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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Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.

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