About ten years ago, leftist firebrand satirist Freek de Jonge, the grand old man of Dutch stand-up comedy, turned to conservative newspaper De Telegraaf to deliver a startling thank you message to all the conformists and traditionalists who had vilified him in its pages: “Were it not for you, our generation of rebels and dreamers would have destroyed the nation. Thank you for holding firm and keeping your feet on the ground.”
Notwithstanding its ageless appeal, disruption more often than not causes great harm. World history is littered with failed disruptors: Lenin, Mao, and even Hitler aimed to replace the despised old with their version of the brave new world. Countless millions perished as disruption was hailed as an end, instead of a means.
The hippies of the Flower Power Era preached peace and free love as a disruptive antidote to all evil, before moving on to become the Me Generation of the 1980s – appropriating the collective wealth for personal gain. Never before had greed received such adulation. It soon turned into yet another disruptive force.
As Winston Churchill, the anti-disruptor par excellence, once remarked: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
All disruptors adhere to the best of intentions – it is their common ground, though its shifts frequently. Whilst political and social disruption only improves society when applied sparingly and thoughtfully, economic and corporate disruptors have established a significantly better track record.
The insights of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus allowed Charles Darwin to develop his theory on natural selection which enabled humanity to understand its place in the grand order of all things and laid the groundwork for other disruptors – Einstein, Freud, Sartre et al – to introduce new thoughts and solve mysteries.
However, while disruptors ply their trade, others – the maintainers – must tend to the more mundane business of day-to-day life, using whatever unimaginative means at their disposal. The world is held together by janitors, hamburger-flippers, nurses, teachers, cabbies, and countless others who go about their less-than-glamorous and ill-paid business without much ado – or recognition.
This army of unsung heroes only seldom grabs the headlines, yet they are regularly made to pay for disruptions gone awry. Such as when financial disruptors caused banks to collapse and corporate gurus came up with zero-hour contracts as a novel way of decreasing the cost of labour. Disruption is a tricky concept: too much of it guarantees mayhem and while too little ensures stagnation – and regression. Those that fail to innovate will be overtaken – and left behind – by the inexorable march of time and history.
So disrupt we must. As disruptors are merrily whirling about peddling the Next Big Thing, society may want to consider a less sycophantic approach to the innovators. Elon Musk may be a moneyed dreamer and innovator; is his quest for space travel really that much more useful than, say, sliced bread? Is it necessary to celebrate the resourceful nerds who facilitate online shopping, payment, or music streaming?
As is usual with societal fads, disruption has become a buzz word that now includes almost everybody and the proverbial dog. Perhaps it would be wise to limit the concept to truly revolutionary discoveries to the exclusion of those that merely add convenience to the daily grind of the maintainers. Airbnb may have upset the hospitality industry, but the underlying product is still a rented room – one that needs to be tidied up by cleaners without whom the disruptive service would soon cease to exist. Hail to the maintainers then – the people who empower the disruptors and are sometimes even made redundant by them.