At The World Economic Forum, A Study Of Disruption And Its Discontents

Merriam Webster definition of disruption: To cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way: to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something)

The theme for this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos is “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, which is an attempt to frame the disruption happening everywhere today as part of a larger paradigm shift.

This has been an ongoing discussion in tech circles, with Peter H. Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University being among the first to point a systematic disruption of everything.

Marc Andreessen (founder of Netscape and investor extraordinaire) famously said “software is eating the world”, and Erik Brynjolfsson pinpointed in great detail the many disruptions happening around AI, self-driving cars, industrialization and so on in the must-read book “The Second Machine Age“.

All of these movements are talking about the grassroots disruptions stemming from the convergence of technology, infrastructure, and economics, which is enabling a start-up revolution to drive real, massive global change.

Recently though, something different has been happening. Disruption is being co-opted by large corporations like SAP, IBM, and global consulting firms. They know their customers are scared, as business models are being disrupted and the way forward is not clear. So they’ve started to sell them “disruption”, but in safe packaging.

Of course I shouldn’t be surprised – the mainstream colonizing the underground is nothing new. It happened to my beloved punk bands when I was a teenager, it happened to San Francisco as tech took over the city, and it’s happening on an even larger scale now to “disruption” as a buzzword for anything that is being repackaged as new.

Look at the “tech” agenda of Davos this year: keynotes include Microsoft, SAP, IBM and others.

These are the companies that are “explaining” The Fourth Industrial Revolution to forum participants (with a few disruptors like Travis Kalanick thrown in for good measure — but I’m sure he will be laughing at how little the participants understand the true disruption that the world is experiencing right now).

This is not the fault of the Forum, but simply a consequence of the commercial interests getting in on disruption, — it’s no longer exclusive to start-ups.

It’s clear that the Forum gets what’s happening and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a critically important topic, but it’s being filtered through a corporate reality of these large players carefully controlling the conversation and I think that is a shame for everyone.

To make it very clear, some of the so-called disruptions of the big players like IBM or SAP is not real.

IBM’s Watson is not disruptive AI, it’s a rehash of simple algorithms known since the eighties -– and stuff like Deep Mind from Google, Scaled Inference, and Vicarious are knocking its socks off. SAP HANA is not ground-breaking new technology, it’s simply recycled database concepts that have been created by many players before them.

Big companies are saying: “Have disruption problems? Oh, just buy our rebranded, legacy software and you’ll be safe.”

This is dangerous.

By continuing to operate under the assumption that the biggest multi-national corporations are on the cutting edge of disruption, we risk not acting on the real opportunities that innovative technologies from smaller players are bringing. We risk missing out on globally significant opportunities like radical reform of education systems, government bureaucracies, energy management and production and transformation of transport systems.

We need revolutions, not incremental solutions.

In the words of Buckminster Fuller, ”We need to build new models that make the existing models obsolete.”

How much money will be wasted on outdated technologies before everyone realizes that they are, at best, baby steps from what came before?

Fortunately, now is also the pivotal moment for the truly disruptive start-ups. But it’s a real problem when we don’t get the right technologies in front of areas where we need real change, like education, government, and the corporate work environment.

That’s why the discussion here is critical.