Disruption, Dissociation, and Acting Crazy

April 1, 2012

Konnichiwa Commode Perry.  Hope you had a good time at ICASSP and that your tutorial and John‘s presentation went well.  I believe your tutorial was based in part on your recent magazine article, which starts off by talking about the Tokugawa Shogunate.  Of course, one of the causes for the Meiji restoration is said to be the technological prowess demonstrated by Perry, driven in some part by the steam engine revolution in technology.  In your two previous posts, you’ve talked about gamification and interactive open data as two big sociotechnical trends afoot.  Do you think they are big enough disruptions to cause regime change like the steam engine or social media (as some claim)?

Since I’ve mentioned disruption and technology, I feel compelled to write about the notion of disruptive innovation due to Christensen.  It seems most people talk about things like computer memory systems or technologies like that, but since I am on a food binge, let me talk about bagels.  I don’t know if you heard, but Murray Lender, the leader of Lender’s Bagels recently passed away.  There was a great article by Matthew Yglesias that talked about the invention of frozen bagels and how it allowed a complete revolution in the national bagel market.  For example, this revolution allowed one to get bagels in Urbana-Champaign in the 1970s.   Let me quote from it:

Innovation is often thought of as coming with better products. But sometimes the most successful innovations involve coming up with inferior products, but making them cheaper and more convenient.

and further:

But the main way Lender’s changed the world was by arriving on the supermarket shelf. Frozen, the bagel became an exploratory food. Fresh-baked products can only be sold in places where you know for sure that demand is high—otherwise they go stale. Baked goods thus tend to be conservative and intensely regional. The freezer changes all that. A frozen product can venture out into uncertain waters and survive as a niche product even if volume isn’t enormous.

and in closing:

The fundamental story of Lender’s Frozen Bagels is that the winning product isn’t always the best one. Like Ikea for furniture, H&M for clothing, or the Olive Garden for Italian food, Lender’s innovated by finding a way to compromise on quality and reap huge gains in other spheres. To an extent, it’s thankless work. Nobody wants to stand up and proudly proclaim, “I changed the world with my inferior products.” But often this is how the world changes. And if you look at the health care and higher education corners of the American economy where spiraling costs are bankrupting the middle class, you see sectors that are largely untouched by this kind of low-end innovation. The world could probably use a few more Murray Lenders.

So in many ways, exactly as Christensen describes it.

Dissociation has been a long-running theme of this blog, and it seems that dissociative technologies can be particularly disruptive to extant social systems.  The Supreme Court has of course been busy with other things recently, but they also listened to arguments about legal questions that essentially arise due to the dissociation of time and space in life.  Very interesting indeed.

Finally, returning to food, I was reading this article about pizza in New York.  It is such a great example of acting crazy to try to preserve market  power.  If Ramanlal Patel really wants to claim market power, I think he needs to come up with a disruptive pizza.  Pav bhaji khakra pizza anyone?  Claudette von Jurgens?



  1. The NYT (and Acemoglu) also think (creative) disruption is important (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/opinion/sunday/friedman-why-nations-fail.html) and I just listened to Bertsimas’ talk on his robust control approach to probability. Disruption is in the air? Nice post!

  2. Hi Gireeja, glad you liked the post. I may write about this more, but I’ve never really seen this disruptive idea applied to theoretical technologies, but interesting thought. Bertsimas’ robust control approach to probability is definitely an interesting one, where computability is favored over modeling realism, so seemingly a similar style of disruption as Christiansen describes.

    In the history of science, there is a view of Kuhnian revolutions and in economics, there is a view of Schumpeterian creative destruction that Daron alludes to.

    I wonder what the relationships between these three notions are.

  3. […] comments to a previous post, Gireeja had brought up the new robust optimization approach to multiterminal information theory […]

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