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Kevin O'BrienJuly 31, 2019
Illustration by Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ/ Mike Seay (America) 

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 thingsis. 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.

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JR Cosgrove
4 years 10 months ago

A problem with innovation is that one never knows how disruptive it will be or to whom. Kind of hard to plan it or to say this one gets approved and that one doesn’t. Who does the deciding. Somehow discernment doesn’t do it.

One of the most negative outcomes of the iPhone/iPad is that over 90% of people stare at some device while eating. Little children are now addicted to them too. My wife noticed a 5 year old last night trailing the parents in a restaurant staring at a smartphone.

Mark Ruzon
4 years 10 months ago

"Move Fast and Break Things" was the motto of one specific company, Facebook. It was over 5 years ago, in April 2014, that Facebook changed it to "Move Fast with Stable Infra[structure]". In other words, they decided it's okay to break things at the margins because few people would be affected, but when you're dealing with the backbone that the company (or society) is based on, you have to be a lot more careful. You don't see this principle being applied to driverless cars, for example.

Using a phrase from one company that's been obsolete for 5 years as the crux of an argument makes me somewhat skeptical. The industry has already moved on from this idea in general if ever it took hold outside of Facebook.

Charles Erlinger
4 years 9 months ago

This is a timely article in many ways. Engineers and scientists of reflective inclination have been writing about the effects of the strategy of disruption for a while. David Alan Grier, who writes reflective pieces along these lines in various publications of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has an article in the July issue of Computer, a publication of the IEEE Computer Society, entitled “Transforming the Field,” in which he compares favorably the strategy of transformation to the strategy of disruption.

Grier argues that the promotion of disruptive strategies was given an early impetus by the writings of Harvard business professor Clay Christensen, who saw disruption as the way mature economies would advance. We can add our own observations to Grier’s.

These ideas were dutifully parroted in MBA programs. In that environment, the strategies tend to be implemented in terms of end user, or broad consumer populations, through specialties including consumer product design, marketing and advertising. What we loosely term tech companies in this context concentrate on the consumer market and the disruption is most visible in the change, or disruption, in patterns of consumer behavior and preference.

But these disruptions have had to be made possible by underlying science, engineering and manufacturing (more fundamental technology) changes. These changes have tended to be more orderly, or, as Grier writes, more transformative than disruptive. He attributes this outcome to the ability to formulate developmental “laws” such as Moore’s Law, which describes the steady improvement of Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor technology during a series of cycles approximately 18 months in duration. As long as Moore’s Law has been applicable, planning and preparing for this steady improvement has been possible and semiconductor manufacturers have known in which direction design and manufacturability efforts must be expended. It has also been generally known that the limits of semiconductor capability increase, and size and power consumption decrease, were foreseeable with the architecture, materials and manufacturability that is being used in these processes.

Moore’s Law is more than merely descriptive, as most “laws” based on collected observations of human behaviors are. It is prescriptive as well, in the sense that knowledge of the looming end of its applicability prescribes that we had better think of something else, some fundamentally new semiconductor architecture, with its inevitable requirement for new physical materials and substances that require new manufacturing techniques and new machine tools and new skills.

The author’s call to “move thoughtfully” and take enough time to understand the foreseeable consequences of our innovations and disruptive actions is timely and appropriate. But its implication that predicting the future is doable needs a little more explication. Basically, nobody can predict the future with certainty. No amount of discernment can change that. But doing our best is an anciently recognized obligation. Its practice is called Prudence, which happens to be a moral virtue.

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