The Age of Disruption

Disruption has become the catchall word to describe a period of transformative change. Disruption has migrated into the everyday vocabulary of media practitioners, political scientists and corporate strategists. Disruption has also become the rallying cry for leaders within the anti-poverty movement. But what exactly does it mean to live in the age of disruption? What are the consequences of this disruption on the lives of everyday citizens? What kind of society will emerge in what the German philosopher Johann Fichte described as the new synthesis?

The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 signaled the starting point for a media revolution that has dramatically altered every aspect of our daily lives. Through social media, long-lost friendships have been restored, life-changing experiences shared and invaluable information communicated. Social media has reduced the world to the size of a keyboard. Social media has also created communities of common interest through which a revolution as seismic as the Arab Spring could be unleashed. Many argue that the Arab Spring demonstrated the power of the digital age at its best.

However, my recent visit to Chicago coincided with news from the United Kingdom that the wonderful broadsheet newspaper The Independent will end its print publication on March 26 and become an online-only news source. At its peak, The Independent sold over 400,000 daily copies. Over the past 12 months, that figure has fallen to 40,000. The Chicago Tribune appears to be trending in the same direction. The Saturday edition of the Tribune was noteworthy for its lack of content. The migration online has clearly begun.

Jeffery Herbst, political scientist and president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Newseum, frequently describes the digital revolution on the media landscape as both profound and far-reaching. For Herbst and others, the digital revolution has unleashed more information than ever into the public realm. This has also allowed each of us the ability to limit or filter the information that we receive. In the new media epoch, digital media platforms also use algorithms to feed us news content that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. Healthy and informed debates within an environment of political civility have been replaced by dogma and extremism. Journalists have been replaced by bloggers.

We have also witnessed disruptions within our established political order. The emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has sent shockwaves through the GOP. It has also unleashed a vitriolic response from many who passionately oppose his more inflammatory statements. Trump's success is rooted in his ability to disrupt the established order within the GOP. His followers, fueled by anger and distrust of the prevailing political orthodoxy, have drawn their strength from conservative news sources, obscure websites and the blogging fraternity for views and opinions that reinforce rather than challenge established assumptions. The convergence of the power of new media on a political system dominated by extremes has formed a nexus within the present political cycle.

Europe is also in the midst of a potentially far-reaching disruption. Britain will go to the polls on June 23 to decide whether to remain in the European Union. The British have always been the reluctant Europeans. The German-French axis, supported by Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, have long taken the position that Europe's political and economic future is best served through integration and cooperation. Economic considerations rather than a shared sense of a common European destiny prompted Britain's belated entrance into the EU over 40 years ago. Today, Europe is a different place. Enlarged membership in the EU and increasing diversity have reopened old wounds around such polarizing issues as border control, immigration and the role of Brussels as the head of the European superstate. As we have observed in the rise of Trump within the United States, much of this debate is taking place in social media chat rooms and on Facebook. The "in-out" debate can also be found in the diametrically opposed positions taken by news sources representing the left and the right. As we are witnessing in the United States, reinforcing positions are being assumed by information outlets of both political persuasions.

Disruption within the business community has also created anxiety for many CEOs. The term "uberization" has gained increasing currency within the corridors of power. According to its 2015 survey, IBM found that 54 percent of CEOs expect to contend with competition from outside their industries -- rising from 43 percent in 2013. Uber has become the largest taxi company in the world without owning a single vehicle. Airbnb has become the largest lodging company in the world without owning any real estate. Corporate disruption will have far-reaching implications on strategy, new product development and employment security for decades to come.

The anti-poverty movement has also issued a call for disruption in an effort to develop new approaches to solving intractable social ills. Over the past year, the Ford Foundation has placed a big bet on addressing the root causes of poverty and exclusion through the concentrated use of their philanthropic dollars. In support of their big bet, Ford recently launched #inequalityis. Using celebrity endorsers, Ford issued a call for action to bring the plight of the poor and the excluded to the attention of ordinary citizens and political leaders. By using its prestige within the philanthropic community, Ford is seeking to leverage the resources of others to support far-reaching outcomes. Time will tell whether they will succeed.

Technological disruptions have served as important milestones for human progress across centuries. In the 19th century, opposition to newly developed technology in the English textile industry led to the machine-smashing Luddite movement. The movement would not last. New technology not only transformed the textile industry but also spurred the creation of a new economic order. Two centuries later, we are again experiencing disruptions of historic proportions. We are also observing the emergence of a new 21st-century economic order. The speed of innovation and its transformative impact on our everyday experiences is near complete, for good or bad. Disruption has always yielded champions and victims. What is not clear this time is who will win.

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