How Does Disruption Work?

street pothole with garbage bag in it
Street pothole with garbage bag in it

Summary of assumptions for this post:

  1. Many of the institutions of our society are deep into the Conservation phase of the Adaptive Cycle. They are approaching the point where they will drift into the Release phase. This is a slow, but inevitable, process, and not anything like a planned revolution, though collapse during a Release phase might resemble one.
  2. Resistance=competition for existing target resources. While resistance is necessary and unavoidable, the resources that are the objective of resistance will not survive this release phase in their current form. To the extent that resistance is successful in changing who decides how to use resources (say, by winning an election), the “new boss” will be severely constrained by the institutional structures that conserve current resources. Power over current resources is always limited unless you accept the assumptions of that target system. In a word, resources embedded in an existing system are not perfectly fungible.

What is Disruption?

Disruption, like the pothole in the picture for this post, is an alteration of a target system that makes it harder for the target to fulfill its purpose. Unlike resistance, which provokes the allocation of target resources to defense and counter-attack, disruption requires the target to use more of its resources for repair, unpredicted maintenance, and restoration. Disruption has the effect of accelerating the evolution of a Conservation phase target further toward the Release Phase.

An “enlightening” overview of how disruption drives the evolution of a system is The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. The breakdowns and pressures on our grid are not driven by political sabotage or organized “resistance” in the usual sense (sorry for the puns). The power outage model of disruption is a good metaphor for understanding disruption in general, because of the immediacy of the disruptive effects on all of those affected.

Although we usually think of disruption in terms of political maneuvering and violence, the Grid metaphor shows us that neither of these is necessary for the undermining of well-conserved targets. Their evolution has its own momentum.

John Robb (whose blog, “Global Guerillas”, is a great resource about the evolution of modern insurgencies and their tactics) authored a recent piece on the different kinds of insurgencies and the different moralities of disruption. In the post, he discusses three choices we can make about the kind of future we wish to pursue:

  • Trump’s successful effort to undermine the standard election process by paying no attention to the rules and focusing his entire effort on resonating with his supporters.
  • The counter-insurgency, gearing up now, to restore a mythical if recent past, and to resist the initiatives of the current administration.
  • Something John calls a Participatory Insurgency, like the 5 Star Movement in Italy using social networking and apps, and rapid and repeated voting to quickly evolve their response to events.

I think we would all like to see the third option become real, but John’s cynicism suggests that we are most likely moving toward a destructive version of a civil war between the first two kinds of insurgencies. I’m afraid that he is right. An earlier version of this similar pattern occurred around the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.

Next Post: Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption


Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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