Disruptive technologies are apparently being developed faster than we can adapt to the full impact of their disruption. Really? Internet time may not be the fast-paced disruptive force we assume, and these “disruptions” may not come close to the scale society experienced over 100 years ago.

Consider the following innovations, all occurring within a short time of each other. Each has truly changed our lives and had a dramatic impact on communities, nations, and the planet.

  1. 1876: Alexander Graham Bell develops the telephone and forms the Bell Telephone Company one year later.
  2. 1882: General Electric (with Thomas Edison at the helm) develops the first electrical grid in lower Manhattan. For the next several decades, General Electric (with Edison) and Westinghouse, (using the technology developed by Nikola Tesla) battle for the establishment of the nation’s electrical grid.
  3. 1885: Louis Pasteur develops the first vaccine against disease that is effective for human beings. Over the next several decades, vaccines are developed that effectively prevent diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis and others.
  4. 1886: Karl Benz patents “a vehicle powered by a gas engine” and personal transportation will never be the same. The first mass-produced automobile in the United States was by Oldsmobile in 1901.
  5. 1903: The Wright Brothers develop motorized flight. We land on the moon less than 70 years later.
  6. 1916: Westinghouse Radio develops the first broadcast radio station.
  7. 1928: Arthur Fleming discovers penicillin, saving tens of millions of lives.

Disruption is overused today, especially when put in this context. While specific incumbent companies may be “disrupted” by competitive forces that technology enables, the net impact does not come close to this kind of scale. The telephone, electric grid, vaccines, the automobile, the airplane, broadcast media, and effective antibiotics truly disrupted lives. Being able to get groceries more conveniently and carrying a phone in my pocket doesn’t seem to meet the same standard.

 

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