Disruptions Worth Discussing

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

A few times for my birthday, I’ve gotten “e-cards,” the kind you can download for free over the Internet. I’ll take any card I can get these days, but I’d much rather open a card and see someone’s handwriting than click on a link and hear a dancing pink bunny sing me Happy Birthday. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Or maybe I just want to add to the collection of cards in my dresser drawer. I can’t ever throw away a card.

Despite my inclination to want to preserve the past, I’m fascinated by new technologies. I like knowing what they are, how they work, and why they are, or aren’t, popular. But when they replace, or lead to the demise of, something meaningful that could continue serving its purpose just fine if left alone, I wonder if they’re worth the wahoo.

Technologies that unexpectedly replace old technologies are what Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard business school professor, calls “disruptive technologies.” In his book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen lists established technologies and links them with a disruptive technology. You’ll see that the technologies he lists aren’t necessarily “technologies” in the sense that we think of them. Here are some of my favorites from his list:

  • Standard textbooks –> Custom-assembled, modular digital textbooks [Those sound scary.]
  • Classroom and campus-based instruction –> Distance education, typically enabled by the Internet
  • Medical doctors –> Nurse practitioners
  • Silver halide photography film –> Digital photography
  • Open surgery –> Arthroscopic and endoscopic surgery
  • Desktop personal computers –> Sony Playstation II, Internet appliances

Sometimes it makes sense to replace old technologies with new, more efficient ones. Other times, it seems disruptive technologies are formed out of laziness or a lack of funds. It’s a lot easier to send an e-card online than it is to buy a card, write in it, then buy a stamp and mail it. If we consider newspapers, we could argue that the Internet is a disruptive technology. With newspapers losing money, more and more news organizations are turning to the Web to tell stories. And people are responding, opting for the comfort of their mouse in place of an inky octopus.

This discussion begs the question: Does every new technology have to be “disruptive”? Can’t it just be supplemental? Let’s have handwritten greeting cards and e-cards, standard textbooks and digital textbooks, newspapers in print and online. Yes, all of these things still exist, but do newspapers have to die, for example? As we think about the future, can’t we include the past?

Thoughts, anyone?

If you don’t have any thoughts, I do accept e-cards …