Disruptive events are the ones that transform our world

August has only just begun but it's not too early to choose the word that best captures the spirit of the year. The frontrunner in my mind has to be "disruptive". It is hardly a new word but in the past it only meant bad things.

Now, it is having a glorious renaissance. In tech speak, it is the must-have word when you are pitching for millions of dollars for your start-up: a bankable idea must "disrupt" an existing market and create a whole new one for your product - just as Apple's iTunes destroyed the record store and Amazon is obliterating all but the most specialised of bookstores.

From the mouths of techies, the word has moved to marketing jargon. Virgin Media's brand is said to be "refreshingly human, witty and disruptive". Nokia, which used to dominate the market for mobile phones but is losing out to Samsung, is hoping to "reposition itself as a disruptive challenger brand".

A clash of cultures over the old and new meanings of the word erupted when Nate Silver, the data analyst who correctly predicted the results of last year's US election in all 50 states, announced he was moving his blog from The New York Times, the "grey lady" of news, to the sports channel ESPN. The Times's public editor explained Mr Silver's departure saying he did not fit in to the newspaper's culture and was a disruptive influence. The blogger - whose data-crunching has put hundreds of political talking heads out of business - responded: "We look at the word 'disruptive' as a positive."

The word has now made it back into the classroom, not to stand on the naughty step but to get a gold star. A British education expert has written in the British weekly Times Educational Supplement that girls need to stop being polite at school and start challenging authority if they are to match boys in earning power in adult life. Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and education at the Girls' Day School Trust, said disruption was a "proven path to success".

The world has been disrupted since the invention of the steam engine. But these days, technologies spread farther and faster. The motor car was invented in 1886 but there was no such thing as an affordable horseless carriage until Henry Ford's Model T rolled off the production line in 1908. These days innovations such as selling insurance or air tickets online can change the face of a shopping street in a few years and wipe out whole categories of employment.

Instability is exciting for young people (unless they yearn for a now-vanished steady job such as their parents had). But it has an upsetting effect on those who want to hold back the march of destructive innovation.

One can see nostalgia for a more ordered world lying behind the global fascination in the birth of a royal baby in Britain. Prince George is of little immediate consequence in Britain - absolutely none elsewhere. But his arrival does reassure the anxious that one family somehow manages to stay the same while institutions all around are collapsing.

In France, more than 100,000 people have bought a book titled Petite Poucette (Thumbelina) which seeks to explain how one can survive the destruction of the concepts that gave meaning to their world, such as nation, religion, class and family.

The author, philosopher Michel Serres, has a foot in both the old and the new, being a member of the Academie Francaise, a venerable body waging a losing battle to protect the French language from English infection, while teaching at Stanford University in California, near that crucible of disruption, Silicon Valley.

He argues that the new disruptive technologies are as transformational as the invention of writing with pen and ink and printing with movable type. His surprising conclusion is that the old world has run out of time and must be made afresh by a digital generation communicating by tapping their thumbs (hence the title) on tablet devices. Professor Serres's work has yet to be translated into English, proving that one cultural barrier still resists disruption.

Nowhere is the wave of disruption - in both its positive and negative senses - more visible than in Egypt, where it has led to real revolution, not just the digital kind. After the military toppled President Mohammed Morsi, the crowds in Tahrir Square believed that they could topple at will any government that fails to match the goals of the revolution. This is naive and dangerous. Disruption is electrifying but someone has to put the pieces of society back together in a better way. Without that, it leads only to something not new, but rather familiar: military dictatorship.


On Twitter: @aphilps

Published: August 2, 2013 04:00 AM


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