The Dangerous Dichotomy of Disruption

Last week I posed a question on LinkedIn asking my connections to list what they considered the genuine disruptions of the past decade.

In a week filled with the frothy tsunami of CES updates and trend reports AND the 10-year anniversary of the release of the iPhone, I received a spirited number of responses.

Some were obvious — the iPhone, NetFlix, UBER, Tesla.

Some not-so obvious — Donald Trump and the 2016 Election “hacks”

As a Strategist, some common threads particularly struck me:

More examples were business model changes — UBER, airbnb, NetFlix, Amazon AWS, Free WiFi — than actual products. Clay Christensen would be proud.

Many were organizations that weren’t on our collective radar five years ago. A profound indication of the speed of transformation we’re facing.

In many ways I share the exuberance of a world where archaic systems are re-evaluated and transformed — have you tried securing a mortgage recently? — and where imagination, chutzpah and a liberal sprinkling of “hell yeah let’s do this” triumphs.

But as business journalists and the folks on Sand Hill Road work hard to create a disruption idolatry, are there not some dichotomies to consider too?

Change is hard, messy and often unfair in who gets promoted and who gets punished.

Kudos to Amazon for perpetually pushing the envelope in terms of retail concepts and I adore the smarts behind the Amazon GO store. But what about the classic blue collar retail jobs lost? For many teenagers, immigrants and seniors a retail job (or flipping burgers at McDonalds) was their first rung on the ladder to earning a living wage, genuine responsibility and boosting their self-confidence. Automated everything obliterates those opportunities.

At a macro level, as long term and sustained job security becomes more fantasy than fact, what impact on the mental well-being of our citizens? The stress of perpetually being “on the job hunt” is a relatively new phenomenon but in the “gig” economy it will become a reality for many.

Canada’s CBC penned a delightful article commending the ingenuity of several local entrepreneurs who are “uberizing” (yes that is a real phrase) their sectors. But the article carried a darker message too. One that could be rightly filed under “The Law Of Unintended Consequences”

“There is uncertainty about who will the cover the cost of health care, employment insurance, Old Age Security and other social services since many of these programs are traditionally paid for by employers and employees.”

In similar fashion, though with a more liberal dose of British humour, The Guardian newspaper asked if democracy can survive in a world where information, misinformation and blatant disinformation is so rife. This is not the place to belabor the rise of “false news” and its impact on the US elections but it does beg the question — do algorithms and machine learning aid or hinder our ability to make informed and judicious choices? Can and should we trust machines to filter, edit and promote what we see, what we read, what we believe to be true? Perhaps its ok when I’m trying to buy a backyard BBQ and can’t decide between Green Egg or Broil King, but should algorithms help decide on the veracity and integrity of my country’s leader?

And then there’s the old rub of income inequality and the classic 1% syndrome. Or, more accurately the 1% that holds 48% of the worlds’ wealth. Personally I’m more likely to use this delightful collection of essays as my compass than the next Naomi Klein rant but disruption has created a level of income — and opportunity — inequality that would make a 16th Century Pope blush. To give you a more tangible example, the Alexa euphoria at CES as been directly attributed to a $1.3 BILLION rise in Jeff Bezos’ net worth in one day!

To be clear I’ve no beef against disruption per se. I’m a NetFlix, UBER and airbnb fiend like many of you. In a house with a wife and two daughters, I adore (and will pay a premium for) anything that will listen and follow my commands without question or an expectation of more pocket money.

The issue is that I’m not seeing as much excitement, noise and enthusiasm for disruptions in the areas that alleviate, versus exacerbate, the issues I’ve outlined above. And, Dear Reader, I’m very open to you taking off the blindfold and showing me differently. Blockchain and micro-financing are great examples. Coursera and open online universities are also a step in the right direction too. Are there others?

It’s the broader societal issues of (re)education, mental well-being, income equality — the areas traditionally in the realm of government — that need equal attention. Are there as many VC’s open to funding THOSE Disruptors? Do we have enough schools promoting students to solve THOSE problems versus automating drone deliveries of beer during Hockey Night in Canada?

To borrow directly from the brilliant Roy Amara and his immutable law

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”

What is the long term effect of all this Disruption? Do we dare ignore it?


Again, I’m not trying to paint a Chicken Little dystopian POV here. I genuinely adore technology and much of what its brought us. I’m genuinely interested in your perspective and opinion Dear Reader. I see us actively idolizing those whose disruptions have a commercial versus societal benefit. Is my view incorrect? How can we balance the scales so our disruptions positively impact us all.

Like what you read? Give Hilton Barbour a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.