Of course, in today’s understandings of technological, financial, and corporate strategy, it is not the model of benign innovation that is the object of fascination and advocacy. Instead, the models praised are ones that involve deliberate social, cultural, and material violence—often described as “destruction” or “disruption.” Far from respecting and building upon a tradition of tools and methods, the recommendation is to plunge ahead, discrediting, smashing up rapidly replacing what came before, usually with a narrow set of motives in mind—corporate profit and market capture.
While the term innovation has long had a long history in European languages, it is possible to date its emergence as a key concept in thinking about technology policy to the middle twentieth century, especially in the writings of the Austrian thinker Joseph Schumpeter, who eventually taught economics at Harvard. Pondering the dynamics of modern capitalism and in particular the ways in which new industries replace old ones and new product’s replace functionally similar products of earlier times, Schumpeter proposed the notion of “creative destruction.” He wrote, “The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.” Schumpeter emphasized the dynamics of a “process of industrial mutation … —that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism” (Joseph 1950).
Although Schumpeter’s term seemed new and catchy at time, an entirely similar idea had been around for a long while. In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production. … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”Footnote 4
In recent years, the idea that change involves deliberate attack redefined under the rubric, “Disruptive Innovation,” a theory and strategy widely promoted in business schools, Silicon Valley, and on Wall Street. Prominent spokesman for this tactic is Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. Christensen’s method is to locate existing sources of value contained within existing fields of endeavor—communications, transportation, health care, hotels, education, etc., and fundamentally restructure them with a disruptive innovation of some kind or another. If one can crack open the existing social container of economic value and strongly reconfigure its flows and contents, recapitalize its terrain, then the rewards will come pouring out, captured as profits for some new business enterprise (Clayton 1997).
Christensen’s conviction is that, in fact, such disruptions are inevitable given the continuing emergence of new forms of hardware and software that eventually and challenge and destroy the status quo in just about any form of organized social activity one can mention. Disruptive innovations occur when a new product or idea “transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo.” Paradigmatic in his view was the replacement of the mainframe and min computers of earlier generations by the high powered “personal computers” of the 1980s and since.
Christensen and his followers now apply this way of thinking in many areas of business and social life, including education. His book on that topic, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, makes it clear that innovation in the schools must be aggressive and forceful. At the book’s conclusion he advises his readers:
The tools of power and separation, though they seem foreign to leaders who have been schooled in consensus, are the key pieces of the puzzle of education reform. As you face budget crises and difficulty finding teachers, don’t solve the problems by doing less in the existing system. Solve it by facilitating disruption. (Clayton 2008)
It’s interesting that he openly embraces the classic military and political strategy of divide and conquer. As a program of restructuring and possible improvement for long-standing institutions, their commitments, practices, and practitioners, Christensen’s worldview revises an old American maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That now becomes, “If it ain’t broke, by all means break it!” As if to turn the classic Hippocratic Oath for medical and professional ethics on its head, fashionable maxim seems to be: “First do some harm!”Footnote 5