One of the more irritating framings of Donald Trump’s rise to power has been to stress his ‘disruptive’ credentials*. Such accounts often focus on the role of Jared Kushner, who has been granted a dizzying array of responsibilities in the Trump Whitehouse, prompting Gary Sernovitz to observe the overlap with recent events in Saudi Arabia:

When Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia later this month, the first country he will visit as President, the attention will be on geopolitics and the complicated friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. But the trip also highlights, just off center stage, an unremarked-upon similarity between the current Saudi government and the American White House: in both places, unelected men in their thirties have swiftly amassed power.

In Saudi Arabia, the thirty-one-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy Crown Prince and son of King Salman, is now in charge of the oil industry, the economy, defense policy, a war in Yemen, and various domestic initiatives. In the United States, the national responsibilities of Jared Kushner, the President’s thirty-six-year-old son-in-law, include, according to the Times, “Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China and Mexico, and reorganizing the federal government from top to bottom.” Kushner is technically the President’s senior adviser, but you might also call him America’s crown prince.

http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/jared-kushner-and-mohammed-bin-salman-princes-of-tech-disruption

Both men are presented as “bringing modern and advanced ideas into stodgy government terrain”, empowered by ageing rulers in virtue of their “being in touch with the latest in finance and technology”. There is little to justify this veneer of being tech-savvy, but it certainly covers up the role of “family ties and court intrigues” in their respective advancement. In the case of Kushner, such a framing can give a superficial plausibility to his leadership of the Office of American Innovation, arguably entrenching, extending and radicalising Obama’s mission to ‘reboot how government works‘.

However I want to argue that Trump is a disrupter. But not in the sense in which the many tech-bros who cautiously applaud his assent are liable to understand the term. As Naomi Klein writes in her new book No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics on pg 3:

As this has been unfolding, it struck me that what’s happening in Washington is not the usual passing of the baton between parties. It’s a naked corporate takeover, one many decades in the making. It seems that the economic interests that have long since paid off both major parties to do their bidding have decided they’re tired of playing the game. Apparently, all that wining and dining of elected officials, all that cajoling and legalized bribery, insulted their sense of divine entitlement. So now they’re cutting out the middlemen—those needy politicians who are supposed to protect the public interest—and doing what all top dogs do when they want something done right: they are doing it themselves.

In this sense, we can see Trump as disintermediating politics. America has long faced a quasi-oligopolic situation in which elites rules through strategic influence, near to unopposed in a situation which the political sociologist Colin Crouch characterises as post-democracy. The disruption of the Trump presidency involves the removal of that mediation, directly empowering the most activist and reactionary tier of this plutocratic elite. As she goes on to write, from pg 3-4:

But the Trumps seem unconcerned. A near-impenetrable sense of impunity—of being above the usual rules and laws—is a defining feature of this administration. Anyone who presents a threat to that impunity is summarily fired—just ask former FBI director James Comey. Up to now in US politics there’s been a mask on the corporate state’s White House proxies: the smiling actor’s face of Ronald Reagan or the faux cowboy persona of George W. Bush (with Dick Cheney/Halliburton scowling in the background). Now the mask is gone. And no one is even bothering to pretend otherwise.

The idea of post-democracy conveys a ‘hollowing out’, rather than a negation. What’s so disturbing about recent events in America is that we may be seeing the early stages of a transition from post-democracy to non-democracy.

*Incidentally, this always reminds me of an Economist interview in which a reluctant conservative supporter of Trump explained how if you have an infestation of vermin, you call in the exterminator but that doesn’t mean you want the exterminator to run your house after the vermin have gone (or words to that effect). The point being that ‘disruption’ of politics is a culturally specific expression of a broader political sentiment.

Another extract from Audrey Watters, this time from The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, who analysis of the rhetoric of disruption has fast become one of my favourite examples of digital cultural critique. From loc 184:

“The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

One recurring theme in Brad Stone’s excellent The Upstarts is how technological assumptions encoded into legislation become focal points for conflicts with ‘disruptive’ companies. For instance, as loc 2348 illustrates, the novel dispatch system used by Uber complicated the distinction between taxis and livery cars:

Stressing that Uber cars were not hailed or even electronically hailed like taxis, the pair emphasized that Uber cars fit the legal definition of livery cars and were prearranged; it just so happened that the prearrangement occurred five minutes ahead of time instead of sixty.

But these distinctions also become ideologically loaded, with the antiquated assumptions effectively inviting us to sweep them away as part of our great disruptive project. This is something even Uber’s lawyers were moved by. From loc 2996:

She didn’t, pointing out that taxi regulations had been crafted decades before smartphones and internet ratings systems were invented. “I was personally always of the philosophy that the great companies, the PayPals of the world, don’t get scared by regulation,” she told me. “I never wanted to be the kind of lawyer that just said no.”

I’m currently reading Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God, a remarkably prescient book published in 2000 which has a lot of insight into contemporary cultures of technological evangelism. The book is concerned with what Frank sees as a transition in American life from a form of populism predicated on cultural reaction to one grounded in the worship of the market. It’s possible I’m primed to see this analysis as prescient because I’m working my way backwards through his books and One Market Under God contains the seeds of an analysis that he developed over the next sixteen years.

Nonetheless, I think we can learn much about our present circumstances by looking back to this transitional point in the roaring 90s which saw the origin of the rightward turn of social democratic parties, mass digitalisation and the first Silicon Valley gold-rush. What I’m increasingly preoccupied by is how these events were intimately connected. In other words: how do we place the ascendancy of the technology sector in social and economic history? To my surprise, Thomas Frank’s book actually addresses this question more straight-forwardly than any other I can think of apart from Platform Capitalism, though of course many accounts address these issues without systematically investigating them.

Despite the 1990s being hailed as an era of democratisation driven by a booming economy, Frank insists that we recognise that “The booming stock market of the nineties did not democratize wealth; it concentrated wealth” (loc 1973). But this chimera of continually ascending stock prices, grounded in the rampant speculation of the dot com boom, helped license an ideological transition that Frank describes on loc 2027:

both parties came around to this curious notion, imagining that we had somehow wandered into a sort of free-market magic kingdom, where ever-ascending stock prices could be relied upon to solve just about any social problem. Now we could have it all: We could slash away at the welfare state, hobble the unions, downsize the workforce, send the factories to Mexico—and no one would get hurt!

The ideological work involved in maintaining we had entered a new era of perpetual growth, beyond boom and bust, relied upon the mystique of the internet. It heralded the dawn of a new world, the end of old certainties and a constant horizon of possibility to be invoked in the face of those exhibiting an anachronistic scepticism. From loc 1659:

And yet, since the moment the Internet was noticed by the mainstream media in 1995, it has filled a single and exclusive position in political economy: a sort of cosmic affirmation of the principles of market populism. “Think of the Internet as an economic-freedom metaphor for our time,” wrote bull-market economist Lawrence Kudlow in August 1999.45 “The Internet empowers ordinary people and disempowers government.” And we were only too glad to do as Kudlow instructed us, to think of it in precisely this way. In fact, so closely did the Internet and market populism become linked in the public mind that whenever a pundit or journalist mentioned the Web, one braced oneself for some windy pontification about flexibility, or the infinite mobility of capital, or the total and unappealable obsolescence of labor, government, and any other enemy of the free-market enterprise.

Somewhat more prosaically, the companies of Silicon Valley became emblems of a new anti-elitism, with the old formalities of corporate life being replaced by a hierarchical ethos that lionised the entrepreneur for their authentic living, often expressed in ‘working hard and living hard’. The practice of paying stock options in lieu of wages became a cypher for shareholder democracy, an idea which was seized upon as legitimating what were in reality vicious attacks upon the security of labour. However as Frank points out on loc 2063, the reality of this in Silicon Valley was presented misleadingly as a sign of a brave new workplace culture rather than a familiar self-interest:

It may have been fun to imagine what these enchanted options could do in the service of economic democracy, but in point of fact their powers were almost always directed the other way. Options did not bring about some sort of “New Economy” egalitarianism; they were one of the greatest causes of the ever widening income gap. It was options that inflated the take-home pay of CEOs to a staggering 475 times what their average line-worker made; it was options that made downsizing, outsourcing, and union-busting so profitable. When options were given out to employees—a common enough practice in Silicon Valley by decade’s end—they often came in lieu of wages, thus permitting firms to conceal their payroll expenses and artificially inflate the price of their shares, pumping the bubble still further.17 Options were a tool of wealth concentration, a bridge straight to the nineteenth century.

What seems hugely important to me here is the recognition that the vast concentration of wealth that took place in the 1990s was deeply tied up, structurally and culturally, with the first wave of mass digitalisation brought about by the dot com bubble. The nature of that entanglement still isn’t as clear to me as I would like, but I’m increasingly confident in my claim that the analysis of digitalisation needs to be an integral part of the analysis of capitalism from the 1970s onwards.

As important as economic history is though, it’s crucial that we also understand the cultural dimensions to this process. What I really like about Thomas Frank is his commitment to taking business bullshit seriously. From loc 1787:

It is worth examining the way business talk about itself, the fantasies it spins, the role it writes for itself in our lives. It is important to pay attention when CEOs tell the world they would rather surf than pray, show up at work in Speedos rather than suits, hang out in Goa rather than Newport, listen to Stone Temple Pilots rather than Sibelius. It is not important, however, in the way they imagine it is, and for many Americans it is understandably difficult to care very much whether the guy who owns their company is a defender of family values or a rave kid. But culture isn’t set off from life in a realm all its own, and the culture of business in particular has massive consequences for the way the rest of us live.

Our contemporary discourse of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ was nurtured in the business commentary of the late 1990s. By examining its origins, we can see the political context of this way of thinking and speaking about technology much more transparently than is the case if we examine contemporary instances of it. To close with a quote from Peter Schwartz, quoted on loc 1321:

Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

A couple of months ago, The New Statesman carried an interview with Tony Blair for the first time in a long time. Leaving aside how haunted the man looked in the portrait accompanying it, what stood out to me about it was how readily he had incorporated techno-speak into the language of the third way. Here are some examples:

One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.-

I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.-

I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.

This reflects something I’ve been noticing for some time: the similarity of 90s globalisation discourse to contemporary technology discourse. In fact, in many cases you can replace the word ‘globalisation’, from these 90s accounts, with ‘technology’ and there’s no semantic loss whatsoever. This is why we need to be deeply sceptical about, for instance, the automation debate. There’s clearly a real change underway, but it’s framed in a manner which sees the unfolding of technology as an inexorable process, one which offers the possibility of adaptation or displacement. What Morozov calls solutionism (“The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature”) can be seen as a particular kind of cultural response to this view of technology.

Amongst political actors, we should understand this rhetoric as emerging against a long-term trend towards depoliticisation. It discursively unites the ‘centre ground’ of career politicians, members of what George Osborne calls ‘the guild’, concerned with winning power in order to manage the unfolding of technological change. Amongst economic actors, we should understand this rhetoric as a way of legitimising one’s own work, deployed to win venture capital and to narrate the increasingly hegemonic character of the technology sector within capitalism as a whole. In the interaction between politics and economics, we should see this as a class project, as Thomas Frank argues in his Listen Liberal. From loc 2918-2934:

By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”

My argument is that we need to see the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ in systemic terms. We need to historicise these cultural forms and link their claims to the core questions of sociology inquiry. We need to update our theories of social change to better take account of socio-technical ‘innovation’. For instance, if we accept the construct of ‘late modernity’, are we seeing a radicalisation of it or are we in the process of transcending it? Should we dispense with ‘modernity’ talk altogether, however qualified, instead moving to talk of ‘platform capitalism’ or ‘digital capitalism’? These are key questions for social theory and ones which I’m increasingly gripped by.

A useful way to approach these is to scale down from the system level and look at particular spheres of life in which innovation talk is at its most pronounced. I’m currently reading a book of keynotes by the education writer Audrey Watters which reflects on these issues in terms of educational technology. One of her foremost concerns is the tendency of educational technology start-ups to exhibit a studied ignorance of the history of educational technology. Each putative innovation is presented as ungrounded, emerging from outside education to disrupt a fundamentally broken system, with only the recalcitrance of educators standing in its way:

And okay, in fairness, these folks are not historians. They’re computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, software engineers. They’re entrepreneurs. But their lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matters. It matters because it supports a prevailing narrative about innovation – where innovation comes from (according to this narrative, it comes from private industry, and not from public institutions; from Silicon Valley, that is, not from elsewhere in the world) and when it comes (there’s this fiercely myopic fixation on the future). The lack of knowledge about history matters too because it reflects and even enables a powerful strain in American ideology and in the ideology of the technology industry: that the past is irrelevant, that the past is a monolithic block of brokenness –unchanged and unchanging until it’s disrupted by technological innovation, or by the promise of technological innovation, by the future itself. (loc 326)

However, as she argues, this isn’t simply a forgetting of the history of education or the history of educational technology. Rather “It’s a rewriting of history, whether you see it as activist or accidental” (loc 351) and one which serves private interests. When history is reluctantly allowed on stage, it is inevitably couched in narrowly technological terms. Reflecting on the failure of the largely forgotten AllLearn initiative, opened in 2001 and closed in 2006, the economist Richard Levin, ascribed the problem to a lack of bandwidth:

It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience. (loc 471)

The reality is that broadband penetration had only increased by 8% between the end of AllLearn and the time of this interview. It was also the case that AllLearn sought to distribute materials via CD, as well as allowing users to switch off streaming video content that might be overly-testing for their internet connections. Given he was now speaking as Coursera’s CEO, presiding over a comparable initiative which had failed under his stewardship as Chair, we could perhaps see this as simply self-serving. Not unlike the erasure from history of past educational technology initiatives by start-up founders eagerly touting the ‘next big thing’. But I think Watters is right that this reflects something deeper about contemporary ideologies of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’.

Could we build up a systemic account of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ by looking at the particular discursive strategies used across a number of domains, as well as the material implications of their use. What would these other domains be?

There’s an excellent discussion in Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism of the immense cash reserves that technology companies have built up in recent years. As he notes, the headline figures don’t tell the whole story because these reserves don’t take into account the other debts and liabilities of these corporations. But the broader financial context is one in which, due to low corporate yields, it’s cheaper to take on new debt rather than bringing these cash reserves back on shore and having them be subject to corporation tax.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-17-14-21
From loc 442

Recognising these points seems extremely important to understanding this corporate behaviour. Much of the ambition of the book is to see technology companies in terms of a broader post-crisis political economy and this is why the caveats on the headline figures of cash reserves are so crucial. These behaviours do not emerge sui generis from the technology sector but rather reflect corporations acting rationally within a more expansive context.

The public perception of the corporations in question, as well as the shiny and attention-grabbing investments they make with these cash reserves, create a tendency to evaluate them in their own terms. But these behaviours reflect economic mechanisms which are not unique to the technology sector. As Srnicek notes, “the use of corporate debt by these companies therefore needs to be set in the context of a tax avoidance strategy” (loc 442). These two conditions are crucial to these behaviour: (a) low corporate yields and the capacity to take on debt afforded by them (b) off-shoring of wealth and large scale avoidance of corporation tax. Both conditions are central to our post-crisis political economy rather than being sectoral phenomena.

Understanding this macro-economic context helps avoid the aforementioned trend of seeing the technology sector in sui generis terms. Yes, it’s new and shiny, but these are still corporations within a capitalist system, albeit one currently undergoing systemic change. To understand these changes, what Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism’ and what I tend to think of as ‘digital capitalism’, requires that we cut through the thickets of bullshit which are being promulgated about the ‘digital age’. He writes on loc 536:

Since the 2008 crisis, has there been a similar shift? The dominant narrative in the advanced capitalist countries has been one of change. In particular, there has been a renewed focus on the rise of technology: automation, the sharing economy, endless stories about the ‘Uber for X’, and, since around 2010, proclamations about the internet of things. These changes have received labels such as ‘paradigm shift’ from McKinsey1 and ‘fourth industrial revolution’ from the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum and, in more ridiculous formulations, have been compared in importance to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. 2 We have witnessed a massive proliferation of new terms: the gig economy, the sharing economy, the on-demand economy, the next industrial revolution, the surveillance economy, the app economy, the attention economy, and so on. The task of this chapter is to examine these changes.

Understanding cash hoarding is central to moving beyond this breathless discursive explosion because it’s what facilitates many of the shiniest investments which appear to be at frontier of the ‘digital revolution’. It also facilitates the early acquisition of potential competitors, bringing them into the fold and often liberating them of their technology long before they might come to rival the platform giant. Cash hoarding protects from project uncertainty, facilitating open-ended investments in developments that lack a quantifiable market. But all the these factors which operate at the level of innovation need to be seen in terms of a political economy within which this corporate ‘autonomy’ becomes feasible and widespread.

It would be a mistake however to dismiss talk of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ as epiphenomenal. Firstly, real innovations are underway, albeit ones which are pervasively mischaracterised as the linear unfolding of technological mastery rather than an uneven and lop-sided progress driven by the weird dynamics of the tech sector, distorted by the aforementioned vortex created by the new platform overlords. Secondly, innovation talk has become all pervasive within organisations, performing an important culture role that can’t be adequately understood if we simply subsume it under the category of ‘ideology’:

A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of Amazon.com.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

The pervasive discourse of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ helps mystify fundamental changes in capitalism, propped up by even more pervasive ideas of open/closed, fast/slow and modern/traditional. But it also does important work at a meso-social level, not least of all within higher education:

Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. in the British Medical Journal uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/the-rise-of-the-trump-academic.html

We need to cut through this rhetoric, understanding its cumulative macro-cultural effects while also recognising the performative work it does across organisations and civil society. Doing so will inevitably be a complex exercise but it’s an important one. Doing this goes hand-in-hand with an account of digitalisation at the level of political economy rather than simply technology. This is what I take Srnicek to be doing on loc 568:

Data are not immaterial, as any glance at the energy consumption of data centres will quickly prove (and the internet as a whole is responsible for about 9.2 per cent of the world’s electricity consumption). 6 We should also be wary of thinking that data collection and analysis are frictionless or automated processes. Most data must be cleaned and organised into standardised formats in order to be usable. Likewise, generating the proper algorithms can involve the manual entry of learning sets into a system. Altogether, this means that the collection of data today is dependent on a vast infrastructure to sense, record, and analyse. 7 What is recorded? Simply put, we should consider data to be the raw material that must be extracted, and the activities of users to be the natural source of this raw material. 8 Just like oil, data are a material to be extracted, refined, and used in a variety of ways. The more data one has, the more uses one can make of them. Data were a resource that had been available for some time and used to lesser degrees in previous business models (particularly in coordinating the global logistics of lean production). In the twenty-first century, however, the technology needed for turning simple activities into recorded data became increasingly cheap; and the move to digital-based communications made recording exceedingly simple. Massive new expanses of potential data were opened up, and new industries arose to extract these data and to use them so as to optimise production processes, give insight into consumer preferences, control workers, provide the foundation for new products and services (e.g. Google Maps, self-driving cars, Siri), and sell to advertisers.

But what I find odd about this is it how it adopts the trope of ‘data as new oil’ without critically examining its embedding in the aforementioned rhetoric of disruption and innovation. I’m not yet sure if this is a disagreement with Srnicek’s argument or simply a request for further analysis. But I’m thus far finding the book thought provoking and highly recommend it.

I wrote last week about the notion of ‘business for punks’ propounded by the founder of BrewDog. This little snippet from Battle of the Titans reflects a similar ethos. Is Silicon Valley full of people who understand themselves as ‘doing business for punks’: is this the ethos underlying a commitment to ‘disruption’? From loc 333:

Jobs was personally offended 11 by this way of doing business and wanted no part of it. “We’re not the greatest at selling to the Fortune 500, and there are five hundred of them—five hundred CIOs [chief information officers] that are orifices you have to go through to get” that business. “In the cell phone business there are five. We don’t even like dealing with five hundred companies. We’d rather run an ad for millions and let everyone make up their own mind. You can imagine what we thought about dealing with five,” he said during an onstage interview at the All Things D conference in May 2003. Translation: I am not about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to have a bunch of suits tell me how to build and sell my phone.

The assumed meritocracy of appealing directly to the public is counter posed to the stuffy intermediaries with a vested interest in established way of doing things.

Even though I believe the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ refer to sociologically significant phenomena, I cringe slightly whenever I hear someone use the terms. Particularly in the case of the latter, a whole theory of social change at the meso level is implicit within it: it’s deeply ideological and we need to unpack it, rather than reinforce it by invoking the concept of ‘disruption’.

Part of the problem here is analytically distinguishing between the trends these concepts invoke and the discursive resources they provide for managers to give an account of their organisation. On this note, the following infographic was interesting to come across, even if the appropriate resolution leaves it so small as to be difficult to read:

MK-BU521_INNOVA_D_20120522182708

A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of Amazon.com.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

As a descriptive term, used to refer to what Eric Schmidt defines as items that are both surprising and offer new functionality (How Google Works loc 2909), I have no problem with the notion of ‘innovation’. The difficulty comes in how it’s drawn upon as a matter of reflex to aggrandise things that are lacking on one count and/or the other. Interestingly, this isn’t something confined to technology firms:

Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

And inevitably, where there is bullshit, there is an army of consultants whose fortunes are tied to upholding the percieved intellectual legitimacy of this bullshit in order that they can continue to peddle it:

The innovation trend has given birth to an attendant consulting industry, and Fortune 100 companies pay innovation consultants $300,000 to $1 million for work on a single project, which can amount to $1 million to $10 million a year, estimates Booz & Co. innovation strategy consultant Alex Kandybin.

In addition, four in 10 executives say their company now has a chief innovation officer, according to a recent study of the phenomenon released last month by Capgemini Consulting.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304791704577418250902309914

But as the WSJ article goes on to note, of the 4 in 10 global corporations which now have a chief innovation officer, “an online survey of 260 global executives and 25 in-depth interviews, suggest that such titles may be mainly ‘for appearances.'” The slippage between the two uses of the term has material consequences: invoking ‘innovation’ to account for what we are already doing in more positive terms leads to an apparatus of innovation emerging within the organisation. In other words, ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ talk aren’t just window dressing, in the sense that the entrenchment of this discourse has intra-organisational implications. Note: I’m not saying these changes have any capacity to produce disruption or innovation in the descriptive sense, only that these are real changes rather than mere talk.

There’s a really fascinating article on Tech Crunch describing the political views of start-up founders in Silicon Valley. It makes the point that there’s a communitarian streak, albeit a very strange one, underpinning the politics of digital elites. To describe them as libertarian misses the ideological specificity of a cohesive current of opinion that has emerged in tech: denial of social conflicts, hyper-optimism about change and the desire to reshape other institutions to be more like start-ups. 

From The Boy Kings, by Katherine Losse, pg 200:

Most employees I talked with seemed not to be particularly bothered by the company’s decision to forcibly adjust people’s expectations of privacy, preferring instead to focus on the light and almost childlike- sounding goals of sharing and connecting people. “She just doesn’t get it,” a user support manager told me about one employee who was soon to be terminated. “She doesn’t believe in the mission. She thinks that Facebook is for people without any real problems and isn’t actually changing the world. Can you believe that? This afternoon I’m going to have to let her go.” 

I wondered who the heretic employee was. I guessed that she must have been like all of the user support team members: well- educated in the humanities at an Ivy League school, and probably unaware when hired that she had walked into a new kind of technical cult. At any rate, her awareness of issues beyond Facebook was a problem. The company wasn’t paying anyone to be aware of the world beyond the screen. The only questions you were supposed to ask or ideas you were supposed to have at work, as a good citizen of the Facebook nation, were about new ways to technologize daily life, new ways to route our lives through the web.

Do other prominent social media companies have a comparable sense of mission? Do they demand and/or inspire similar loyalty amongst their staff?