Jill Lepore is one of those writers I know nothing about, yet I keep finding her name atop interesting, thought-provoking articles.
I’m now hopeless, card-carrying Lepore fanboy based on her New Yorker piece on the emerging economic “science” of disruption, which was brilliant and thoughtful, pointing out that the tech world’s manic embrace of disruption (or “devastating innovation”) isn’t necessarily backed by fact.
Using a historian’s perspective, Lepore largely debunks many of the case studies used to support the theory of disruption in Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (the bible of disruptors), essentially suggesting the theory of disruption isn’t predictive, but exists only as a backward-looking confirmation of change.
Her research is impeccable, but as a writer, I loved her use of complex sentences to build momentum. In copywriting, we don’t use complex sentences, but watch how Lepore lays complex constructs end-to-end:
A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.
Lepore’s article does a fine job of examining the intellectual shortcuts taken by those who would joyfully disrupt even relatively stable industries — or those who don’t see value beyond dollars in things like schools, medical care, journalism and others.
She finishes with a flourish, pointing out that for all the tech world’s claims of changing the world for the better, disruption is in fact largely amoral.
The upstarts who work at startups don’t often stay at any one place for very long. (Three out of four startups fail. More than nine out of ten never earn a return.) They work a year here, a few months there — zany hours everywhere. They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories.
They are told that they should be reckless and ruthless. Their investors, if they’re like Josh Linkner, tell them that the world is a terrifying place, moving at a devastating pace. “Today I run a venture capital firm and back the next generation of innovators who are, as I was throughout my earlier career, dead-focused on eating your lunch,” Linkner writes. His job appears to be to convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness. Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business and it succeeds, Linkner advises, sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.