We’re Not Gonna Take It: The Age of The Disruptive Customer


We’re not gonna take it
Never did and never will
We’re not gonna take it
Gonna break it, gonna shake it,
Let’s forget it better still

We’re Not Gonna Take It: The Who (Townshend, 1970)

We live in inventive times.

Sputnik 1 went into space a few weeks before I was born; shortly before I entered my teens, man had landed on the moon. While mechanical calculators had been around since the 17th century, solid-state “pocket” calculators only emerged in the early 1960s. The radio sets and amplifiers I grew up with were, similarly, valve-based; there was something magical about how they glowed, how the air smelt different as they warmed up. By the time I was thirteen, I’d been given a solid state “transistor” radio by a friend. The typewriters I grew up with were massive mechanical devices. While electric typewriters had been invented at the turn of the previous century, it was only in the early ’60s that the “golf ball” showed up, and “electronic” typewriters took a decade longer.

The first e-mail was sent during my early teens; the first mobile-phone call around the same time; by the time I was in university, the Commodore PET (“for the masses, not the classes”) had started shipping. I touched my first PET in 1978 or so. The countertop microwave oven came out before I turned 10. Compact cassette tapes began to be commercially produced around 1964; the Sony Walkman didn’t turn up for another fifteen years, shortly after I completed university.

TV’s transition to colour programming took place in the US in 1965, and in Europe a couple of years later. I was 10. It would take a further decade before TV became available in India; I’d actually left the country before I saw colour TVs there.

The first patient to receive a fully implantable heart pacemaker did so shortly after my first birthday; the world’s first heart transplant took place shortly after my 10th birthday. The laser was invented the day after I was born.

By the time I was 12, Woodstock had happened. In the twelve years preceding, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Band, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith, The Allman Brothers, Jim Croce, the Doors, Chicago, Jefferson Airplane, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Peter Paul and Mary, Gordon Lightfoot, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, were just part of the incredible talent parade emerging. And we’d started our painful march across formats, as the recording industry sought to take advantage of a short-term blip in performance art.

The world’s first successful commercial jet service began before my first birthday; while there’d been a handful of hijackings since 1929 or so, hijacking went mainstream from around 1958, to peak in 1969.We’d just begun to understand about DNA; I was still at university when the first successful nucleotide sequencing was completed.

I was 6 when ideas about the internet began to surface, 10 by the time ARPANET was approved, 12 by the time the first message was sent; protocols like FTP and TCP-IP emerged as I left school.

You get my drift. I was born into an age of invention and innovation and disruption, an age that continues apace today. But.

The focus has all been on the “supply side”

Invention, innovation, disruption. Popular terms. And for some reason, loaded on to the supply side of the equation. Inventors and innovators and disruptors thought up stuff and made stuff and provided stuff and sold stuff. It was all about them. And yet, while a tiny handful of them succeeded, many failed; the failures were orders of magnitude greater than the successes. And we looked to the successes. And cheered.

There was also a tendency to make invention and innovation and disruption the progeny of individuals. It made things like patent law easier, I suppose, and created wonderful bottlenecks in the creative process that allowed money to be minted. Sometimes history has been kind to us and shown us that actually this wasn’t the case, that much of invention and innovation happens through the sharing of ideas, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively. But most of the time we were allowed to believe that the magic was in the sole inventor. Libraries of books have been written to tell us this is the case; and over the last forty years, similar libraries of books have been written to tell us that this is not the case.

All this is changing. We’re meeting a new class of inventor, a new class of innovator, a new class of disruptor.

The Disruptive Customer

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

[An aside: One of my favourite parodies, Lewis Carroll as inventive and disruptive as ever. Or perhaps I should call him innovative rather than inventive, since he took an existing “technical principle”: Robert Southey’s The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them: and parodied it. If you read Southey’s version, you’d be surprised at how pragmatic and sensible copyright law was before it was corrupted into the nonsense of today.]

The point of this post is simple. No invention, no innovation, no disruption, none of this takes place without the customer.

It is only through adoption that we hear the tree of invention, of innovation, of disruption, make a sound

No adoption, no invention. No innovation. No disruption. Nothing without the customer’s adoption.

The Maker Generation is upon us. The tools of production are more and more in the hands of the customer. 3D printing will make this happen even faster. Which is why new roles have emerged, “platform” roles. Platforms that enable connections and interactions, conversations and transactions.

When customers become inventors and innovators, the scale of disruption changes, and changes radically. More people are involved in inventive activities, more trials and experiments carried out, more “failures”, more learning, more “successes”. The cost of finding out what someone else has done, learnt, shared is low and continues to get lower. The pace at which such learning takes place is increasing, and again radically. The places it takes place in are also changing. It’s happening all the time. Everywhere.

When we design platforms, let’s bear that in mind. It is the customer who disrupts. We make it possible, we enable it, we may even catalyse it. But what we do is nothing unless there’s a customer present.

As everything gets connected, as everyone gets connected, as we see these enabling platforms emerge and evolve, the customer will invent more, innovate more, disrupt more. What customers want of us is what they’ve always wanted of us: get rid of the friction, get rid of the latency, take out the barriers to entry, let them in.

Successful platform providers will understand that, and as a result

design to enable while getting out of the way

That’s what I was trying to say four or five years ago, when I was working on my “Design for Loss of Control” theme. And it hasn’t changed.

Design to enable. And get out of the way. More to follow, as I concentrate on platforms and control and filtering and getting out of the way.

3 thoughts on “We’re Not Gonna Take It: The Age of The Disruptive Customer”

  1. in bangalore, watched an nfl football game on the computer (legally) the other day, was appalled at the banality of the advertisements .. the best creative work money can buy, demographic groups, state of the art equipment, all to give a message that talked down to the customer, assumed s/he is an idiot …

    is this the customer of whom you speak above?

    i like what you say, but i see zero disruption coming from the status quo …

    “loss of control” is philosophically sound, but can we see it anywhere within our mediated world?

  2. @gregorylent doesn’t sound like the customer was involved. you speak of people “giving a message” to the customer. broadcast mode. the status quo is being disrupted by the customer, not by the incumbent. the customer is not the one choosing or building mediated states.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.