What the PG& E blackouts taught us about disruptions, good and bad

The dictionary defines disrupt as causing “disorder or turmoil in,” originating from the Latin word disruptus, in the mid 1600s, meaning to burst asunder.

When Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced a power shutdown for 800,000 customers in California last week, I wasn’t sure if I would be spared, so I began to prepare for it. I made my way to Best Buy to stock up on flashlights, batteries, candles and a portable charger for my phone and laptop. At the grocery store, I picked up foods that could be quickly and easily cooked. At Chevron, I filled gas in my car. At the library I checked out half a dozen books. I charged all my devices and downloaded the research documents I’d need to continue working without power. I quickly figured out the changes I needed to make in order to function without something I had thus far taken for granted. It led me to think about how and when disruption helps and when it hinders us.

The dictionary defines disrupt as causing “disorder or turmoil in,” originating from the Latin word disruptus, in the mid 1600s, meaning to burst asunder. Disrupt has come to imply a shift, or alteration of traditional directions or modes of a particular process or behavior. There have been streams of analysis in science, business and technology, politics and sociology dedicated to the idea of disruption.

If you believe the Big Bang theory, it was disruption that created our universe, bursting from one primeval point, or singularity, to multiple smaller atoms, expanding the cosmos beyond recognition over the course of 13.8 billion years to what we occupy today.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” in 1995 to describe how an established way of doing business is successfully challenged by an upstart company with few resources. Breaking from a strict Harvard definition, disruptive innovation revolutionizes the way products and services are consumed, altering consumer behavior in the process. The discovery of the printing press transformed the way we told stories; the Kindle altered the way we read books; Netflix changed the way we watch movies; the iPhone freed us from being stationary while communicating; Facebook reinvented channels for social interaction; and in sports the Warriors and Steph Curry reconfigured the game of basketball by deploying three-point shots effectively.

I submit, too, that migration, or the displacement of people due to wars, climate change, poverty or violence, is the most elemental form of disruption. Migrants are disrupted from their lives in the countries of their birth and are forced to seek more amenable spaces and places for their safety and future.

In society, the prevailing framework of rebelliousness is disruption. When youths rebel, they reject the constraining norms of authority and tradition. When adults rebel, they break from the majoritarian ways of thinking. And who better to exemplify this than Donald Trump.

With his bombast, vitriol, raw bigotry and misogyny, Trump cloaked himself in the animus of a typical disrupter — a counter cultural swamp-drainer. In the ways in which he rejected the cohering and consensus building policies of the past, his followers came to believe that he was the resilient rebel.

Political disruptors, like Trump, are provocateurs who are at the vector of redefining national discourse by shocking people out of their cognitive complacency. However, unchecked and unharnessed disruption can quickly open up a vast sea of vulnerabilities and create a shattering level of chaos.

The Trump administration exemplifies what happens when disruption gets taken too far. Just take a gander at the numbers of people who’ve joined his administration and have either left or been forced to leave.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas of the Brookings Institute put the President Trump’s “A team” staff turnover at 80 percent as of October 14, 2019. His “A team” consists of members of the executive office as well as cabinet secretaries. Shockingly, 31 percent of President Trump’s “A Team” departures have undergone serial turnover, including the office of chief of staff and the communications director. With a total turnover of 63 “A Team” employees in his three years in office, Trump has created more churn than any other president. This points to discord, disloyalty, disorder and decline of the office of the presidency.

In other ways, too, unchecked disruption can create disabling discontinuity and expose weakness. While some level of migration is good, essential and healthy for the economy, an unrestricted flow of people into a single region can cause problems that would be hard to recover from.

In San Francisco, the disruption trends of homelessness, untreated mental health, and rising home prices have had untoward consequences. Long considered an innovation capital, The City regularly ranked at the top, along with New York, London and Paris in the A. T. Kearney’s Global Cities Index, a ranking that reveals which cities are on the cutting edge of technology, with the ability to attract human capital, and have “thoughtful municipal policies, smart corporate investment, and a commitment to building a technology pathway into the future.” This year, San Francisco plummeted from first to third in this list.

Like the anticipated PG&E power outage, small, controlled amounts of disruption can offer a much-needed jolt making us hyper-aware of the world we occupy. I would certainly have been put out if the power disruption had been indefinite. But as it turned out, there was no outage at all in my neighborhood and I confess to feeling disappointed. I imagined candlelight dinners, long conversations, playing board games, reading and going on long walks, and no internet and social media. And for a while there I felt incredibly liberated.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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