Maybe it’s because I’m cynical and jaded. Maybe I’m just a grumpy old man who can’t stand these new kids trying to change the world. Maybe I just hate stupid industry buzzwords and the metaphorical definitions they assume.
But after more than a decade reporting on tech, observing trends, and using words properly, I can reassure you that all these companies and technologies people are so excited about are definitely not disruptive. Yes, this it going be one of those articles that starts off as a grammar lesson and then throws in some history to prove a point. And, if I’m lucky, maybe enough people will stop trying to use disruptive when describing smart, innovative ideas and products.
If we look at the dictionary definitions – yes, I just went there – of disrupt or disruption, the entries merely state, “interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem”.
You know what I picture when I think of a disruption? A child bursting out laughing in a classroom. A streaker at a rugby game. Or a heckler at a comedy show. In short: inconveniences.
In those cases things soon turn back to normal, and we joke about it over lunch. “Hey, remember that time when…”
Disruptions are the footnotes of our daily lives. Temporary, sometimes amusing, breaks from the mundane. Forgotten about, when we compile a greatest hits list.
And you can bet good money that companies like Uber, Tesla, Coursera, and Nest don’t plan on being any of those things. Uber’s expanding. Tesla’s paid off its debt and reporting record profits. Coursera is now one of the best places to get an education. And Nest – well, if last week’s $3.2-billion acquisition by Google doesn’t say, “we’re not just here to disrupt”, then nothing will.
In some cases, so-called disruptive companies haven’t even disrupted much. They’ve created all-new markets for themselves.
And it’s not just newer companies that are being labelled as disruptive. Technology Review’s top 50 for 2013 lists long-standing companies like Audi, Amazon, Samsung, Toyota, Google, Intel, and even Apple. What these companies are doing is not disruption, it’s innovation – the very core of their continued existence. Toyota’s foray into hybrids isn’t its way of trying to get a rise out of its competitors, it’s the literal future of motoring.
The same goes for Audi’s push for LED and laser lighting in road cars; Intel’s internet-of-things processor, Quark; and Amazon’s rumoured delivery drones. These aren’t garage fantasy projects made by some guy who wants to enter the market and attempt to shake things up with a poorly-thought-out idea.
These things are the face of our changing world, not inconveniences we have to deal with before things go back to business as normal. We should be amazed, embracing the new things and scrutinising them. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, to the relief of thousands of gas lantern operators, he wasn’t being disruptive. When Henry Ford set up the production line, revolutionising the way cars are built (and industry would later operate), nobody said “Well, that’s disruptive”. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon he innovated for all mankind – the only thing he disrupted was the sand on our orbiting satellite.
Maybe I am just crotchety and pedantic; wanting words to retain their meaning, rather than having people assign them new definitions. Besides, the word itself has a negative connotation. One day something truly disruptive is going to come along, like, say, an asteroid or a mega solar flare, and we’ll have to deal with the problem of something that will disrupt the tech market one last time. Nuclear winters and EMPs are a bitch.
Most importantly, let’s not get caught up in buzzwords. All they do is cause disruption in newsrooms around the world.