History

Disruption

Silicon Valley didn’t invent disruption. We like to throw the word around like we did though. Uber disrupted taxi and car services. iTunes disrupted the music industry. Google disrupted, well everything.

It’s been happening for a long time though.

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther disrupted Christianity when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 80 years before that Gutenberg disrupted human knowledge with his printing press. Centuries later, three men in Philadelphia sat down to disrupt the governing of man with the most important document the world has seen since scripture.

We’ll celebrate it today with barbecues and fireworks.

Disruption is noticed overnight. But it doesn’t happen that way. Over time, the mortar that binds the institutional way of being erodes. Cracks appear. Places form where new ideas take hold and grow. I mentioned Gutenberg and Luther on purpose. Because without them, there is no Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. Not at that time. Not at that place.

When they sat down to write the Declaration, not a single world power was governed democratically. Today, every major world power that existed then, is.

That’s disruption.

It’s never permanent though. 240 years later, the American people are ripe for it again. We’re woefully ill-equipped for the future. Or even the present. And there’s a market for world domination. So it’s fair to expect that it happens soon.

Our K-12 education system prepares us to do nothing professionally. A college degree doesn’t bring us a career, only a mountain of debt and a chance to try out for one and fail and change careers four times before we’re 30. That used to be half as much. We are alone and segregated. We spend a third less time socializing with our neighbors then we did 30 years ago. We’re segregated by income, race and age more than we ever have been before, by choice. Our children stay in our homes more. 17-year olds get their driver’s license half as frequently as they did thirty years ago.

And that’s just us.

Non-state actors and cyber criminals can wage war against us. Foreign nations can interfere in our democracy.  And we’re being told that the world, as we know it from a climate perspective, has already reached an irreversible stage of damage. Even though we’re debating whether or not that’s “a thing”.

There’s a lot of scary stuff out there. There always has been. But the new scary stuff is different than the old scary stuff. People are struggling with that. My social media feed is an ongoing argument between safe space crusaders and xenophobes who advocate for arming the citizenry towards safety. Voters flocked towards the messages of the perceived security of socialism or a wanna be strong man who will build walls to protect them.

We are scared to death.

There’s a lesson that business and history teaches us when it comes to disruption. It’s what to do with our fear. Fear isn’t bad. In fact, it’s good. It’s the fear that motivates change. But there’s an important nuance to it. It matters what we fear most.

Are we more afraid of the world that was exposed to us through that disruption?

Or are we more afraid that we don’t have an answer to it yet?

If it’s the latter, then good. We’ll be motivated to find new ideas and better institutions. We will organize and invest differently. We’ll be honest about how we fell asleep at the switch. And we’ll fight like hell to get back ahead of the problem.

If it’s the former, then we’ll turn inward. We’ll deny that it’s real.  We’ll crave for days past when things made more sense. The days when we were in control. The days before we were disrupted. We’ll lock out the world and bury our head in the dirt with others who fear the same way we do.

And the world will pass us by.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders aren’t the disruption America needs. There’s no new ideas there. Only old ones. On the brink of disruption, there will always be someone screaming old ideas loud enough to make them sound like change. Those that went quietly into the night listened to them. Because they were more afraid of the change than they were of the reality that required it. So if you, like me struggled to hear the vision of a future between the chants of “lock her up” or the calls to build a wall or the promises for an already insolvent government to pay our way out of the uncertainty of the future through free college, then you might be willing to do the things you need to do to survive disruption.

The only way to do that is to disrupt yourself.

Listen for the better questions about what’s happening in the world in those places that are growing faster than us and nipping at our heals. What does the innovation of China’s Special Economic Zones tell us about how to rapidly change generationally stagnant micro-economies?

They’ve had double digit economic growth every year since I was born.

What can South Korea’s institutions teach us about how to fend off crony capitalism. They impeached their president and locked up their highest paid CEO within the same year for breaking the law. We haven’t shown that kind of principle in America for decades. They’re not perfect. But they’re moving forward faster in the modern world than we are. So we should be curious as to why.

We’ve disrupted ourselves before. We’ve innovated our policy and institutions to hold true to the same original, disruptive ideal of self-governance through industrialization, de-industrialization, civil wars, world wars and cold wars. And now, as we move into the abyss of uncharted societal territory of post-de-industrialized, automated, info-driven networked, hyper-globalized whether we like it or not phase of the human existence that we don’t even have a name for yet, we’re going to have to do it again.

Or someone is going to do it for us.

It’s that simple.

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