Disruptive Technology

What exactly is Disruptive?

As new arrangements of technological systems interface with our human and social world, does the descriptive disruptive practically provide a term to assist society to conceptualise these new transformative potentials?

Defined as, to rupture, throw into disorder and disrupt the normal course of unity, its first known use is in 1793(Merriam-Webster). It took another hundred years or so for disruption to find a place in late 19th century physics.

More recently in the 1960’s ‘Disruptive Selection’ also known as ‘diversifying selection’ became used in population genetics a part of evolutionary theory. As such ‘diversifying selection’ is regarded to be the central component to sympatric speciation (Smith, 1966), the process in which new species evolve from a single ancestral species within the same area.

The term ‘Disruptive’ was paired with ‘technology’ by Clayton Christensen in 1995, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. Disruptive Innovation emerged as an area of focus in theories of industrial innovation to seek to understand what milieu of specific industries, products, technologies and market environments foster innovative practises.

With the focus upon innovation and retaining productivity within an economic market Christensen notes that disruption can be operating across multiple axes. As a subset of market ‘sustaining innovation’, ‘revolutionary innovation’ or ‘discontinuous innovation’ is characterised as not affecting the existing market, the classic example illustrated here is the automobile.

It was not until the Ford Model T in 1908 which became cheap enough through mass production transformed the car from a luxury item into a disruptive innovation across the transportation market. Indeed it was not the technology of the automobile that singularly defined the disruption of the horse and cart. Rather its was Fordism, the mass production line and petroleum extraction and delivery technologies in a milieu of other socio-economic factors, which enabled the automobiles disruption (Christensen, 1997, 2003 p.43-48).

This analysis maps innovation on an axis between market performances against the non-consumption disruption. This discontinuous innovation, fails to highlight the other vast number of potential exchanges and disruptions that may emerge from the innovation, until there is an impedance or opportunity upon ‘markets’ the analysis is not there. Indeed there exists social, cultural, psychological and agency exchanges which are not included in disruptions conception.

Disruptive innovation as an externality of a sustaining market creates a new market which applies a new of operational rules which govern its interaction. This new market eventuates in the overtaking of existing markets.

These analyses of Christensen are in themselves market sustaining innovations, in which attempts to explore the disruptive engagement. The relationship between technological artefacts and users are looked over in favour of higher level ‘market potential’ of revolutionary-sustaining innovation.

From the history of it’s usage, the term ‘disruptive’ occupies a place of change and transformation. This change can be seen as a rearrangement, a reorganisation, as change occurs it exhibits behaviour of a networked character. Duncan Watts identifies flows and cascades of changes across the network as they exhibit predictable change observable across networks. These externalities exhibit influence across its network altering its components ‘behaviour’ or methods of exchange and production.

For Watts the science of determining predictability and thresholds for change is in the nature of the relationship of the network’s parts. While Network theory is susceptible to over simplification, the base observable mathematical relationships between unit and whole describes the point at which change occurs through a system of influence of relationships or ‘network logic’.

To map the potential for change means to understand considerations of individual parts and sum of the parts into the whole. Such considerations are externalities that is, factors that engage with individual network parts to influence change. The many relationships the part has within, exists secondary and tertiary externalities almost ad infinitum.

Watts provides the example of Fax machine proliferation. For this, externalities exist from the fact that fax machine consumption and use requires people to want to talk with each other (Watts 2004, p.220 – 243). As with Christensen’s automobile, the externality of affordability for consumer and producer is dependent upon the efficient resource and capital supply to producers, manufacturers and consumer markets. Additionally, there exists the externality of human desire to travel faster than the existing modes of transport, and many more.

Our concern about disruptions can be understood as the potential for change, the arrangement of network parts in which change occurs. From the externality of a single part to revolutionary- sustaining innovation across the network, a chain of influencing externalities may result to create a cascading or overarching change in the dominant network logic.