Disruption, as a term and theory, has been the subject of much discussion lately in both the mainstream and social media – a level of interest that has only increased as a result of Jill Lepore’s June 23, 2014 article for The New Yorker, ‘The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Inovation Gets Wrong’. In this article Lepore debunks some of the myths surrounding Clayton M. Christensen’s concept of disruptive technology, a concept the latter uses to develop his influential theory of the innovator’s dilemma. As a way of intervening in this debate, we, as the Centre for Disruptive Media, would like to articulate our own particular take on disruption. The text below is an extract from our forthcoming book, Open Media: A Study in Disruption. Written by myself, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Ted Byfield, Shaun Hides and Simon Worthington both as a creative experiment with processual modes of writing, and as part of a collaboration between the Centre for Disruptive Media and Mute Publishing, this book is due to appear from Rowman and Littefield International later in 2014.
The term disruption has its origins with the economic theory of Karl Marx, according to which capitalist development occurs as a result of the creative destruction of the previous economic system. For Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, ‘conservation of the old modes of production’ was the ‘first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes.’ By contrast, the bourgeoisie ‘cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society’. The concept of creative destruction was subsequently adapted in the 20th century by the economist Joseph Schumpeter to refer to the cycle of business innovation, what is now sometimes known as ‘Schumpeter’s gale’. Disruption has been given a further spin more recently by Christensen in the guise of disruptive technology. A disruptive technology, for Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma, is one that facilitates the production of a new market and a new network of values, and eventually succeeds in disrupting an already established market and value network.
Why, as researchers working in media and cultural studies, philosophy, critical theory, media arts, digital culture and politics, are we making such prominent use of a concept – disruption – that, for all its origins in the ideas of Marx, is far more readily associated with business, management and the market? We are doing so, firstly, because it is impossible to escape the market entirely today – and this is especially true of those of us who work in the university. And, secondly, because escaping the market would not necessarily be desirable anyway. As Jacques Derrida contends in Echographies of Television, a distinction needs to be made between ‘a certain commercialist determination of the market’, with its emphasis on ‘immediate monetaristic profitability’, and a sense of the market as a ‘public space’, which is actually a ‘condition of what is called democracy, the condition of the free expression of any and everyone about anything or anyone in the public space’. Accordingly, the approach we are adopting in relation to disruption involves drawing on theorists such as Marx, Derrida, Foucault and Badiou to develop a critical and creative approach to management, business and the market – and, with them, to the becoming business of the contemporary university.
We are taking this approach, not with the intention of somehow leaving capitalism and the market – or the university, for that matter – behind and replacing them with something else, such as ‘the commons’ or even communism. The problem with such a directly oppositional or dialectical stance is that it risks recreating, albeit in a different form, the very thing one is trying to escape (i.e. a system based on hierarchisation and competition, not least in relation to rival systems). Even the notion that the theory of disruption has been 'debunked' by Jill Lepore can be seen as part of the cycle of market innovation by which we are constantly encouraged to move on to the next new thing and leave the now old and unfashionable behind: the latter taking the form of the theory of disruption itself in this case. And that is before we even begin to address the fact that what Lapore’s New Yorker article challenges is not so much the idea that capitalism develops by ‘constantly revolutionising the instruments of production’ - that the emergence of digital photographic technology has ‘creatively disrupted' the analogue photographic industry, say. What Lepore challenges in the main is the rigour of Christensen’s research regarding the handpicked case studies he uses to demonstrate his concept of the ‘innovators dilemma’, on the grounds that many many of the companies that are his case studies are selectively chosen and that they don't match his theory.
Instead, we are adopting Derrida’s procedure for reading Hegel’s dialectic according to a non-oppositional difference in ‘From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism Without Reserve’, and following the logic of capitalism and the market through ‘to the end, without reserve’ – to the point of agreeing with it against itself and, in this way, transforming it radically from within. Or, if you prefer things in language derived from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, we are developing immanent forms of critique: critique not so much as a negative refusal of contemporary capitalism as an ‘affirmative or inventive’ means of mutating it.
What this means as far as disruptive technologies specifically are concerned is that we are conceiving them as forms of what Bernard Stiegler refers to as mnemonics (cultural memory), and what Plato described as pharmaka, or substances that function, undecidably, as neither simply poisons nor cures. As Stiegler maintains when arguing that the ‘task par excellence for philosophy’ today is the development of a ‘new critique of political economy’ that is capable of responding to an epistemic environment very different to that known by Marx, this ‘economy of the pharmaka is a therapeutic that does not result in a hypostasis opposing poison and remedy: the economy of the pharmakon is a composition of tendencies, and not a dialectical struggle between opposites.’ Rather than reject or critique such technologies outright, he suggests we need to explore how some of the tendencies of which our current economy of the pharmakon is composed can be deployed to give these technologies new and different inflections. Just as businesses use disruptive technologies as a form of innovation to create new markets and new value networks, according to Christensen, so we are using them to disrupt dominant understandings of business and the market.
Disruption here is therefore at least double in nature: it is a means of creating innovation for companies and thus helping to support the creative economy and find new sustainable business models so that art and culture, together with their potential transformative effects, can flourish, or at least survive, as public space in the neoliberal era; but it is also a means of generating new forms of critique and of creating different alternatives. Almost inevitably, the latter is in turn capable of providing a means for creating further business innovation in what amounts to a continual process, cycle or feedback loop, something that has been captured diagrammatically by Tatiana Bazzichelli in her account of networked disruption in relation to art and hacktivism. For Bazzichelli, ‘the goal is not to frontally oppose the adversaries, but to trick them by “becoming them”, embodying disruptive and ironic camouflages. Bypassing the classic power/contra-power strategy, which often results in aggressive interventions that replicate competitiveness and the violence of capitalism itself, to apply disruption as an art form means to imagine alternative routes based on the art of staging paradoxes and juxtapositions. Disruption becomes a means for a new form of criticism’.
This approach to disruption on our part can take the form of both: studying disruptive technologies, including those associated with telephones, mobiles and smart phones (in the Centre for Disruptive Media we have developed a creative archiving and digitisation research strand that includes the digitization of British Telecom’s Archive, for example); and experimenting with the development and use of disruptive media technologies, including those associated with open source software, collaborative web tools, open access, mobile and geolocative media. (Witness our Living Books About Life project. This is a series of open access books about life – with life understood both philosophically and biologically – that provide multiple points of interrogation and contestation, as well as connection and translation, between the humanities and the sciences.) Yet the idea for us here is also to go beyond current definitions of disruptive technologies, with a view to not just helping to create new markets by doing things the market does not expect, but also disrupting and displacing the existing markets by exploring new economic models and new economies. At one end of the spectrum this takes the form of experimenting with micro-payments, freemium models and the general shift in digital culture from monetizing content to monetizing experiences. (So the Centre for Disruptive Media’s virtual and mobile communications research strand includes Shakespeare Byte-Size, a project which has digitised the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archive – as Coventry is close to Stratford-upon-Avon – using augmented reality encounters with Shakespeare.)
At the other end of the spectrum it involves us in a range of activities concerned with online attention economies, freemium models, gift economies, creative media activism, and so-called internet piracy. Indeed, one of the main businesses and markets the Centre is involved in disrupting with its experiments into new economies and new economic models is its own: namely, that of higher education and the idea of the university as it currently exists. What we are interested in here is the future of university teaching, learning, research and publication in the age of disruptive media. We view the emergence of media technologies such as smart phones, tablets, p2p networks and the mobile web as providing us with an opportunity to rethink the university – fundamentally, yet also creatively and affirmatively. In other words, our concern is with how digital media technologies can help us to disrupt some of the university’s core foundational concepts, values, practices and genres, both theoretically and performatively. These include the idea of the subject as a static, stable, unitary identity, the indivisible and individualized proprietorial author, the linear argument and text, originality, the finished object, fixity, intellectual property, copyright and even the human. The aim is to produce a counter-model both to the becoming business of the contemporary university and to what Bill Readings referred to as the ‘University of Culture’, epitomised for him by the German model Humboldt instituted in the 19th century at the University of Berlin.