lives. The “industrial revolution” is not happening in distant factories or remote industries or in faraway countries. A continuous stream of technological changes is confronting us and demanding that we change how we travel, commute, engage with government, learn, shop and work.

During the Covid-19 pandemic which caused the global lockdowns imposed by governments and the decision by some to self-isolate, the refrain changed a little. Now, the downsides of technological advancement are mainly concentrated on topics of unequal access and the challenges of the dissemination of misinformation (and fake news). Talk of a “new normal” and a post-COVID world includes forecasts that more people will in future work from home, that education will increasingly occur in a more hybrid digital and physical mode and that governments and corporations will have to become more digitally savvy.

Messenger pigeon released from British tank 1918 IWM Q 9247

A message-carrying pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a British tank on 9 August 1918. This is photograph Q 9247 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. The photograph was taken by David McLellan, and was retrieved from the Wikimedia Commons Imperial War Museum Collection.

I even heard a futurist on a radio talkshow forecast the imminent closing of business districts and corporate office buildings in favour of everyone working from home and the demise of shopping malls and inner-city promenades.

I have three objections to these sweeping statements about the speed of technological change and disruption:

  1. They ignore the architecture of technologies. Technologies, industrial revolutions and disruptions are all dumped into broad and ambiguous categories with vague boundaries. While this makes the message easier to spread and receive, it does not help those who must make short and longer-term investment decisions.
  2. They ignore the embeddedness of technologies. Lumping many technologies together makes it harder for all of us to understand what and who will be disrupted, and what the implications of the disruptions are for policies, communities, enterprises and social institutions. Increasingly, we also have to worry about control of data, usage rights and even the concentration of wealth, and the fact that many technology companies are behaving as if they were beyond accountability.
  3. They ignore the irregularity of technological change. In the photo reproduced here of a British tank taken on 9 August 1918, it can be seen the military technology has advanced further than the communications technology. With the wisdom of hindsight, many historians have also questioned how well social arrangements regarding tank warfare in the British Military had evolved in the early 20th century. There are accounts of how military strategies and the organisation of tank commanders were still mainly dictated by what worked for the cavalry that dominated the battlefields over the previous three centuries.

Previously I described the different kinds of disruption in some detail. In the next series of posts I will explore:

Published by

Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

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