Undo! Undo! – Disruptive Technology and the Problem with Prophecy

Did you ever wish you could “take something back”? You know, like that comment you made at the Holiday party, when you didn’t know your boss was standing right behind you? Or the email that started out as a joke but ended up in the HR office? No, of course not. Smart people don’t do that sort of thing. Or maybe they do…

Last week, I was doing a little research on disruptive technology, a concept widely understood and accepted in many business circles, and I came across a late 2004 article by John Dvorak. Writing for PC Magazine, Dvorak bravely declared, “the concept of disruptive technology goes to the top of my list as the biggest crock of the new millennium.”

He went on to say that, “In the Harvard Business School alumni bulletin highlighting this nonsense, there is a list of supposedly disruptive technologies. Not one is disruptive. At the top of the list are electric cars supplanting gasoline vehicles. On what planet?” But how could he foresee the rising popularity of the Toyota Prius or the Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf?

Dvorak added to his list of impossibilities, “Internet sales supplanting bookstores. Hmm, Barnes & Noble is packed with people.” Well, perhaps they were in 2004, but less than seven years later, the Wall Street Journal would headline, “Bookstore Chain Borders is Dead.”

“The closest Christensen comes to a real disruptive technology is digital photography,” Dvorak ranted. “But it was invented in 1972 and has never been ‘cheaper’ than film.” Oops. It was precisely Kodak’s hesitation to enter the digital market, for fear it would erode the film business, that eventually forced Kodak into bankruptcy.

“There is no such thing as a disruptive technology… This concept only services venture capitalists who need a new term for the PowerPoint show to sucker investors,” he concluded.

Well, in retrospect, the truth is clear.

You see, there will always be a problem with predicting the future [irony intentional]. Even for smart people. Given the infinite number of variables in the universe, your chances of being wrong are bound to be higher that your chances of being right.