Anik Joshi: When innovation becomes disruption

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - 3:12pm

Everyone’s a disrupter these days. Whether it’s trying to disrupt capitalism or trying to disrupt how the residents of San Francisco consume their overpriced juice, no one seems to be happy with the way things are. However, I believe we’ve run into a problem of sorts that there is not much disrupting left to do.

Netflix is a prime example of disruptive technology. As Netflix has gotten older, it has become a worse platform because everyone has tried to disrupt the industry by introducing more and more streaming services – Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Go and Disney’s recently announced Disney+. And though Netflix was the original steaming service, since other copycat services were created, certain broadcast companies have started pulling their content from Netflix. I remember when you could watch “Family Guy," “How I Met Your Mother" and others on Netflix, but today those have all gone elsewhere – and there is no sign this will stop. Perhaps we are headed toward a reality wherein CBS, NBC and every other studio will stray from signing contracts and instead launch their own streaming service and if you just want a few shows from each provider, you have to buy all of those subscriptions. Of course, once this happens, rates of pirating content will probably rise. This entire mess is ironic because this problem is exactly what was supposed to be fixed with Netflix. Recall that one of the original motives behind the whole "cut the cord" movement was that instead of watching all shows offered on cable you had to subscribe to them all – something addressed by Netflix.

Uber is another example of disruptive technology, but in a different way. Uber worked well because it addressed a monopoly. The reason Uber was able to grow as fast as it did (despite leadership being caught with their pants down about once a month) was because of the way most taxi medallion markets were set up. Let’s take New York City as an example. In a nutshell, the cycle went something like this: someone would want to be a taxi driver and hence needed a medallion. Very few new medallions were released by the government each year due to lobbying by the taxi industry, so the only way to start was to buy a retiring cabbie’s medallion, usually for enormous sums. That cabbie would then retire on that money, so the person who wanted to be a cabbie would then work until retirement and this process would happen again. Uber came along and removed the need for that medallion. They democratized the profession of taxi driver almost overnight. What has happened as a result? Like most things, there have been ups and downs — discrimination tended to both decrease and increase with these ride sharing services, and there have been complaints about Uber’s business practices.

Uber worked well because it addressed a niche market that was in need of being disrupted — Netflix did the same when it joined the market as a streaming service. However, as Uber has started doing things like Uber Pool Express, a bit of a problem has come up. The idea behind Express is pretty simple: A group of people set their destinations and then all meet at a predetermined spot. Then they are driven to another predetermined spot and walk the rest of the way to their destination. If this sounds familiar, then you may have heard of a revolutionary technology known as a bus, which dates to 1905. The issue with buses, however, is not that they need to be disrupted – it is that they need to be better funded, among other things.

Uber Pool Express’s problem is that it’s trying to reinvent the wheel and that really gets at the banality of so much of “disruption” and “innovation”: it is done for seemingly no reason (save ego stroking). However, it makes sense that this problem has come up — and it is not just with Netflix and Uber. I would argue we as a society have run out of things to change, and we ought to stop pretending otherwise and creating things for the sake of it. This is how we ended up in the near parody that we live in today featuring everything from Netflix for coffee to Uber for private jets. Disruption just for the sake of disrupting (you don’t need a Netflix for everything, same with Uber) is tiresome. Truth be told, a lot of things are fine the way they are, and it would do us well to reflect on that before trying to reinvent the wheel – or bus.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.