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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

‘Disruption’ Is a Two-Way Street

Big Tech as we know it was built on the ethos of subverting sanctity. Ideas, institutions, service delivery, how I make my chai—nothing could be beyond the reach of technological disruption. In this vision, the tech company was the lean, scrappy, innovative underdog taking on the powerful, entrenched status quo, freeing the consumer from the shackles of history.

But tech can no longer claim to be the underdog (if it ever could). So-called tech disruptors today have unchallenged access, funding, and regulatory support (or at least acquiescence). As the current hype of technological disruption reaches the markets of the Global South, it feels particularly distasteful for a group of Silicon Valley–trained, western-educated entrepreneurs with millions of dollars in funding to pitch themselves as the plucky innovators—and the auto-rickshaw drivers, delivery personnel, street vendors, and small corner store retailers (all earning less than $5 to $10 per day) as the mammoths that must be unseated.

Despite these glaring contradictions, the original myth of disruption is still alive, colonizing public discourse and reinforcing a techno-deterministic illusion. Companies evoke the image of a bloated, inefficient, or chaotic status quo. Technological intervention is framed as both necessary and good. Those “being disrupted” are reduced to passive recipients of whatever technological solution will be thrown in the mix. After all, if the social space is static, technology will have the power to change it, but never be changed in return. Disruption is sold as a one-way street and its positive connotations remain the sole preserve of the tech company.

But disruption does not just happen through venture capital and glitzy digital platforms. It's happening through the users who build apps atop WhatsApp for their needs. Drivers who reverse-engineer a popular mobility platform’s matching algorithm to make their work life better. Farmers who strike against a smart city plan. The governments that place constraints on the use of a new technology. The streets that are too complex to be mapped. The physical infrastructure that restricts different types of connectivities. The scooters that get stolen from sidewalks.

In my own research on mobility platforms in Jakarta, I saw how users can develop rich social practices in response to new technologies, stamping their own identities atop the landscape of automation.

When mobility platforms Grab and Gojek launched, they were meant to disrupt the city’s existing motorbike taxi market by creating a driver workforce that was anonymized, efficient, and ever-circulating. Instead, Grab and Gojek drivers created thousands of vibrant grassroots communities using WhatsApp and DIY hangout spaces. Starting in 2016, drivers waiting for rides in the same areas started banding together to help each other through everyday crises of life on the road. Over time, these loose driver groups morphed into independent, cross-company communities, organized by drivers for drivers. Each boasts its own emblems, elections, uniforms, clubhouses, WhatsApp groups, vocabularies, and even emergency response services. Facing a technological intervention that tried to automate out relationships, drivers leveraged their identity as platform workers to build even more resilient relationships around the platform.

Local histories and cultures have always shaped pathways to tech adoption and success. Grab and Gojek driver communities too emerged from Indonesia’s local practices of mutual aid, community-centered DIY urbanism, and existing microcultures of motorbike taxi drivers. Such developments were completely unexpected by the designers and companies. Yet they have changed the way platforms function on the ground—not least by incentivizing drivers to prioritize community before work and anchoring them in their chosen basecamps.

These are all instances of users, infrastructure, regulation, and social context blocking and shaping the possibilities of technology. That is, these are all instances of disruption. Yet, in the Gospel of Disruption written by Tech, they are not considered as such. There is a line created between disruption and fraud, disruption and destruction, disruption and illegality. Tech companies become the arbiters of that line.

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Such labeling is immersed in the politics of categorization, which, as technology scholar Lilly Irani argues in her book Chasing Innovation, explains why “people recognize some acts as innovation and others as not.” It is this politics that allows Uber to be cast as innovative disruption while the auto-rickshaws or motorbike taxis that provide a similar service to urban populations around the world are considered dangerous or chaotic. The former is celebrated as progress and welcomed into cities, the latter is often violently erased from the urban landscape.

Just like “innovation” and “newness," disruption is not an intrinsic category. Companies create a framework where relationships that mediate urban transport markets are not disruptive, they are frictions; where cultural norms of engagement are not disruptive, they are stubborn allegiance to old inefficient practices.

The boundless promise of disruption is very much bounded by terms set by tech companies themselves. Space for users to shape their own digital worlds is ever-shrinking. Companies increasingly clamp down on what technology writer Cory Doctorow calls “adversarial interoperability,” the ability to use and build upon existing technologies in ways not sanctioned by the original company. In other words, tech companies try as hard as they can to prevent anyone else from laying claim to the disruption that they ask us to celebrate when it comes from them.

Perhaps in response to some of these contradictions, the term “disruption” itself is coming under fire. Critics call for a move away from using the word, pointing to its incorrect use or its lack of acknowledgement of the consequences felt by the disrupted. Even tech companies might be making this jump. Following Marc Andreessen’s viral essay, tech journalist Anna Weiner argued that “build” may be the new “disrupt” for Silicon Valley.

But call it building, disrupting, breaking, innovating, or any other synonym for change; as long as the tech industry fixates on these limited ideas of disruption, the same contradictions will arise. The Gospel of Disruption will seek to cleanse, control, corporatize, and sanitize disruption so companies can benefit from the mythos without ever facing it themselves. Challenges to disruptive tech will continue.

Any attempts to build more socially conscious tech will have to acknowledge that the story of disruption is not just one of the technological artifact. Tech is never the first or last mover of change. It is but one part of a larger equilibrium of forces within a complex social world, where everything exists in relation to the other. To design better technology, then, is to decenter it.

Ten years ago, writing about the iPad, Nicholas Carr mused that technological progress has too often been synonymous with a move “to remove real human agency from the workings of that tool,” stripping from technology the “capacity for encouraging and abetting creative work by its users.” This ability to enable, to augment, and to generate is technology’s real promise. Technology that responds to people’s needs is technology that sees users as more than just passive recipients of a tool. It realizes the inherent ingenuity of users, respecting their ability to creatively navigate their constraints and dream up uses of technologies never envisioned by the designers themselves. The more we design for such agency, the more we harness this power—cultivating the richness of life, as opposed to flattening it.

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