Silicon Valley, the heart of American tech-entrepreneurship and business, has contributed immensely to human progress in the last few decades. There is much to admire, including new forms of immediate human connection, time-saving automation and placing powerful technology in the hands of wealthy and poor alike. But the pace and scale of disruption have come with costs that are becoming clearer to both the public and business leaders.
Nitasha Tiku, a senior writer at Wired magazine, observed last year, “It is only now, a decade after the financial crisis, that the American public seems to appreciate that what we thought was disruption worked more like extraction—of our data, our attention, our time, our creativity, our content, our DNA, our homes, our cities, our relationships.”
The pace and scale of technological disruption have come with costs that are becoming clearer to both the public and business leaders.
Hemant Taneja, the managing director of General Catalyst, recently added to the critique in the Harvard Business Review: “‘Move fast and break things’ is how entrepreneurs regard disruption: more is always better. We raced to put our products into consumers’ hands as fast as possible, without regard for the merit of—and rationale for—offline systems of governance.” Mr. Taneja continues, “If innovation is to survive into the 21st century, we need to change how companies are built by changing the questions we ask of them.” These new questions require a deeper ethical reflection—what in the Ignatian tradition we call “discernment.”
A recent meeting of Jesuit business school leaders and Silicon Valley executives at Santa Clara University—combining the third Global Jesuit Business Ethics Conference and the 22nd annual Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education meeting—addressed this yearning for a new guiding framework through the Catholic and Ignatian imagination. Remember that St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, was no technophobe or skeptic of the modern but was a disrupter himself. Far from retreating from the world, he immersed himself in the Renaissance humanism, civic life and exploratory fever of his time. He coupled the ancient and the new, both in spirituality and education, borrowing from others what worked and leaving behind what did not. One only has to do a quick Google search to see all of the Jesuit chemists, physicists, astronomers, artists and more who embraced new technologies and ideas and led innovation in their fields.
If the model of “move fast and break things” is itself broken, an Ignatian ethic of “discerning the disruption” offers an alternative. What if we advanced an ethic of “move thoughtfully and lift up people”?
Moving thoughtfully means we take enough time to understand the foreseeable consequences of our innovations and disruptive actions.
This call to “move thoughtfully” does not mean excessive caution or slow-paced decision-making. We might still move fast and even break things to meet critical needs, but with discernment we would know why we are doing what we are doing. We do not just accept disruption as a good in itself simply because it is the newest thing or the hottest trend. If we want to be good people who will do good and sometimes heroic things, then we must have a clear sense of the good that drives and summons us. Moving thoughtfully means we take enough time to understand the foreseeable consequences of our innovations and disruptive actions—for example, the impacts on employment and the environment, and possible misuses of new technology by others.
Notice how impersonal the call to “break things”is. It does not invite us to consider who we might be breaking with our disruptions. It assumes that breaking is the good that drives and summons us. An Ignatian ethic of disruption calls that assumption into question by putting the human person at the center of our discernment. In the Catholic tradition, the human person is created in the image of God with a dignity that can never be taken away. Likewise, in Jesuit education, we often talk about cura personalis: caring for the whole person in mind, body and spirit.
We should apply cura personalis to disruption. To lift up people is to think beyond how an app makes a task more convenient or how a new medical device will assist one part of the body. An Ignatian ethic asks us also to consider how the disruption affects people’s economic and physical security, whether or not it encourages a healthy lifestyle, whether it can nourish their spiritual life, and how it impacts both immediate and larger environments.
These considerations compose a healthy discernment about disruption. Yes, disruptive progress asks us to think differently, to take apart the way things are currently assembled, but we should do so only after we have thoughtfully discerned that our end is noble. Guided by our shared values, like St. Ignatius we can look at a rapidly changing world with great hope and anticipation. We can know that disruption can be for good if it moves not just fast but thoughtfully, and if lifts up people rather than simply break things.
This essay was adapted from a speech given by Father O’Brien on July 12, during the Global Jesuit Business Ethics Conference and annual meeting of the Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education, held at Santa Clara University.