Buzzword of the year 2012: disruptive

Somewhere in the middle of 2012 I found myself asking ‘Since when did disruptive become a compliment?’ In my youth, being disruptive would be something you were sent to the head teacher for. And not so long ago it might have got you before a magistrate. But now it has become something to aspire to.

A bit of research (well, OK, Wikipedia) told me that the concept of ‘disruptive technology’ has been around for a while, although the man behind it, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, has since changed the name to ‘disruptive innovation’. Either way, it’s about business theory, describing (if I’ve understood it correctly) the way that new inventions change the way that businesses make money.

It’s taken a while to get into the mainstream, but it seems to have been widely embraced this year, particularly by technology writers. In buzzword world, ‘disruptive’ is about radical or groundbreaking ideas that push the boundaries – usually of online activity or, well, gadgets. A synonym for another buzzword: ‘game-changing’.

So this year I have read about an e-reader that ‘could be truly disruptive to Amazon’s Kindle leadership’, and about Spotify taking over from iTunes as ‘music’s new disruptor’. So far, so orthodox.

But, in case that’s not sexy enough, you then get the word ‘disruptor’ (or ‘disrupter’) – previously used for running shoes, sci-fi weapons and a video game – being applied to people.

Fortune magazine describes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as ‘the ultimate disrupter’. And Forbes begins this year’s ’30 under 30′ list with: ‘The young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs on our annual listing of the 30 under 30 are impatient to change the world.’

So we’ve gone from changing the way people buy things to actually changing the world. But don’t worry. The backlash has already started, according to Wired, who declared last month: ‘We might be living in the least disruptive age in history’.

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