I've been wrestling with this clever contemporary theory of disruption ever since I read a front page article in the Times Book Review section in January of last year, Among the Disrupted. The article explores the issues involved in the question about disruptive innovation posed by the author: "But are we becoming posthumanist?" The question derives from what the author sees in the process of disruption; i.e., that it assumes the primacy of a market driven value system based in data quantification, rather than in a culture driven value system based in sustaining and modifying traditional cultural values.
Much of the author's concern is with the overriding value placed on technology vis-a-vis its relationship to societal institutions. He presents an overview of what has happened to things like journalism ("Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts...and patience is a professional liability.") and culture in general ("...the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are 'metrics' for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured [e.g. education]...Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data."
His issue is that we have elevated what is basically merely a tool of humanity to being in its essence human society's secular god, omniscient beyond reproach, omnipotent beyond recall. He offers the following: "Here's a proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers." And he concludes disconsolately, "In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter."
So we dissenters, or monastic individuals, become increasingly isolated and ignored, and to that extent, blessed. We are the disrupted, those who strive in futility to keep the qualities of humanism viable, the thinkers, writers, artists, and dramatists, struggling amid the forces of disruption, the doers and makers of quantification. The dissenters, the humanists see and feel beyond quantity and standardization, the “practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.” These few are also disrupters, but their purpose is to grab us by the shoulders, to disrupt our sleepwalking and make us see what is happening; they seek to elevate the human experience beyond the mundane and prosaic of quantity. The humanities pursue the feeling of being human, the essence, which transcends existence. And data driven market values denigrate that transcendence.
A perfect example of such denigration is what is being hailed as the provision of the comfort and security of living in smart cities. These intra-cities, smaller parcels within mega-urban entities (e.g., Williamsburg, Brooklyn/NYC), will be philosophically modeled under the aegis of neoliberalism and physically designed and operated under the uber control of data driven market values. The small city "innovation" is a perfect example of the disruptive machinations. Behind the blind of making life run more smoothly and more securely, these masterly innovations will be clustering humanity in dependent living styles, engorging primarily the corporatocracy that benefits from the process. That is, people will have the feeling or sense that they are enjoying freer lives and choices, but everything about their lives and choices will be determined by the data that drives the innovations. Note: Everything we "enjoy" in our digital lives is prescribed by what the digital technology wants to provide to us (not necessarily for us). Everything we take advantage of that is provided by the world of digital technology — yes, including this blogging opportunity — is provided because we depend on it and because it increasingly controls us through that dependency.
The same is true especially with Facebook and Twitter. I read a plaintive letter in today's newspaper, explaining how the writer is now in the bind of not knowing how to quit Facebook without severing herself from all her "friends," because she realizes how compulsively she is tied to the site, and does not want to be any longer. Simply quitting would be the equivalent of "unfriending" all those people...and then where would she be?! The use of social media content during a controversy in society (e.g. deflategate, American Sniper, domestic violence among NFL players, racism as the triggering element among police officers) atrophies into babble or noise in a brief amount of time, and the issue submerges into forgetfulness. Quantification thus is the prime measure of influence in social media; that is, How many followers does it generate? How many friends? How many hits? It’s never about “the force of expression."
The insidious nature of this cancer is its relentless diffusion into all social institutions and especially into the bonds of social integrity, like friendships and all numbers of relationships. But what no one seems willing to acknowledge is that these so-called ties and links are merely 1s and 0s; to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. The systems provide no smells, no touches, no human sensations of any kind. In short, for all the human activity involved in this digital onslaught, it is bereft of humanism. And like all cancers, its horror is that it metastasizes quickly and stealthily, so that by the time society is aware of its corruption of our institutions we are at a loss where to begin resistance. We unconsciously have welcomed an actual matrix that was fiction in 1999. Our acceptance of this disruption driven ethos has been evolving us into a flattening world disorder. We can see it in the bland expressions on our faces. We have reached the point where we don't or won't even consider such questions as: What is the character of our society? Is it what most of us want it to be?
In closing, I want to look at a dilemma that has emerged as a direct consequence of this quantitative ethos. Its label comes in various terms, the most common of which is education reform. First as one who spent his entire adult life in the world of facilitating learning (what some people, especially the reformers, call education and/or teaching), I spent probably the majority of that time finding ways to make learning better and more purposeful. I know how learning can be reformed in a humanist way, because I've done it. But what virtually everyone involved in the "reform" agenda completely disregards is that data driven education is a dead end process. Just as data driven improvements in cities and factories provide end game solutions to problems, data driven improvements in education in their conception are end game processes.
Schools and classrooms are not factories, and students (at every level) are not commodities. And yet the "reform" techniques are specifically designed to apply the same constructs and metrics to education that are applied to factories. In all my years in the classroom and lecture hall, whether acting as the one in charge or observing a colleague, I never saw a teacher or lecturer whose performance could be measured ("reformers" prefer evaluated) through data. No standardized test anywhere can determine the degree and kind of learning that takes place in the mind of each individual in that room. I referred to the teacher's "performance." Yes. That is what happens the moment the teacher enters the room, even before a word is spoken, and each individual is reacting silently in his and her individual way. This is one of those moments of transcendence I mentioned above. Learning is a humanistic experience. All the data driven machinations devised to flatten that experience, whether Common Core Standards or other types of regulation, will result in a matrix world of chilling sameness.
I chose education, because I know it the best, but we can all observe what is happening. Social media—indeed, all media—have as their purpose to determine what is worth knowing, what, in fact, knowledge is. And when we consider that this determination is driven by data collected from how we humans respond in real time to flash points or long term experiences in our lives, we should stop and think how limiting this is: It encloses us in what has been and doesn't inspire us to determine what will be. The best kind of learning is aspirational, the thinking that what has been can be changed not because of what we know but rather because of what we think can be.
I don't want to have to live in a world of what has been. The word "standard" has to do with sameness. And we don't become better humans that way. The best of human development derives from a simple question: What if? Whether in medicine, the arts, architecture, education, engineering, any expressions of the human will, this is how actual human transformation occurs. Disruption can be very positive, so long as it disrupts and transcends the sameness.