How one magic word became a way of justifying Silicon Valley’s unconstrained power.
We get excited when things get shaken up, for the big and powerful to get taken down a peg. There is a joy in seeing “the system” shaken up, old hierarchies up-ended, Goliaths falling to Davids. Such narratives play to our impatience with structures and situations that seem to coast on habit and inertia, and to the press’s excitement about underdogs, rebels, outsiders. If you look back at coverage of Theranos, until the fateful article by John Carreyrou in the Wall Street Journal that brought the company down, few journalists really bothered to ask whether or not Theranos could do what it claimed to be able to do – they asked what would happen if it could. Disruption is high drama. The claim that “things work the way they work because there’s a certain logic to them” is not.
The idea of disruption has a particularly strange backstory. Probably its oldest ancestors are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the modern capitalist world is characterised by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions”, so that, as they put it, “all that is solid melts into air”. Whereas the premodern world was defined by a few stable certainties, by centuries-old tradition, and governed by ancient habits of thought, in modernity all fixed relations “are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify”. You can sense their giddiness, even though the situation they describe is disorienting and ultimately nightmarish. And yet they are giddy, because they feel that this accelerating cycle of constant destruction and replacement ultimately destroys itself.
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