People are the disruptors, not technology

People are the disruptors, not technology

People are the disruptors, not technology

Talk of disruption is everywhere. From people participating in the share economy, to start-up companies offering new apps to address myriad needs. Disruption is emerging as a dominant way of understanding changes in human-technology relationships. However, too frequently technology is described as the agent of change, rather than people, corporations, institutions and communities.

In mid-April we held a Geographies of Disruption Symposium at Macquarie University to unpack the human, political, cultural and environmental aspects of disruption, and focus attention on the contexts and consequences of disruptions. The Symposium was funded by the Geographical Society of New South Wales and supported by Macquarie University. Academics from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and England participated in the symposium, bringing critical perspectives to bear on this controversial idea.

Macquarie Dictionary defines disruption in three ways:

  • as forcible separation or division into parts;
  • a disrupted condition, or;
  • in business, an upheaval in a market caused by a technological innovation which renders a product or technology outmoded.

It is the last definition that most frequently emerges in mainstream and social media in debates over the appropriateness of new technologies or business models. But, as geographers, we wanted to explore the spatial, historical and place-based dimensions of disruption and the interplay of these with sustainability, justice and ethics. The organisation of the symposium was also itself disruptive. Rather than creating pre-determined themes, presenters were chosen at random. That is, the list of presentations was stuck to a board with the title facing downwards, and each presenter, as they finished their presentation, turned over one of the titles to reveal the next presentation.  This approach allowed the themes to emerge organically, rather than have a thematic ordering imposed by the conveners.

Our programme was kicked off by Maja Zonjic (Victoria University of Wellington) who shared a documentary-style talk on dive tourism and sustainability in Utila, Honduras.

Zonjic argued that Utila is an island influenced by a ‘romantic tourist gaze’ influenced by a tropicalized imagining that perpetuates colonial power and which disrupts the ecological systems of Utila.

Mitch Goodwin and Jack Latimore (University of Melbourne) research on ‘screen dance’ was used to explore and make visible the Indigenous pre-contact and current history of the Melbourne landscape/waterscape.  Through their project they are planning to use augmented reality to peel back layers of colonisation in Yarra Yarra, a Kulin nation meeting place that is now known as Melbourne. Augmented reality will reveal histories and presences of Indigenous knowledges in this settler colonial place.

Rachel Sharples (Western Sydney University) explored of racial bias in the sharing economy and the role of regulation. talked Rachel’s research, as part of the ‘Challenging Racism Project’, argued that we need better ways to regulate share economy players such as AirBnb so that particular groups are not discriminated against. Her presentation broadly suggested that the notion of ‘disruptive innovation’ has not gone far enough in exploring what a truly disruptive technology, or technique, would like. Uber and AirBnB may have disrupted the taxi and hotel industry, but they have, to a certain extent, enabled racial bias to exist within their realms. That more than create a new economic service, a truly ‘disruptive innovation’ would disrupt the existing foundations (or the moral landscapes) of social everyday relationships and undo the discrimination that continues to plague us.

Adam Fish showed how the use of drones by non-government organisations is effectively a witnessing of the Anthropocene. He argued that the video recording of landscapes with drones can be a useful strategy by communities wishing to push back against intrusive capitalism, such as illegal oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

Hamish Robertson (University of Technology Sydney) through the exploration of big data, argued that demographic spatial data can be disruptive in understanding an aging populations. As geographers, we can promote geographical understandings of scale, space and place as instruments for improved understanding in situations where the other sciences lack good quality data.

Peter Rogers (Macquarie University) spoke about ‘ambient fear’, which he suggested are a part of ‘spontaneous disruptions’ and are players that have contributed to the smoothing of space (or public places). In making his argument he drew links between disruption, transformation and adaptation and suggested that disruptions are ‘cracks in the intent of government to control’.

Lars Coenen and Sebastian Fastenrath (Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute) are using urban experimentation as a research approach to examine resilience in Melbourne.

Natalia Grincheva (University of Melbourne) explored the deep mapping of ‘soft power’ of museums. In an attempt to disrupt the understandings of power, the mapping method uses a layering approach to understand cultural resources, social and economic systems, and perceptions.

Jess McLean and Soph Maalsen asked whether we are disrupting sexism online by participating in online feminism. They concluded that feminism has always been disruptive and that these new discourses of disruption could learn from previous and current feminist movements, including groups such as Destroy the Joint, and feminist moments like #MeToo.

Last, Margaret Raven and Daniel Robinson discussed the power of patent mapping and supporting Indigenous knowledges. They argued that there are disruptive capabilities within patent landscape analysis and see this as a productive area for recognition of Indigenous knowledges.

We are planning a special issue for a geographic journal on the theme ‘Geographies of Disruption’ and look forward to sharing podcasts from the talks on The Lighthouse pages.

Dr Jess McLean and Dr Margaret Raven

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