People Aren’t Disk Drives

hard-disk-drive-171878-1680x1050Machines are potentially “disruptive” for humankind. They came into being as more or less ingenious complements for our own skills, and they have kept improving and extending into an ever expanding plethora of niche activities where, either they perform well enough to be economically competitive (Roomba) or they completely overcome us (Chess)

Granted. Today’s Roomba or even Baxter or Atlas are not yet C3PO, and clearly we reject to see ATMs, GPS Navigation Systems or Nest thermostats as the general purpose conscious beings we are supposed and proud to be. Then, will robots take over humans eventually? This a hot debate prone to speculation and a fertile ground for science fiction, but what would Christensen’s Theory say about it?

Technology disruption occurs(1) when, despite its inferior performance on some important attributes, a new technology displaces the mainstream technology from the mainstream market. Disruption is not due to the incumbent technology’s inherent limits. Most people can perfectly clean a room better than a Roomba, but if we can afford to pay 500 bucks, a Roomba can free us from that boring burden. Disruptive technologies introduce a different performance package from mainstream technologies, and in their early development they only serve niche segments that value their nonstandard performance attributes.

Further development can put the disruptive technology’s performance on a par with the focal attributes for mainstream customers. As performance surpasses consumers’ requirements, consumers’ willingness to pay for improvements decreases, opening the door for the lower-priced, lower-performance technology.

Disruption depends on a subtle interplay among suppliers of disruptive and mainstream technologies and consumers, which are usually different business groups competing in the market. However, what happens when the mainstream technology and the mainstream consumer is the same person? When it is you! This is the dilemma posed by man vs. machine competing for the same activities. As consumers we may prefer a Roomba to clean, but as providers we may end up fighting for a job to sweep the floor, or for that matter, the enjoyment of driving a car or teaching our children.

Eric Rauchway points to a secondary argument of Jill Lepore’s controversial article on disruptive theory in a recent post in Crooked Timber. Jill notes that even if the theory of disruption is sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

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. 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.

Interestingly whether we are finally overcome or not by machines, is going to depend on what we value and how we behave ourselves as the ultimate consumers of our own activities (jobs). What are our ends and what shall we demand from our suppliers? Pure efficiency or shall we look for other distinctive values? And will we be able to pay for them (us)?

People aren’t disk drives.


(1) Ron Adner, “When are technologies disruptive? a demand-based view of the emergence of competition”, Strategic Management Journal 23-8, pages 667–688, August 2002

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