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Undoing Disruption: The Innovator’s Dilemma at MOMA PS1

“Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted,” Jill Lepore points out in her critique of the 1997 book in which Clayton M. Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation.”* In proposing a new method by which tech companies could undercut competition by offering lesser-quality products to a mass market, the book galvanized many an excitable entrepreneur, venture capitalist and speculator to add a “disrupt” to their proceedings. Nearly two decades later, disruption is more in vogue than ever. But what really happens when the ever-growing tech sector fixates on its own concept of “innovation”? Artist Simon Denny borrows the title of Christensen’s book for an exhibition at MOMA PS1, ultimately leaving it up to the viewer to decide just what the “dilemma” really is.


“I want to throw a tomato at it.”

“There’s nothing beautiful here.”

“This is making me uncomfortable.”

“I need to leave.”

These were our first reactions walking into The Innovator’s Dilemma. Made to invoke a start-up tech conference, with videogamey house beats zinging in the background and a robotic voice pinging the words “disrupt” and “tech,” the exhibition is so literal that it almost defies interpretation.

And there is indeed nothing pretty here. To recreate the tech conference experience in the art space, Denny made plastic panels dedicated to participants at the 2012 Digital Life Design conference in Munich, with titles like “Speed to Learn,” “Privacy,” and “Secrets of Success” above their pictures and presentation quotes. If we’re looking for key takeaways, topping the list would be the staggering self-absorption of the innovators, who are overwhelmingly white and male. (The exception to the one-dimensional demographic was Sheryl Sandberg, who, in inviting women to “lean in” to corporate culture, presents a version of feminism that is palatable to the old boys’ club.) From the pseudo-scientific (“we are hard-wired to share”), to the pseudo-social (“keywords are like a new public space”), to the overinflated (“The biggest event last year was Groupon’s IPO in November”), the exhibition exemplifies the sense of self-importance that is so noxious in the tech industry, simply by throwing that language back at us. Tongue-in-cheek inclusions heighten the effect (“This is beer, I wanted water”).

On the other side of the exhibition space, the cover of Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup is blown up and displayed like an altarpiece, a visual representation of the adoration that the guru’s teachings have garnered from entrepreneurs and wannabes alike. On another wall, a distended Mozilla logo hangs over the slogan “Doing good is part of our code.” The propagandistic platitudes and idol-making that result, even unwittingly, from today’s startup culture are brought home in Denny’s ironic homage to Samsung, “The Globalization of the Mind.” The artist recreated the hotel room in Frankfurt where Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee (yes, he’s called a “chairman”) hammered out the company’s so-called “new management” philosophy (a watershed moment also reportedly recreated at a Samsung education facility in South Korea). Under the diktat “change everything except your spouse,” the doctrine teaches its disciples to hold two things dear: the nuclear family unit, and the corporate greater good. From the gold plaque depicting Asia and Europe with the “Frankfurt Declaration”—“Change begins with me”—to the hotel shampoo and razor blades displayed behind a glass case, Denny effectively appropriates a thoroughly bizarre piece of global corporate culture.

“Let’s start having fun. Let’s get funky. Let’s announce everything. Let’s be wildly positive in our forecasts. Let’s take this thing to the extreme. If we get whacked on the ride down who gives a shit. The time to get radical is now. We have nothing to lose,” one of the innovators funkily proposes. Sounds pretty damn disruptive. But what’s really happening? Are unjust political regimes being toppled? Is the social order being upheaved? If anything, the exhibition seems to show how the tech world, in seizing onto “disruption” with such rapture, has bolstered the underpinnings of corporate culture that existed before Christensen’s book was published or the first startup was started: patriarchal, hierarchical, myopically obsessed with increasing the company’s bottom line. The dilemma, especially for women, may be: do we agree to “play the game,” or do we reject it in favor of new notions of innovation?

Out of all the explainers, rapper Taio Cruz perhaps sums it up best: “So I can go until I blow up, ah, And I can drink until I throw up, ah, And I don’t ever want to grow up, ah, I wanna keep, keep, keep it going, going, going, going …”

The Innovator’s Dilemma is on view until September 7, 2015.


Image Credit: Simon Denny: The Innovator’s Dilemma photos by Pablo Enriquez for MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY Apr 3, 2015
*The Disruption Machine, The New Yorker