The cult of disruptive innovation: Where America went wrong

In business and in technology, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

JILL LEPORE: To my view a lot of our contemporary political crisis derives from an abandonment of the idea of moral progress. So when the country was founded in the 18th century its framers subscribed to an idea that progress is moral. And that idea of progress came from Christianity that pilgrim's progress is a journey from sin to salvation. Enlightenment philosophers, like the guys who drafted the founding documents of the United States, didn't necessarily share that particular Christian notion of a journey from sin to salvation, but they understood progress and the United States and its founding as an experiment would lead to political progress because it was designed to improve the lives of the most people, that people would act in a sense of a common endeavor as a republic that our obligations would be to one another in the form of community and that we should understand achievement as moral progress.

That changed over the course of the 19th century when progress came to have a real technological cast. Think about the railroad, the telegraph, the camera, people began to think about progress as advancing like a train on a linear track and each machine would make the world better because things would go faster and goods would become cheaper. And very quickly that idea of moral progress was replaced by progress as prosperity. So if you were asking how are things going for the country? Well, the country is prospering. We have made progress.

And the slippage from we've made a more just society to certain people and a lot of people are making a lot more money and a lot of goods are cheaper for people to buy, that's a real slippage. So you then, in the 20th century, progress is even less new forms of production and accelerated production, but accelerated consumption. So the more people are buying, the more goods people have the standard of living is rising therefore we have progress.

At the end of the second half of the 20th century the idea that there even is progress, especially technologically driven progress, begins to fall apart because of Hiroshima. Because people look at the world, what's technological progress gotten us in the middle of the century? We have build a bomb that can destroy the whole planet and by the 1950s we are destroying the environment and it may be possible that human life cannot live on this planet indefinitely under these circumstances or even for the next several centuries. So there's a real crisis in the idea of progress. Historians have been writing about this for a long time. By the time you get to the 1980s and 1990s there's a new generation of technological utopians and they start talking about innovation as progress. Innovation historically as a word means progress without any concern for morality. Innovation in the 18th century sense is bad. Innovation is novelty for its own sake – like just invent it and who cares what the consequences are. Innovation historically is actually quite a dreadful and damning thing to accuse somebody of "you're innovating" is a very grave accusation.

So, by the 1980s there's such a kind of reckless heedlessness in American businesses and it's the kind of the great the sort of merger age, kind of like Wall Street grubbiness that kind of Michael Douglas movie moment like that greed is good kind of thing that innovation, this heedless innovation is fine because this is how this creative destruction, this Schumpeter term that gets recycled, this is the engine of economic growth. And nothing else matters, the public good, moral integrity, decency, goodness for more people, the health of the republic, all that matters is is it innovative? And then by the 1990s is it disruptively innovative? Or is it even more radically innovative that it disrupts existing models of business and disrupts existing industries? And so you get this real embrace of heedlessness as an American value or as a corporate value, which is a complete abdication of this spirit of progress.

And it's also designed the whole ideology it really is like a religion it's very cult-y the idea of disruptive innovation. It's designed to refute its own critics, it's designed to refuse critics because among its principles is that the past doesn't matter. No one should ever study history or care about the past because if you're going to be a disruptive innovator if all that matters is novelty you don't want to know - if you're going to invent a new ride service you shouldn't study taxi dispatch because it will interfere with the creative destruction that you're capable of and it will limit your vision and it will make your disruptive innovation insufficiently innovative and insufficiently disruptive so you have to abdicate the past.

There is no concern with the past. People want to criticize you for failing, oh no failure is actually a virtue of disruptive innovation. It's a very self-contained explanation that in my view introduces an extraordinary amount of disequilibrium into a political system that is a republic, that is actually designed on the idea that in many ways businesses have to have the public interest at heart, because the government is protecting their capacity to do business by creating civil order and safety for the transportation of goods and government provides all kinds of services that make it possible for businesses to thrive, therefore businesses too have to be concerned with a healthy social and political order – with avoiding wild inequalities of wealth and income with avoiding wild political turbulence. But disruptive innovation isn't concerned with any of those things, disruptive innovation is concerned with blowing things up.

  • 'Disruptive innovation' is a dangerous buzzword.
  • There's a world of difference between progress and prosperity.
  • Historian Jill Lepore believes she can pinpoint the moment America went off the rails.

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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

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The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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