The Cosmic Institute of Disruption

Geoff Nunberg told us yesterday on Fresh Air about the fad for the word “disruption,” which I didn’t know was a fad. It reminds me of the fad-word in literary “theory” some years ago, “transgressive.” Same basic idea, innit – we’re new, we’re happenin’, we’re Rebels.

HBO’s Silicon Valley is back, with its pitch-perfect renderings of the culture and language of the tech world — like at the opening of the “Disrupt” startup competition run by the Tech Crunch website at the end of last season. “We’re making the world a better place through scalable fault-tolerant distributed databases” — the show’s writers didn’t have to exercise their imagination much to come up with those little arias of geeky self-puffery, or with the name Disrupt, which, as it happens, is what the Tech Crunch conferences are actually called. As is most everything else these days. “Disrupt” and “disruptive” are ubiquitous in the names of conferences, websites, business school degree programs and business book best-sellers.

“Little arias of geeky self-puffery” – good one. It’s reminiscent of Tom Frank and the Baffler – the conquest of Cool.

Buzzwords feed off their emotional resonances, not their ideas. And for pure resonance, “disruptive” is hard to beat. It’s a word with deep roots. I suspect I first encountered it when my parents read me the note that the teacher pinned to my sweater when I was sent home from kindergarten. Or maybe it reminds you of the unruly kid who was always pushing over the juice table. One way or another, the word evokes obstreperous rowdies, the impatient people who are always breaking stuff.

For good and ill. You can disrupt oppressive hierarchies and illegitimate power and unjust arrangements…and you can disrupt campaigns to disrupt oppressive hierarchies and illegitimate power and unjust arrangements. Who is the disrupter and who is the disrupted? The game changes sides every couple of seconds. Sometimes you’re the obstreperous rowdy letting in blasts of fresh air, and sometimes you’re the target of obstreperous rowdies shouting you into silence.

Disrupt or be disrupted. The consultants and business book writers have proclaimed that as the chronic condition of the age, and everybody is clambering to be classed among the disruptors rather than the disruptees. The lists of disruptive companies in the business media include not just Amazon and Uber but also Procter and Gamble and General Motors. What company nowadays wouldn’t claim to be making waves?

And what social movement wouldn’t claim to be making waves? Feminism does, but so does anti-feminism.

Then he said something that startled me and made me laugh.

The wonder is that “disruptive” is still clinging to life out there. There’s a market in language, too, and jargon starts to lose its market share when its air of novelty fades. “Thought leader,” “change agent” and “disruption,” too — as the words get stale, they’re in line to be disrupted themselves by scrappy new buzzwords that can once again convey an illusion of fresh thinking. That’s why jargon always has to replenish itself, the same way slang does — though like slang, it takes a while to work its way from the cool kids’ table to the outskirts of the lunchroom.

Ohhhhhhh, “thought leader” is business jargon! I did not know that.

It makes sense, since the Global Secular Policy Whizbang is Edwina Rogers’s toy, and she comes from the World O’ Business. It makes sense, but it’s also that much more nauseating.


  1. says

    Heh, being a Humanities type means you’ve lead a sheltered life w.r.t. this sort of crap, Ophelia ;-). “Disruptive” has been barging around the tech world about as long as “thought leader”, which is to say, at least the turn of the century (which, you will note, is right about when the dot-com bubble burst and, um, disrupted a whole lot of retirement plans).

    As usual, I recommend going to:, and typing “disruptive thought leader” into the box at the bottom. (Or just watch the self-typing thing in the middle).

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Actually, my impression is that “disruptive” is on the downward slope of its popularity curve. I think it’s been a couple of years since I’ve heard it used much.
    But yeah, this kind of word or phrase is always bubbling through the bars and coffee shops of Silicon Valley. I remember one of the first of these that I noticed was, “Ready, Shoot, Aim”, which was popularized by Tom Peters, who co-wrote In Search of Excellence which was HUGE in SV in the 80s. Interestingly, I have heard so little about Peters since then that I had to look him up to remember his name.
    CEOs are always latching onto things like this. It absolves them of any responsibility if the “natural” inertia of large corporations is what is holding their profits down. If they could just get all those darned complacent employees to act completely differently from the way they have been trained to do from the day they started their jobs, then champagne will flow from the water fountains.

  3. says

    Ah, very true, Eamon.

    Which seems perverse, in a way. Bullshit seems much more of a humanities thing than a tech thing. But of course tech people have marketing people to deal with (hello Dilbert), so yeah.

  4. says

    Well, in humanities I guess you have to deal with a lot of the post-modern type of BS. But marketing, yeah: another “soft” field where it’s hard to pin a statement down and evaluate it for truth — which provides an opening for the formulation of intentionally content-free (but cool-sounding) statements.


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