“The Disruption Machine” and the Arts

Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, “The Disruption Machine,”220px-Asus_CD-ROM_drive which looks at one of the key fallacies of the digital crowd, has become much discussed. Her challenge to a theory that describes how newer, smaller companies destroy old ones may not seem to relate to the world of arts and culture. But these things are intimately connected. “Disruption theory” is in some ways an extension of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” (the original name for my book about the creative class); it’s something of great interest to your humble blogger.

Lepore’s piece is worth reading in full, but I want to concentrate on one of her concluding points, where she argues that, “Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business.” Here she goes:

People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors. Historically, institutions like museums, hospitals, schools, and universities have been supported by patronage, donations made by individuals or funding from church or state. The press has generally supported itself by charging subscribers and selling advertising. (Underwriting by corporations and foundations is a funding source of more recent vintage.) Charging for admission, membership, subscriptions and, for some, earning profits are similarities these institutions have with businesses. Still, that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.

Truer words have never been spoken.

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  1. Neil McGowan says

    Thank you for the pointer to this fascinating and perceptive article. As soon as you read it, you realise who is dissing it, and why.

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