“Disruptive Innovation”

by Matt Sitman

That’s the catchphrase Judith Shulevitz nominates as the most pernicious cliché of our time, tracing it back to Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. She argues that its constant invocation reveals what “George Orwell pointed out, which is that stale phrases mechanically repeated have dangerous political effects”:

You can’t blame Christensen and his co-writers for all the dumb things said and done in the name of disruption. But you can spot some unsavory habits of mind in their prescriptions. For one thing, they possess an almost utopian faith in technology: online or “blended” learning; massive open online courses, or MOOCs; cool health apps; and so on. Their convictions seem sincere, but they also coincide nicely with the interests of the Silicon Valley venture-capital crowd. If you use technology to disrupt the delivery of public services, you open up new markets; you also replace human labor with the virtual kind, a happy thought for an investor, since labor is the most expensive line item in all service-industry budgets.

Second, Christensen and his acolytes make the free-market-fundamentalist assumption that all public or nonprofit institutions are sclerotic and unable to cope with change. This leads to an urge to disrupt, preemptively, from above, rather than deal with disruption when it starts bubbling up below. Third, they don’t like participatory democracy much. “The sobering conclusion,” write Christensen and co-authors in their book about K–12 education, “is that democracy … is an effective tool of government only in” less contentious communities than those that surround schools. “Political and school leaders who seek fundamental school reform need to become much more comfortable amassing and wielding power because other tools of governance will yield begrudging cooperation at best.”