If there is a buzzword that deserves to be strangled before New Year’s eve it is “disrupter”. Like many neologisms, it originated in Silicon Valley and has spread like a virus into US politics and media. Even as I write, it is preparing to colonise global forums such as Davos through online Ted talks and other channels. Other examples include “thought leader”, “fire lighter” and the word “pivot”, which it seems we must all practise even if we are unhinged. But “disrupter” gets first prize. Rarely in the history of bad terms has a new one been so misconceived.
In its place of origin, a “disrupter” is a swashbuckling entrepreneur who comes up with a new product or way of doing business that upends the market. Think of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Peter Thiel. It is also linked to the bigger concept of creative destruction, whereby, the old dies in order to make way for the new. Yet, even in Silicon Valley it can be misleading. Like so many coinages from the US tech sector, this term flatters to deceive. Most innovation comes from patient and collaborative teamwork rather than solitary eureka moments in suburban garages. But in Palo Alto, at least, disrupter retains some link to what people should aspire to do.
The same is not true of politics. This year has been among the most disruptive in America’s recent history. It started with a fiscal cliff, which threatened to tip the US budget into the abyss. Disaster was averted — but only for a while. It moved on to “sequestration”, a uniquely Washingtonian coinage, which applied blind cuts to vital US defence and domestic programmes. And it built up to the 16-day US government shutdown in October and the near disastrous flirtation with a default on America’s sovereign debt. There was nothing creative or constructive about this.
If there was one US politician who claimed the disruptive moniker for himself, it would be Ted Cruz, the firebrand Republican senator from Texas. In the ordinary course of events, the less said about Cruz the better — his brand is fuelled by negative media. But this is an exception. In Silicon Valley, someone like Cruz may be celebrated as an iconoclast storming the citadels of business as usual. Anywhere else, particularly in public policy, Cruz should be seen as an arsonist. If you threaten to burn the house down to get your way, it will sustain damage. US governance is weaker because of “disrupters” such as Cruz.
It is also weaker because of the actions of unintended disrupters. President Barack Obama’s greatest feat was passing US health care reform in 2010. That was obviously deliberate. No superpower should tolerate a situation where 50 million of its citizens lack health cover. Then came the accidental disruption. Instead of working diligently to put the complex new health insurance systems in place, Obama pivoted — yes, pivoted — to other things. As a result, Obamacare is now in danger of going into a death spiral. My bet is that the recent flurry of panicked systems-building will salvage Obama’s law in 2014. But he would have saved everyone the trouble had he demanded competence from the start.
Then there are the self-proclaimed “disrupters”. The term is meant to signal brave thinking, particularly in the world of tech and finance. Yet, in much the same way that “thought leadership” is frequently about people regurgitating the unoriginal thoughts of others, “disrupters” are often the opposite of what they claim. If you need to inform the world that you are original, the chances are you are not.
Fresh thinking is highly desirable, particularly in the gridlocked world of US politics. It should not be confused with the chanting of faddish mantras. Other contenders include “blue-sky thinking”. But “disrupter” gets top billing for mindlessness.
Much of the blame for the cult of the “disrupter” should go to the media, which likes to celebrate political bomb throwers. In the past few months, dozens of US media organisations have drawn up their pet lists of top “disrupters”. MSNBC, the liberal cable news channel, has its “disrupter of the week”, which often means little more than having made the news. Vanity Fair came up with its top 50 media “disruptors” (the word’s variable spelling is also disruptive). Forbes had its top 12 business “disrupters”. And from sea to shining sea, conferences have been awash with disruptive tedium.
My hope for 2014 is that these widely followed outlets will put an end to the nonsense before it turns into a habit. It would be unrealistic to expect them to switch to compiling lists of the quiet, unassuming types who work behind the scenes to ensure things function. Competent people can be dull. Lists of competent people sound mind-numbingly dull. Likewise, it would be monstrous were Ted and other conference organisers to replace “disrupter” with, say, “competencer” or “reliables”. The sentiment is certainly good, but ugly words should never be coined. Those already in currency must be put to death.
So here is my plea for “disrupter” to be guillotined. In George Orwell’s classic Politics and The English Language, he wrote that purging English of sloppy abstractions is a necessary first step to political regeneration. “English becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” he wrote. “Political language is designed to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
As Washington gears up for yet another year of trench warfare, spare a thought for all those non-disrupters out there. The moment has arrived for quietly competent people to get their due.
— Financial Times