The Art of Disruption

By P. Segal

A big banner on the wall on Facebook read, “Move fast and break things.” It was the rallying cry for the tech industry’s culture of disruption, for an industry that didn’t really exist a few decades ago and now controls just about everything in the world. Tech dominates our work, finances, shopping, travel, transit, romances, and social lives. However, as we saw recently, there are people in tech showing how easy it is to disrupt the disruptors—and shut down everything with DDoS.


The culture of disruption affects lives within the tech industry, too, with endless start-ups creating new tools that make old ones obsolete, new devices that are built for planned obsolescence and the junk heap, new companies that will engulf markets and put competitors out of business. Outside the industry, businesses that have served humanity for generations, like taxis and department stores, are suddenly in trouble and heading towards extinction. Livelihoods are collapsing from automation. Technology has indeed moved fast and broken things, disrupting the world as we knew it in just a few decades.


Gradually the tech industry outgrew the confines of Silicon Valley. Too many people worked for giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and venture capital funded endless start-ups. Tech workers migrated out of the Valley, to the charming city not far north, San Francisco. Young people, mostly men, were making inconceivable fortunes, coming up with bright ideas like PayPal and Uber. They had so much money that they could buy anything. They wanted to buy San Francisco, or at least seize all the available housing.


It was bullying of the economic sort, and in most cases—but not all—essentially inadvertent. When entry level programmers made as much in a year as most people would hope to make at retirement, and a lot of them wanted to live in the city, landlords saw flashing dollar signs.  Evictions drove lower income people from the city, to make room for more affluent tenants.  Merchants, with no rent control, could only stay in business by charging more for everything. Life got more expensive. Evictions accelerated, and as noted recently in The Economist, there are currently 4,400 former tenants living on the city streets.


Writing in The American Interest, Nils Gilman describes the “plutocratic insurgency” that took over San Francisco. “The two signature types of massive wealth accumulation in the early 21st century have been high technology and financial services, “he writes. “Neither of these industries relies on masses of laborers, so their productivity is detached from the health of any particular national middle class. The result has been a dramatic rise in inequality.” This growing plutocratic elites balk at paying taxes to support social services for the general welfare, even though the waning middle class is a huge part of their customer base. Some of them demonize the homeless they have disenfranchised.  


Expulsion of Artists

Some of the first victims of the economic bullying of the plutocratic insurgency were the artists, who had given the city of San Francisco its well-deserved reputation for bohemian charm, quirkiness, and creative culture. For most people in the arts, rent is not one issue, but two: a place to live and a place to work. As early as the mid-‘90s, the city’s huge community of artists began leaving town for places where two rents were viable, starting with a mass exodus to Oakland.


In a 2015 study, the San Francisco Arts Commission found that 70% of the city’s artists had lost either their home or workplace, or in some circumstances, they’d lost both. The remaining 30% lived in constant dread of being next in the wholesale displacement of creative culture. The tech insurgents, however, don’t see it that way. They consider themselves equally creative.


Creativity takes many forms, but the arts have a special place in the creative pantheon. Artists are the antithesis of the plutocratic insurgency. They do not move fast and break things. Achieving mastery in the arts is a long, slow build of practice and development of style. A classical musician begins training around the time they start kindergarten, and while other kids are playing, they’re practicing. A painter may take years to develop a body of work worthy of an exhibition. A writer may have to produce several books before they write a really good one. Very few artists are born great, and none of them get paid for becoming great.


While there may be an inherent competition for awards, exhibitions, jobs with orchestras, and publication, the artistic creative process is not competitive. An artist doesn’t become great by crushing the market for other artists, and frequently their work is collaborative, as in the case of sculptors who work together to build large-scale works, or the joint efforts of musicians, writers, composers, actors, and dancers who come together to stage Broadway plays. There may be jealousies and disputes among the artistically creative, as there are in almost any group of human beings. However, achievement in the arts requires single-minded pursuit of a highly individual form, which leaves little time for assessing one’s place in the market.


Social Bullying

When the plutocratic insurgency engulfed San Francisco, they gave no thought to the effect on local culture.  The culture of disruption seemed indifferent to the concept of the social fabric, and how their actions changed the nature a place they would come to dominate. While it’s true that cities change over time naturally, to accommodate increases or losses in population, restoration after disasters, the devastation of wars, or economic enhancement, the social fabric is a dense weave of every kind of person. When one sort of person loses its place in a city, it rips the social fabric, woven from the contributions of a diverse population.


When the artists lost their place in the harmonious weave of San Francisco’s culture, the quirky, bohemian charm left with them. The tech insurgents, fixated on devices and markets and the powerful thrill of disruption, didn’t notice, seeing only slicker, cleaner, gentrified neighborhoods that catered to their tastes. The invisible gashes in the social fabric weren’t apparent to the newcomer insurgents, but they were to city natives and long-time residents. No one could put a finger on exactly why the city had changed in an unpleasant way, other than the fact that it had grown so expensive.  What was lost, clearly, was the authenticity of artistic endeavors, a social group that didn’t view money as a devouring objective, and the constant presence of the bespoke.


No one has ever asked before why artists make cities better. There has been a huge amount of study devoted to why the arts are important, but not the question of why artists are themselves. But one has to ask: what makes a better neighbor, the person dedicated to disrupting and making your livelihood irrelevant, or the artist whose greatest desire is to make something that you will love, something that will speak to our emotions and give us pleasure?


The irony is that the massive institutions of tech, like the World Wide Web, became popular because tech innovators relied on artists to do computer graphics, photographers to provide the images that have become more important than words, and writers to produce material worth clicking on. The artistically creative made the WWW attractive. Now freelance writers make about the same per word than they made in 1990, writing for print publications, unless they’re employed by an online publication or sell work to major magazines. People in the arts who didn’t fit into the tech industry’s needs became irrelevant and got expelled.


The dissolution of the social fabric is a form of social bullying. It assumes that only some people, in lucrative industries, deserve the right to live in a place as beautiful as San Francisco. But by doing so, they killed the service economy they created, making it impossible for people in the service industries to cater to them—because service workers can’t afford to live in the Bay Area. The culture of disruption disrupts itself, as well as the congenial city it up-ended, when they decided to refashion the social fabric. They took the charm from the city, when they replaced the artists, and shot themselves in the foot when they drove out the working class.


So What Do We Do?

Bullies achieve dominance in social environments by using their strengths to have dominion over others. They’re bigger, stronger, louder—or they have a lot more money. Since there is no chance in having more money or a louder voice than the tech industry, we can’t hope to out-bully the bullies.  We need to look for more effective ways to win.


In the case of the plutocratic insurgency, the one sure way to appeal to them is to offer something they want. One of the things we know they want is a tax incentive. It’s hard to argue with those high-earning individuals who don’t want their tax money to go largely to military spending, which is more than 50% of what we fund with our taxes. Philanthropy has always relied on an aversion to taxes.  It enables people to put money into things they believe in.


The motto on the wall on Facebook has been amended to a gentler kind of exhortation. The tech industry is full of brilliant people who get that disruption for its own sake has a limited appeal. Thoughtful people in the industry say a lot about “giving back,” using their fortunes to solve social issues. Organizations like The Gates Foundation tackle problems in Africa, as an alternative to paying massive tax bills. Silicon Valley’s iconic Y Combinator is experimenting with Universal Basic Income. Philanthropy offers the choice to do good, and we need to encourage that, using the nonprofit medium to address the issues that our government ignores.


There are many ways in which bullying can be turned around, if we look for the win-win options that are available. In future columns, we’ll examine how that can happen, beginning with a concept for restoring the creative community of San Francisco. Repairing the social fabric is a nebulous concept, untried and unexamined. We can only assess its importance when it’s done.


Leave a Reply