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As far back as our mythological beginnings, the story of Western culture is one of sleek, new things usurping creaking old ones, usually with a great amount of violence. The Olympian gods banished the Titans to the deepest recesses of the underworld; Troy, declining and decadent, had to go up in flames before a gleaming new Rome could rise up to replace it. The revolutions that produced our modern political and social systems – the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Reformation- were bloody and pitiless. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the catchword for the technological innovation that defines our times even as it’s transforming them is a violent one- ‘disruptive’, which derives from the Latin rumpere: to break, tear, rupture, burst into pieces. The word’s violence is appropriate, because disruptive technology is all about smashing apart an existing order; replacing things that, because of their size and dominance, could once afford to be slack, baggy or inefficient, with slick new alternatives.
The term ‘disruptive’ was coined by a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton M. Christensen, in 1997. In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen defined two kinds of new technology: first, ‘sustaining’, which makes incremental improvements to existing models- we might think, for instance, of how a computer company will release steadily better models year-on-year. The second kind, by contrast, supplies a dramatically different alternative to what went before. Rather than working with established models, they completely shift the paradigm. ‘Disruptive’ technologies do things in new ways- cheaper, faster, more efficiently, with less manpower and a smaller scope for error. Often, but not always, they make their predecessors obsolete- one of the most merciless ‘disruptions’ in recent history saw PCs replace typewriters for everyone except a few hundred obstinate grannies and hipsters; the last ever typewriter to be manufactured in the UK, in 2012, went straight to a museum. Uber’s irresistible conquest of the taxi industry, meanwhile, is welcome to almost every customer (except the ones, like me, with inexplicably low ratings) but very bad news for the taxi companies it puts out of business each time it enters a new city.
From a modern vantage, Christensen’s book seems weirdly prophetic; it would have been difficult, in 1997, to predict the pace of disruption we’ve seen since, as mobile phones, social media, and internet shopping have all radically altered the shape of our lives. And in fact, the greatest transformations haven’t necessarily been in the technologies we interact with on a day-to-day basis; a 2013 study by McKinsey, which estimated that the economic impact of ‘disruptive’ technologies would be between 14 and 33 trillion dollars by 2025, predicted that the real game-changers would be advances in areas like robotics and energy-storage, and in using technology to understand the human genome.
All these factors conspire to make technology one of the most promising and rapidly-growing sectors in the world. Across the government and the private sector, the UK invested £31.6 billion on Research and Development in 2015, the highest sum ever. It’s an exciting sector to work in, rich with opportunity and incredibly demanding- disruptive tech company employees tend to be young and full of energy, and have to be smart and ambitious to succeed in an environment in constant change. If you think you might be up to the challenge, check out some of our roles: http://venatrixuk.com/graduate-job-search/