Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Real disruption in Silicon Valley

A call-to-action left behind after recent marches in Berkeley
In the start-up and tech community, “disruptive” has been used as a synonym to replace the overused “innovative.” Last June, New York Magazine and others declared “disruptive” just as passe as it’s predecessor.

But Silicon Valley hasn’t stopped using it, which any of us here in the Bay Area are well aware. New start-ups still claim they are “disruptors” in their industries (or the “Uber of _____”), job postings still advertise for “disruptive” applicants.

The idea of disruption in tech is often credited to Clay Christensen 20 years ago in his book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” TechCrunch summarized his definition, saying, “In short, a disruptive product addresses a market that previously couldn’t be served... or it offers a simpler, cheaper or more convenient alternative to an existing product.”As Harvard Business Review pointed out in 2013, this isn’t exactly how the industry understands the term anymore: “Disruption is a story of rational responses to a changing environment.”

Regardless of whether Silicon Valley is using the term correctly, I offer the following assertion: Silicon Valley, you are paying attention to the wrong disruption.
This Friday, protesters are planning to attempt to shut down BART, the Bay Area’s commuter transit that connects San Francisco to parts of the East Bay and South Bay. This echoes a Black Friday demonstration in which demonstrators shut down transbay BART access for 2 hours via the West Oakland station (the connector between the East Bay and San Francisco) the Friday following Thanksgiving.

Already I’ve seen people informing their social media networks of this planned protest with disclaimers that they don’t support the protests, or my favorite, a tweet to effect of (it appears the tweet has since been deleted, but there are many to this effect) “another BART protest that will affect people who have nothing to do with this, great.”

BART daily ridership approaches 400,000 people. A shut down of one station would certainly impact many of those riders. You could say, in fact, that it would disrupt their lives.

A Facebook event for the demonstration reads, “As long as it remains business as usual to gun down Black women, men and children in the streets of this country, there will be no business as usual anywhere or for anyone.”

True disruption is affecting business as usual. As quoted above, “a disruptive product addresses a market that previously couldn’t be served.” People of color in America are not being served by the systemic racism, police violence and oppression they face on a daily basis--the first “business as usual” to which this Friday’s protest organizers refer. Affecting the latter “business as usual” for people who don’t live this reality daily or understand it is true disruption, and true activism. These demonstrations and disruptions aren’t just happening this Friday, but in the Bay Area, they have happened on Black Friday, through the Black Brunch movement, with highway shut downs and marches in the streets.

If you think that you are an “innocent victim” of these demonstrations and that they nothing to do with you, you are wrong. If we aren't taking action or speaking out or at the very least showing solidarity for the need of this disruption, we are complacent in the “business of usual” of racism, violence and oppression.

When you say that you don’t support these demonstrations and disruption, you are saying you want or expect people of color to sit quietly and politely ask to be treated respectfully despite that racism, violence and oppression they face. Whether you really believe that will be effective or not, by asking that, you are part of the problem.

If you think the disruption of your being late to work or having to take the bus or ferry instead is a bigger problem than what these demonstrators are speaking out for (that black lives matter) and against (the systemic racism and police violence against and murdering of people of color), you are wrong, naive and probably selfish.

Be prepared for alternative commutes if you need to be, but also please take some time to understand why these demonstrations are important and valid. In full disclosure, I won’t be at the demonstration and if BART is seriously impacted, I’ll be working from home. I recognize the privilege I have to make these choices, especially the choice to avoid a potentially uncomfortable (though unlikely dangerous) situation. That’s a privilege the people I am supporting do not have--the police violence these demonstrators are speaking against means that no black person can even make choices to feel as safe as I do because they have no reason to feel confident that the people hired to “serve and protect” will serve or protect them. This is a reality that needs disrupting.

This is a reality that needs both a change in business as usual to address people who aren’t being served, and (as Harvard Business Review said, though mockingly of the tech community), a rational response to a changing environment. These disruptions do both, these disruptions are important, and, if you truly believe that black lives matter, these disruptions deserve and need your solidarity to truly change what equality looks like in the world.

I doubt the next “Uber of _____” will come close to being as important.