Disruptions Worth Discussing

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 …

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

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