There has always been something that slightly terrified me about the vocabulary of entrepreneurs, especially the language of tech innovators. Innovation, it seems, is all about disruption.
I have been perplexed by my own emotional response to this kind of language for a long time. It isn’t immediately evident why I should find the paradigm of “disruption” so distasteful. Deeply influenced by abolitionist literature and anti-colonial thought, my personal dictionary is no stranger to calls for intervention in present conditions and desires to inaugurate new, alternative futures.
I, too, am disrespectful of the existing! I, too, can be fast-talking, fast-thinking! I, too, have felt great disillusionment and anti-establishment sentiment. I suffer similarly from a general disenchantment precipitated by the conditions of post-industrial late capitalism — with the added dysphoric bonus of the complexities of dwelling in a body marked by race and gender.
A longtime observer of the wreckage of the contemporary world and a rather impatient and reactive individual, I should be the target demographic of the disruption slogan.
Yet, the language of disruption — this evocation of a brilliant, iconoclastic disrespect of the existing—this promise for the fast and the revolutionary — provokes an instinctual rejection from me. Until I read Pamela Lee’s The Glen Park Library: A Fairy Tale of Disruption , I couldn’t properly articulate why.
A piece of experimental criticism and a beautiful physical artifact, the book is an arresting, recombinatory thing. It is an unpacking of Silicon Valley’s culture of “disruptive innovation” as a fairy-tale, an orienting mythos that has shaped contemporary culture and technology, and an examination of the gendered, racial, and epistemological fallout of such a faith.
It is also a fairy-tale itself, constructed physically and textually as one. The language is one of storytelling and poetry rather than academic criticism. The book is bound in forest-green leather, embossed in gold, with pages edged in gold, resembling a vintage copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales you might find at an antique store. It reassembles the narrative of the arrest of Silk Road  mastermind Ross William Ulbricht at San Francisco’s Glen Park Library to tell a broader story about Silicon Valley disruption culture and how it has deeply affected everything from how we make knowledge to how we come to compose our sense of self. Though an art historian by trade, Lee weaves together cultural criticism, snarky quips, poetry, and archival messages from the dark net.
There are many complex things happening in this text, most of which I am only beginning to piece together. Among the topics Lee probes are the tactical applications of poetics, transparency as an issued demand for attention with consequences rather than an uncomplicated movement towards access and openness, the speed of information and how this comes to bear on our experience of time and the present, code as a grammar of grammar, metaphors and who makes them, memory, the politics of visibility (exposed vs. represented), ecology and human motion — all this refracted through a hilariously witty voice. One of my favourite parts of the book is when she writes about the friction between the poetic and the optimised: Poetic provocations that “screw with form and hatch provisional escape plans” are incommensurable with technological solutions that subsume all possible action under the instrumental, portable framework of Problem, Solution, Impact:
“Poetry is the reopening of the indefinite, the ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words.’ This is Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi on the war between poetry and finance. He’s explaining how a poem — a liberation of words from grammar, an elliptical, uncontainable nothing —might jam a system banked on transparency and the routines of exchange. ‘Semio-capitalism’ is what the Italian theorist calls this financial system. Irreducible to information or data, a poem trips up the smooth operations of the algorithm. A poem has teeth, its profile stomps ragged on the page. I believe him. If I didn’t have faith in art to ask the right questions, screw with form, and hatch provisional escape plans, why would I be wasting my time on all of this? Otherwise, like they say about technology, I’d be out solving problems and helping people.” 
It’s a wide-ranging piece of criticism that makes significant contributions across many disciplines, some of which are areas that you wouldn’t typically expect an art historian to dabble in, such as linguistics and information technology.
Lee is a galaxy brain of the first order, but this is slightly beside the point. The takeaway, first and foremost, is that “disruption, hitherto clutched as an article of faith by millions, is our own sovereign fairy tale.” To call the credo of disruption a fairy tale is not to say that technology has not been disruptive in powerful, wide-ranging ways, but rather an astute observation that, like any other word, phrase, or mantra, “disruption” is not an objective signifier of the de facto reality of events in tech innovation and Silicon Valley. Instead, the term and the ideology it weaves is a cognitive framework — a metaphor — for understanding what the world is and how we are to navigate it. In Michelle Kuo’s foreword for the book, she writes:
“[A]s Lee puts it: ‘Fail, die, disrupt, innovate, get born again, repeat.’ In this way, ‘circulation is our currency. You’ll die if you stop, like a shark.’ This is how the world works today, a relentless attempt to recuperate countercultural risk and thinking outside the box as innovation; to render the avant-garde strategy of defamiliarization as creative destruction. And yet, what we are really witnessing now is a colossal failure of imagination: the failure to foresee that the democratization of information would become the greatest tool of disinformation, and that the growth of data--its production of intelligence--would threaten to replace the subject altogether.”
The credo of “disruption” tells us that the only effective way for us to act, and for humanity at large to move into the future, is to “move fast, break things”. But what are the things that are broken, and is it a univocally good thing for those things to break?
Hidden in the fluid, poetic motion of Lee’s text — equally impenetrable as it is incisive, an “elliptical, uncontainable nothing” — is a series of highly lucid observations about how disruption culture unquestioningly embraces certain values and discards others.
Is moving “fast” good and what are the things that are lost in this motion, that require us to be slow to understand? Does this “fast history” come at the cost of situated knowledge and inherited histories? For example, showing us the flip side of “visibility,” Lee takes Gretchen Bender’s eight-channel video installation of 24 monitors and three projections titled Total Recall , to ask how seeing many things might result in a “blinkeredness of visual culture in which its audience, ironically, can’t see anything — at least not see anything for too long.” She notes how transparency, rather than an unequivocal kind of openness and access, might issue a demand on our attention that is answered at a cost. Fungible names, the promise of privacy, the discardability of online identities leverage privacy and anonymity at the cost of playing “a shell game of identity” that has interminable consequences. And the relentless creation of new tooling in “the contact zone between embodied subject and prosthetic self” is itself highly implicated by the different valences of embodied subjecthood, some registers of able-bodiedness, race, and gender having material recalcitrance.
“Disruption” is scary because it is a bulldozing rhetoric, a monoculture that subsumes all other ways of being in the world and responding to it. Problem, Solution, Impact is the information framework that undergirds the world. This is the only way we can act in an agentive manner, the only efficient and effective way of moving, we are told. As Lee writes,
“I must have blinked and missed the news but apparently the world is now a big, dumb puzzle waiting to be solved...Engineer the world of all its glitches so it runs noiselessly, tight and smooth.”
Clearly, I also missed this memo. Because in all this drive towards a frictionless state, I’m thinking that maybe there’s something important in the friction that’s been left behind.
I will be the first to admit that this piece of writing is a bewildering read — turning its pages, I was constantly beset by a feeling of having missed something important — of having been disoriented or unmoored — of possibly having been bitten at. But it’s precisely through these poetic tactics that Lee is able to accomplish, in a short 100-page fairy-tale, such an immense critical project. Bemuddled as I was, there is a sense of ringing clarity reading this book. This book, the object itself, is proof of what Lee is saying: that maybe, in the hackneyed mantra of disruption that hails executors of fast action as its heroes, we are losing the slow, the poetic, the situated, the friction-ful, the unseen. And maybe those things are critical.
Silk Road was an online black market and the first modern darknet market, best known as a platform for selling illegal drugs.
Pamela Lee, The Glen Park Library: A Fairy Tale of Disruption, no place press, 2019
Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 8-channel video installation of 24 monitors and 3 projections, 1987.