Disrupt this: The most misused word in 2012

This year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
This year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
Image: Getty Images / Max Morse
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Thirty years ago, the word “disrupt” meant something you did in class, and in doing so you got sent home with a note featuring the word in red cursive ink. I know this from personal experience. It was also something that happened to electricity supplies, sex or church services. It was not a good thing.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s and the word was quietly co-opted by Clayton Christensen, in his paper “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” published in that MBA bible, the Harvard Business Review. Christensen, the elder statesman of innovation studies, looked at product segments such as hydraulic excavators and minicomputers and theorized that big, successful companies become vulnerable over time to competitors with cheaper, simpler or less powerful products. He said this was because these big players got too close to their customers and too focused on feeding the geese that lay their golden eggs, not seeing the scrawny chicken next door as a threat until it’s selling eggs cheaper and faster. Christensen said it was all in service of delivering greater “value” to the end customer.

“Disrupt” kicked around the valleys and alleys of silicon throughout the dotcom era and into the time of Web 2.0, adorning PowerPoint decks and tripping off tongues at cocktail hours, but it really came into its own in the last few years as the prime directive for startups wanting to wow investors. Ground zero is the (surprise) Disrupt conference held in San Francisco, New York and Beijing, organized by Valley maven Michael Arrington. It has featured the darlings of disruption, like real estate rental service Air BnB, ride-organizing service Uber and task-outsourcer Taskrabbit. Heck, even Newark mayor Corey Booker, the closest thing to a charismatic tech startup CEO we have in national politics, has spoken there. It’s where those who want to kick the legs out from under entrenched business models go to smell their own testosterone. Pronouncements from Disrupt have even become the butt of jokes due to their seeming lack of self-awareness and jargon-intensity. Even the disruptors have disruptors. Along with “pivot,” or quickly switching business models when a previous one fails, “disrupt” has become 2012’s killer pitch-verb.

It has also become the end, not the means, in an increasing number of new startups, standing somewhere between Austrian American economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and insurgency—a constant hunt for ailing prey to kill, like movie “The Most Dangerous Game,” with conference swag. And like “pivot,” “disrupt” is too often used to cover a lack of ideas, a kind of cargo cult that believes mimicking companies who found success doing something novel will itself bring success—a cheaper version of case-study management culture. “Disrupting” also frequently entails undercutting cost, delivering something cheaply in order to suddenly redirect thousands or millions of customers to your door. Capture now, pivot later. In the process, we’re seeing a dynamic in our economy that is chasing a combination Wal-Mart/iPhone effect: always low prices, at your fingertips, wherever you are, under the code of what Christensen called “value.”

I like to think of disruption as invention—breakthroughs in technology, for example, that may also have the effect of unsettling the existing model, but probably not developed for the sole purpose of raising a round of capital and lining up an eventual exit. Something that saves fuel, cleans the air, extends a life or makes us safer. Less of a get-rich-quick scheme that takes no prisoners, and more of a contribution to common welfare. Normally, I’d lobby for the word “disrupt” to be dropped from the language but since it’s the holidays, I’ll be generous. You can use “disrupt,” but only if it describes something that actually improves the human condition, not just a cheaper ride uptown or finding someone to pick up your dry cleaning. Find a way to improve that person’s life, not just offload your inconveniences, and you’ll be properly disruptive. And I’ll promise to be quiet in class.