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The Distracting Problem With The Term 'Disruption'


When Uber's talked about in the news, one word tends to come up a lot. Just listen to these headlines Invasion of The Taxi Snatchers, Uber Leads an Industry's Disruption, or The Uber Disruptor: What Rideshares Can Teach You About Disrupting The Market. And here's one more Let's All Stop Saying Disrupt Right This Instant. That headline is from Kevin Roose in New York Magazine. Now he's a senior editor at the TV and digital network Fusion and he feels the same way. And Kevin, why? What's the deal with the word disrupt?

KEVIN ROOSE: Well, disrupt actually has a very specific meaning. It dates back to a book written by a Harvard Business School professor named Clayton Christensen in 1997, but these days it's used to sort of mean cool. It just means anything that's sort of vaguely new or interesting and so it's lost a lot of its specific context in the ways that people used to use it.

CORNISH: What was the original definition?

ROOSE: The original definition is something akin to a very specific business theory that states that there are some markets in which new entrants attack the low end of the market and move up the chain and eventually displace the old company that used to make stuff in that market. So a good example would be Kodak being disrupted by new digital photo startups, or the taxi industry being disrupted by Uber.

CORNISH: So every industry has its jargon. I mean, why do we care what buzzwords tech companies are using to sell themselves?

ROOSE: Well, often people in the tech industry will use disruption or disrupt as a way to divide people who are pro-tech from people who are anti-tech. If you object to Uber and its practices or any of the things that it's done, they will say well, you're on the side of the disrupted. You're not pro-disruption. And I think that really casts a sort of fig leaf over a lot of the other issues. There are reasons to be opposed to what these companies are doing that have nothing to do with opposing progress or new technology, but when you brand everything as disruption versus disrupted, you then get a sort of a free pass and all the rest of those issues.

CORNISH: So the idea is that when someone throws this term around basically it forces the critics into a corner, right? Like, then they'd essentially be saying, I'm against innovation.

ROOSE: Exactly, exactly. It makes those people who would object to some parts of Uber or Airbnb or any of these other companies that are supposedly disruptive - it makes them all sound like they're just Luddites who hate technology and progress and don't want anything to do with it.

CORNISH: And true, disruptive technologies do come with lots of legal questions, right?

ROOSE: Absolutely. I mean, what you're doing is challenging an incumbent in an industry that's pretty well-defined. So that is a part of disruption, but it's not the whole thing and usually now in Silicon Valley when someone says disruptive, all it means is that they're trying to sell you something.

CORNISH: That's Kevin Roose, senior editor at the TV and digital network, Fusion. Kevin, thanks so much.

ROOSE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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