In Praise of the Disruptive?


You would have heard it. Our local media repeatedly extol “disruptive technology.” It is always spoken in glowing terms or with an assumption that disruptive technology is wonderful and we should jump in as soon as possible, and to the best of our ability. I wonder why.

When a child is disruptive in school, it’s considered a negative. If we have someone disruptive at our worship service that is not good. If someone is disruptive to our political system, that person would be a threat to the establishment. Yet the media, and it is surely done with approval from others above them, seem infatuated with disruption.

When disruption is the goal

Disruption should never be the goal. And it rarely is. The media focus for people to come up with disruptive technology is a wrong social construct. Disruptive technologies put people out of work, it impoverishes people and makes desperate people out of decent folks. For instance, if driverless cars take control, many taxi operators and truck drivers will lose their means of gainful employment. Yet, I must be quick to add that I am in favor of progress, even when there is disruption.

Every time something is done differently, there will be winners and losers. It doesn’t have to be technology. For instance, when highways are built, they bypass small towns and these towns languish. The ability to move quickly from one place to another and the ability to cover great distances is a winner for some and a loser for others.

This is the same with any government policy. For instance, the ability to acquire private land for public housing results in gain for many who need housing, but loss for those whose lands are acquired for a pittance. This action is disruptive to land owners. I am not making a moral judgment here but I am here to point out that with the exception of the status quo, there will always be disruption, and new technology is not the reason for disruption.

While it is apparent that the Bible does not talk about disruptive technology, God is very concerned with the welfare of people in a society. The praise of disruptive technology cheers the winners and ignores the losers. That is where I believe the media got it wrong. A compassionate society is not one that roots for winners and abandons losers. And again, I acknowledge that the government has all kinds of schemes to help people adapt to change. I do not dispute these attempts. I just take issue with the narrative that disruptive technology is good.

Innovation not disruption

Innovative technology should be the goal, not disruptive technology. Innovation seeks to improve things. When things improve, some will be left behind. There will be disruption. But that disruption is the unintended consequence of progress. This may seem like a fine point for some, but it is significant.

Innovations begin with the premise there are some unmet needs and you have a way to meet those needs. Perhaps you have a way to alleviate traffic jams. Perhaps you have a way to organize so we waste less. Whatever the issue may be, you come up with an innovation (technology or management) to make things better. In the process of making things better, some people will lose out, but many will benefit. Innovation focuses on how to be a positive contribution to society. The goal of innovation is good (usually), but the goal of disruption is selfish.

Disruptive technology or disruptive management is not interested in producing good in society. Its goal is to do things differently so it can grab market share, prosper, and put other people out of business. Disruptive approaches do not seek the public good, but only the good of the disrupter. It is a social evil. For this reason, there are antitrust laws that prohibit predatory corporate behavior to serve its own interest. For instance, if my goal is to disrupt the taxi services in Singapore, I may discover a way to buy up the competition and then raise the prices. That is disruption for personal gain, and there is nothing good about this.

If the goal of driverless cars is to improve safety, reduce cost, improve comfort, etc. then, the innovation is intended for good, even though there may be people who suffer loss. The goal of innovation is to bless society. The goal of disruption for its own sake is to enrich self and impoverish others.

They cannot deny the march of progress. Farming used to take up 80% of the work force. Inventions, different methods, and such like, reduced the number of people needed to produce food. Today in America, only 3% are involved in farming, and yet they have the capacity to export food. The people who lose their farming jobs go into other sectors. These farming jobs will never return. Manufacturing picked up the manpower demand lost in farming. But manufacturing is now shedding jobs on account of greater efficiencies. Lost manufacturing jobs are not coming back.

Innovations create disruptions to the lives of people. But that is not the goal, that is the unintended negative result of innovation. Innovation would produce many effects, mostly good, but there will be an unintended disruption to some people.

Don’t beggar your neighbor

It starts with the heart. When our life purpose is to love God supremely and love our neighbor as ourselves, we will not try to beggar our neighbor for personal gain. If we do that, we will pull the rug under our own feet. The classic case is Napster. It was a disruptive technology based on Peer-to-Peer sharing of music. This means the musicians were no longer able to derive an income from the music they produce. If that had persisted, musicians will stop producing new music because they will not be able to survive. Napster was disruptive without regard to musicians and it beggared musicians. Napster was no more than a new way of stealing. There is nothing to celebrate about that.

If I were a developer and I want to acquire a piece of land to build and make money, I can go the collective sale route or I can simply send in arsonists to torch the place and buy it at fire-sale prices. Both actions are ultimately disruptive because the residents have to move. But one seeks to share the wealth whereas the other seeks to maximize profit by beggaring the neighbor.

While no technology is involved in the above example, the point is that there will be disruptions in life. We cannot escape it. It is neither good nor bad in itself. But when there is no love for one’s neighbor and one uses technology, or arson, or any other means to disrupt for personal gain, it is morally wrong.

Building God’s kingdom

Sometimes we wonder how our work-a-day lives contribute to live out our life purpose and build the kingdom of God.

It is not easy to give an answer because our world has become extremely complex. Your job may seem very remote from any relevance to building God’s kingdom. But the principle is actually simple enough. But it is the application of the principle that we need to recognize.

Our purpose is to live out the Great Command (love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (make disciples).

So how do I love God in my weekly or my daily schedule? Do I set aside time to spend with him and enjoy his presence? I don’t understand the work of investment banking and cannot tell you whether it is virtuous or not. But investment banking is notorious for burning out their staff. Recently, an email from Moelis & Co (global independent investment bank) went viral. Apparently a staffer sent out an email that he checked and found no one in office at 2:00am (apparently actual time was 12:30am). He chided the staff for not being there! (Moelis is notorious for long hours, so this may be a fabrication to put the issue in the spotlight.)

If your job leaves you no place for God, that job should have no place in your life. If your job beggars your neighbor rather than bless him, then it is time to plan your exit.

I believe there is a fundamental problem with trying to be disruptive and there is a fundamental virtue in innovation. The goal of disruption is inconsistent with kingdom building work. The goal of innovation is consistent with kingdom building. But if our innovation is inadvertently disruptive, we need to ask if we have the power to ameliorate that disruption; and if we do, then we have a moral duty to provide a softer landing for those we inadvertently disrupt.

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
(1 Corinthians 13:6)

Pastor Peter Eng


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