A Case for Disruption

In elementary school, causing disruption would get you sent to the principal’s office. Any gesture or utterance which detracted from the person who held the central power in the classroom was looked negatively upon. As children, we were taught not to distract from the main focus, the oldest, and the assumed “wisest.”

Disruption has a very different connotation beyond the world of grade school. Particularly in the world of technology, disruption is considered an achievement of sorts. Tech startups, or small companies, are moving to New York, London, and most notably the Silicon Valley every day with one goal in mind: to disrupt.

What exactly does disruption mean in this new grown-up, nerdy world? Like in school, it means causing a distraction- taking attention away from the “guy in charge” or the leading voice. But unlike disturbances in a classroom, there’s reasoning behind disruption in the tech world. The term has a bit more depth. In this case, disruption is created by doing something differently- not just differently, but better.

People are naturally progressive, at least we’d like to think so. Evolutionary instincts constantly prompt us to strive to do things better, more efficiently, and in a way which is more enjoyable. Take, for example, 1980s-era Apple. The company’s groundbreaking Superbowl advertisement, reminiscent of a dystopian future, features a woman sprinting down a hallway in running shorts and a tank top, sledgehammer in hand. She is being chased by police in riot gear as a man, presumably Big Brother, on a telescreen speaks of “unification of thought” and “one people.” The commercial cuts between shots of her running and drone-like masses, clad in grey uniforms, marching into an auditorium. She has an intense look in her eyes, and her body language suggests she’s on a mission. Like an olympian, she swings the hammer around and sends it hurtling toward the screen, destroying it with a large flash. The advert then announces that “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintonish. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” Through this, Apple likened itself to our disruptive heroine, saving the masses from conformity. And the rest is history- Apple released the iMac, setting the precedent for personal computers to come. The company revolutionized music listening devices with the iPod, led the tablet-pack with the iPad, and today makes the lightest laptop on the market- MacBook Air.

Present-day Silicon Valley is littered with people wanting to create an upset just as Apple did, to cut through the noise and do something revolutionary. But with so many tech companies wanting to disrupt, and with so many tech articles using the term, is creating a disturbance now considered commonplace? Is it a trend now, rather than an act of rebellion?

It certainly seems that way at first glance, but in reality the success rate of startups is only about 0.4%. Disruption still carries with it a hell of a lot of risk, but the reward is certainly worth it for the few who succeed. Consider WhatsApp, a messaging app recently acquired by Facebook for a record-breaking $19 billion. Its founder, Jan Koum, is a Ukrainian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. at age 16 and survived on food stamps. Out of interest in keeping touch with family back home, he developed WhatsApp. The free app utilizes wifi rather than a cell carrier, enabling users to send text messages for free (the first year, then an annual 99¢) internationally. This service handles more messages per day than all major cell phone carriers combined, at a staggering 50 billion. Jan achieved what some may consider the 21st-century American dream: going from rags to riches by way of tech innovation.

So forget what you were taught in elementary school: There are merits to creating disruption. It’s what drives progress in society. Doing things differently opens our minds and introduces us to new ideas. When we learn, we grow and improve, and we could learn a lot from those who have the nerve to go against the status quo and innovate. And who knows? Maybe you could be the next great disruptor.

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