disruption is boring: thoughts on the uberization of society

Good Work, Journeying Together
scultpure of spectacles with many people inside

Bronze relief sculpture by Paul Day in St. Pancras station, London

I have come to hate the word “disruption.” I used to like it, thinking it might point toward some positive social revolution – echoes of Jesus or Gandhi or Marx (depending on one’s leaning) might come to mind – but it seems to me that all that is being disrupted are the forms by which massive scalability consumes our future.

In 1993, George Ritzer, a sociologist, wrote a book called The McDonaldization of Society. In it, he described various processes at work in the kinds of hyper-efficient business model of a franchise like McDonalds that produce very unhelpful ends. Though the fast food model was supposedly based on carefully rationalized management, the end result, argued Ritzer, was often quite irrational and unhealthy. A prime example would be the devalued and demoralized workforce created by such business models.

what’s the use of disrupting the bad to give us worse.

It strikes me that the recent trend of mobile app-based business models like Uber and Airbnb are simply an amping up of a very similar process. I wanted to title this post the “Uberization of Society,” but I was sure that someone had beaten me to it (and I was right – many people have. Google it…*). Whereas the boast of the fast food economy was in making “restaurant” food available to people at remarkably low prices, these new companies and approaches love to appear hip and counter-cultural. They love to talk about how they are “disrupting” the status quo. What they are doing is accelerating the pace at which the status quo races toward the massive scalability of everything. It is one more way in which humanity keeps contributing vigorously toward the creation of monsters that dehumanize life.

Is not the inevitable outcome of these trends that everyone will think they are somehow independent (Uber driver, Airbnb owner) whereas they are actually part of a massively exploited workforce for an ever-shrinking cluster of huge, monolithic companies?

To date, I have not seen anything prove E. F. Schumacher  wrong in his thoughts in Small is Beautiful (1973). His thesis is that the economy will never be healthy and life-giving when it is not on a human scale. When scale grows out of control, impersonal systems replace relationship. And the systems are oriented primarily toward the profits of a few (though all kinds of “greenwashing” or other pretenses of social justice are common rhetoric). Business models based on massive scalability are inherently biased toward being unjust, oppressive and ugly beneath their surface coating of efficiency, accessibility and so-called disruption.

Personally, I am waiting for signs of a disruption in which the economy I live in and depend on will be based to a significant extent on people I am in relationship with, people I know and trust without reading their reviews online. I know I’m an idealist, but what’s the use of disrupting the bad to give us worse.

[Disclaimer: I am writing (not for the first time) about an area that is not my area of expertise. I invite thoughtful correction – my point of view here is pessimistic, and I would love to be wrong.]

*Interesting side note: Is our ability to use Google to find, instantly, whether or not such a phrase has been used by someone already a version of something similar. Is even creativity being over-rationalized and made efficient – far more competitive than ever before?  Now I can’t be original in my local context because anyone (myself included) can see who is using any particular phrase or idea ten thousand miles away before I have? In the past, thirty people could have sincerely and originally coined (or adapted in this case) a phrase (like the Uberization of Society), each developing it in their own unique way, before someone would publish it on a mass scale and “own” the phrase.


scultpure of spectacles with many people inside
Bronze relief sculpture by Paul Day in St. Pancras station, London

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