illustration

There are two kinds of people: those who complain about disruption and those who celebrate it. The former are the dying indie bookstores, music labels, film industry, little publishing houses unhappy with Amazon’s ToS — the latter are the start-up generation, VC investors, code monkeys and serial entrepreneurs.

To those who preach the gospel of the “new” economy (which really isn’t new anymore, by the way) disruption is the Holy Grail. In a sense, the term is being used so much that it has become an empty buzzword.  But what does it actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines disruption as follows:

1 a : to break apart

   b : to throw into disorder <agitators trying to disrupt the meeting>

2: to interrupt the normal course or unity of

“Now, wait a second — that’s not what I think disruption means”, many tech people will say. Isn’t disruption about a fundamental digital revolution in which gatekeepers are scrapped, information flows freely and everything gets better and better? Maybe. But as Bruce Sterling said both in his SXSW2013 closing talk and at NEXT Berlin: “Those who live by disruption die by disruption.”

Machines In Your Office

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the MIT Center for Digital Business wanted to research the last few years of technology-related changes and explain in a new book the benefits of the digital revolution for our economy as a whole. So much for the thesis — their findings proved the opposite. The book is called Race Against The Machine and one of its conclusions is that the digital revolution kills jobs faster than it creates new ones.

The list of jobs in which humans are better than machines is shrinking. The more structural a task is, the more likely it will eventually be replaced by computers. Workers in call-centers are already replaced by voice-activated menus, tax consultants can’t scan documents as quickly as software — almost any office-related job that deals with “information processing” is a dying breed.

It’s true that digital technology companies have also created millions of jobs around the planet, McAfee admits — more than in any other field — but the disruptions caused in other branches “will be bigger, in the end”.

I have seen disruption in music, literature, the arts, entertainment publishing, the fourth estate, the military, political parties, manufacturing — pretty much everywhere except finance, health, the law, and the prison/military industry. Which is why they’ve got all the money now and the rest of us are pretty much reduced to disrupted global peons. – Sterling, SXSW2013

Already in 1930 John Maynard Keynes warned about a new disease which he called “technological unemployment”. As long as technology was slow and unwieldy, the disruptions were balanced. But since technology has become continuously cheaper and faster, the disruptions threw the whole system into disorder. It’s at that point when manual labor in China is replaced by robots because they are cheaper that we should begin to wonder. Foxconn, the infamous company who produces our iPhones and iPads for example is already planning to install one million robots in the future.

People like to say that musicians reacted badly to the digital revolution. They put a foot wrong. What really happened is that the digital revolution reduces everybody to the state of musicians. Everybody — not just us bohemian creatives, but the military, political parties, the anchor stores in retail malls, academics subjected to massive open online courses. – Sterling

Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger

In the hunt for the “next big thing”, building “game-changing” start-ups and wooing potential investors, we seem to believe that the harder we push forward, the faster the world as a whole will improve. It’s that moment when shiny sales copy starts to be mistaken for reality. Plus, there’s a good dose of wishful thinking. Because if we aren’t “making the world better”, then why do it, at all? A good salary alone doesn’t seem to be enough. We want to be successful and feel like philantropists.

[T]here’s this empty pretense that these innovations make the world “better.” This is a dangerous word. […] The world has a tragic dimension. This world does not always get better. The world has deserts. Deserts aren’t better. People don’t always get better. – Sterling

Personally, I have benefited from disruption. Thanks to the digital publishing revolution and its disintermediation of publishers, my life as a writer has become a lot easier. I don’t need to send out my stories and book concepts to publishing houses and magazines anymore, only to be waiting for an answer which may never come — I can just do the publishing myself.

Am I helping to “kill” jobs, stealing the wages of editors, secretaries and printing houses? Maybe. On the other hand, I think the concept of work in general needs an update. The digital revolution may have killed more jobs than it created, but a lot of people in my generation aren’t really looking for jobs in the 20th century meaning of the word. We’re not looking for a fixed job description that we can fill for the next few decades. We’re looking for challenges, opportunities to create, moments of innovation.

And the vacuum left behind by 9-5 jobs, office careers and regulated holidays is filled by a landscape of opportunity. Can everyone become an entrepreneur, a self publisher or start-up founder? No. But for those willing to take a risk, the conditions have never been better.

Another way to put it is this:

(video link)

img: vintageprintable
source: SXSW2013, Spiegel 18/2013