“Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.”
– Ogden Nash
The book The Innovator’s Dilemma appears on the desk of a lot of Silicon Valley executives. Its author, Clayton Christiensen, is famous for having coined the term “disruptive innovation.” The term has always bothered me, and I keep waiting for the word “disruption” to die a quiet death. I have the disadvantage of having studied Latin quite a bit. The word “disrupt” comes from the Latin verb rumpere, which means to “break up”, “tear”, “rend”, “break into pieces.” The word, as does our English derivative, connotes something quite bad. If you think “disruption” is good, what would you think if I disrupted a presentation you were giving? What if I disrupted the electrical system of your heart?
Side note: I’m fascinated with the tendency of modern English to use “bad” words to connote something good. In the 1980’s the word “bad” actually came to mean its opposite. “Wow, that dude is really bad!” meant he was good. Cool people use the word “sick” in this way. “That’s a sick chopper” does not mean the motorcycle is broken.
The point, then, of disruption is to break up something that already exists, and this is what lies beneath the b-school usage of it. If you innovate, in a disruptive way, then you are destroying something that came before you–an industry, a way of working, a technology. We instantly assume this is a good thing, but what if it’s not? Beneath any industry, way of working, or technology are people, and disruption is disruption of them, personally.
The word “innovate” also has a Latin root. It comes from the word novus, which means “new”. In industry in general, but particularly the tech industry, we positively worship the “new”. We are constantly told we have to always be innovating. The second one technology is invented and gets established, we need to replace it. Frame Relay gave way to MPLS, MPLS is giving way to SD-WAN, and now we’re told SD-WAN has to give way… The life of a technology professional, trying to understand all of this, is like a man trying to walk on quicksand. How do you progress when you cannot get a firm footing?
We seem to have forgotten that a journey is worthless unless you set out on it with an end in mind. One cannot simply worship the “new” because it is new–this is self-referential pointlessness. There has to be a goal, or an end–a purpose, beyond simply just cooking up new things every couple years.
Most tech people and b-school people have little philosophical education outside of, perhaps (and unfortunately) Atlas Shrugged. Thus, some of them, realizing the pointlessness of endless innovation cycles, have cooked up ludicrous ideas about the purpose of it all. Now we have transhumanists telling us we’ll merge our brains with computers and evolve into some sort of new God-species, without apparently realizing how ridiculous they sound. COVID-19 should disabuse us of any notion that we’re not actually human beings, constrained by human limitations.
On a practical level, the furious pace of innovation, or at least what is passed off as such, has made the careers of technology people challenging. Lawyers and accountants can master their profession and then worry only about incremental changes. New laws are passed every year, but fundamentally the practice of their profession remains the same. For us, however, we seem to face radical disruption every couple of years. Suddenly, our knowledge is out-of-date. Technologies and techniques we understood well are yesterday’s news, and we have to re-invent ourselves yet again.
The innovation imperative is driven by several factors: Wall Street constantly pushes public companies to “grow”, thus disparaging companies that simply figure out how to do something and do it well. Companies are pressured into expanding to new industries, or into expanding their share of existing industries, and hence need to come up with ways to differentiate themselves. On an individual level, many technologists are enamored of innovation, and constantly seek to invent things for personal satisfaction or for professional gain. Wall Street seems to have forgotten the natural law of growth. Name one thing in nature that can grow forever. Trees, animals, stars…nothing can keep growing indefinitely. Why should a company be any different? Will Amazon simply take over every industry and then take over governing the planet? Then what?
This may seem a strange article coming from a leader of a team in a tech company that is handling bleeding edge technologies. And indeed it would seem to be a heresy for someone like me to say these things. But I’m not calling for an end to inventing new products or technologies. Having banged out CLI for thousands of hours, I can tell you that automating our networks is a good thing. Overlays do make sense in that they can abstract complexity out of networks. TrustSec/Scalable Group Tags are quite helpful, and something like this should have been in IP from the beginning.
What I am saying is that innovation needs a purpose other than just…innovation. Executives need to stop waxing eloquent about “disrupting” this or that, or our future of fusing our brains with an AI Borg. Wall Street needs to stop promoting growth at all costs. And engineers need time to absorb and learn new things, so that they can be true professionals and not spend their time chasing ephemera.
Am I optimistic? Well, it’s not in my nature, I’m afraid. As I write this we are in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis. I don’t know what the world will look like a year from now. Business as usual, with COVID a forgotten memory? Perhaps. Great Depression due to economic shutdown? Perhaps. Total societal, governmental, and economic collapse, with rioting in the streets? I hope not, but perhaps. Whatever happens, I do hope we remember that word “novel”, as in “novel Coronavirus”, comes from the same Latin root as the word “innovation”. New isn’t always the best.