The Resurgence Of Tesla Syndrome

Why has disruption been elevated as a virtue to the point where it’s become orthodox to be heterodox? It’s a symptom of the erosion of trust in institutions.

Niki Usagi for Noema Magazine

Iwan Rhys Morus is professor in the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Real innovators are disruptive, or so the prevailing view would lead us to believe. They are iconoclasts who break with tradition and replace old rules with new ones of their own making — those lauded as mold-breaking innovators, such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Elizabeth Holmes, whom society rewards precisely because they refuse to follow convention. From this point of view, real innovators make it up as they go along instead of following in others’ footsteps. It’s all about the individual, and particular sorts of individuals at that.

Today’s innovators carefully cultivate the image of people who are prepared to live dangerously, going close, or even over, the edge in everything that they do. Musk, in particular, is famous for the scope of his disruptive ability. But his over-the-top public performances — whether he’s engaging in antics on Twitter or sailing close to the financial wind — are calculated to reassure as much as challenge. They’re a way of reminding everyone of who he is — that his capacity to transgress is the measure of his capacity to innovate profitably.

But why do we see disruption as a virtue? Why has the idea that the best innovators are disruptive gained such traction over the past decade or so, to the extent that it is now, paradoxically, orthodox to be heterodox? It’s a symptom of the erosion of trust in institutions.

The notion that successful innovators are remarkable and strong-minded individuals is an old one. Its origins lie in the 19th century, in books such as Samuel Smiles’ “Self-help” or in the improving biographies of men such as Michael Faraday or Thomas Alva Edison. There is more to the idea of disruption, though, than the notion that innovation needs character. It plays instead with the possibility that innovation needs a kind of instability — that disruption isn’t just one of a range of solutions to the problem of progress, but that it’s the only solution.

In fact, the insistence that significant technological change can only take place through disruption upends traditional notions of progress entirely. The 19th-century inventors of the idea of progress imagined that the future would be produced through accumulation. Innovation would build on innovation. Built into the idea of disruption is the sense that successful innovation means abandoning the old entirely for the new.

Instead, what we’re seeing now is the rise of a contemporary form of Tesla Syndrome. Since his death in 1943, the myth that Nikola Tesla wove around himself during his own time has taken on a life of its own, to such a degree that it is now almost impossible to dismantle.

“The roots of disruption’s attraction in politicians lie in the long, slow decline of trust in post-war political institutions.”

Nikola Tesla might not have been the first innovator to embody the notion of invention as disruption, but he was certainly a key and decisive figure in its origins. Tesla himself was an assiduous self-promoter — and self-promotion like this was central to the business of invention throughout the 19th century.

But the image of himself that Tesla promoted was a very specific one. He was an iconoclast, an outsider with an unusual mind who could see things in new ways because of his difference. “I am credited with being one of the hardest workers and perhaps I am,” he wrote of himself, “if thought is the equivalent of labor.” But “if work is interpreted to be a definite performance in a specified time according to a rigid rule, then I may be the worst of idlers.” His success as an inventor-entrepreneur, in his own view, at least, (though it may be worth remembering that he died destitute) lay in this ability to break with established routine.

There’s an interesting and revealing contrast in the ways that Tesla and Edison, respectively, presented themselves and their power of invention. Both men were adept at self-promotion and took advantage of every opportunity to put themselves and their inventions in the public eye. The inventive selves that each presented to the public were very different ones, nevertheless, and are revealing of the range of ways in which innovators could be imagined at the beginnings of modernity.

Both were keen to promote themselves as singular men of invention, uniquely gifted and fitted for innovation. But where Tesla and his promoters showed him off as a man apart, living inside his own head and obsessed with invention, Edison’s story was of the self-made man, pursuing — and achieving — his inventions through sheer grit and determination (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, as he famously suggested). Here was the business inventor, grounded in the world of commerce rather than forever dreaming about the stars.

The ways in which Tesla’s and Edison’s supposed rivalry is re-imagined in contemporary culture shed light on disruption’s appeal for contemporary tech culture, too. Tesla turns up more than once in the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” for example. There he is held up as the epitome of the otherworldly maker of the future, an iconoclastic breaker of rules interested only in innovation for its own sake and doomed to failure because of his single-minded focus on invention.

“You like to think that you’re just like Tesla, but the truth is you’re exactly like Edison,” one protagonist insults another. What they mean is that Tesla stands for uncompromised innovation, while Edison is stuck in the mire of self-interested industrial and corporate innovation. That’s why Tesla makes such a good geek hero. He stands for invention untrammelled by compromise — and in many ways that’s what the allure of disruption is all about, as well. We might sum it up as Tesla replacing Edison as the ideal of innovation.

“One of the reasons we’ve turned to individual disruptors as our new saviors is that we have lost faith in existing collectives.”

While Tesla has become the very model of a modern mold-breaker, the myth surrounding him has been here for more than half a century. Why has it — and the notion of disruption it captures — acquired so much resonance now?

One clue lies in the ways that disruption has gained a foothold outside of tech culture. Leaders who pride themselves on their capacity for disruption are an increasingly common feature of political life. In the United States, Donald Trump’s political career is almost entirely framed around his reputation as a disruptor. The same might be said of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Just as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, or the late Steve Jobs claim the capacity to transform technology though disruption, so some modern politicians want us to believe that the key to political change lies in disruption and that they are the only ones who can be trusted to do it. This is political and technological transformation through and by celebrity.

The roots of disruption’s attraction in politicians lie in the long, slow decline of trust in post-war political institutions. It is a decline that has accelerated over recent decades, and it is a decline that is clear across the developed world. Polling in the UK, for example, suggests that while at the end of the Second World War, approximately a third of respondents agreed with the proposition that politicians were in it for themselves, more recent polling shows nearly two-thirds of respondents in agreement. Recent polling in the United States reveals a similar decline in trust, with respondents citing, among other reasons, corruption and self-interest on the part of politicians. Political institutions are seen as being there to serve their own interests rather than those of citizens. It’s that perception that makes the strident calls to “drain the swamp” that have become prevalent in USA politics since the 1980s appear so seductive.

The decades immediately following the Second World War were the decades of big government. They were also the decades of big science and big corporations. In the United States, this was a period of unparalleled and rising prosperity (for the white middle classes at any rate) and on both sides of the Atlantic there was a broad political consensus about the role of the state in pushing technological innovation. British politicians hailed the “white heat of technology” that would transform the future. In the United States, federal agencies like NASA and huge corporations like Ford or IBM seemed to be the generators of the technological innovation that drove economic prosperity. Much of this was driven by the spectre of the Cold War. During the 1980s and 1990s, Reaganism, Thatcherism and the end of the Cold War broke those connections. Big government and seemingly bureaucratic, traditional corporations started to look like impediments to, rather than generators of, innovation.

Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” with its emphasis on the routines of consensual normal science, was very much a product of this post-war view of technoscientific innovation as a collective activity. Kuhn’s argument was that successful science depended on rule-following. Innovation was generated by going by the book. This was a philosophy of science that mirrored post-war consensus about progress and its requirements.

Kuhn’s arch-rival, Karl Popper, argued that he had missed the point entirely. Normal science was boring, and not really science at all, he argued. Innovation came about through the bold conjectures and risk-taking of those that were prepared to break the rules. This was a philosophy of disruptive science that defied consensus and made innovation into something entirely individual.

“The experience of political disruptors shows us disruption generates chaos, not innovation.”

Popper’s problem, though — and the problem of tech disruptors, too — is that the experience of political disruptors shows us disruption generates chaos, not innovation. In politics, self-proclaimed disruptors, where they have gained power, from Trump to Johnson and Bolsonaro, have proved stunningly inept at the mundane business of government. In tech, the example of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos suggests that if investors focus exclusively on self-proclaimed disruptors in their search for profit, then they’re easily duped. One of the key selling points of cryptocurrencies — themselves symptoms of a collapse in trust for conventional financial and political institutions, as well as a trust in disruptive technologies — is their capacity to put their users and their money outside the usual networks of exchange. They are notoriously volatile precisely because of their embrace of disruption.

“Legwork” by the British writer Eric Frank Russell, a brilliant piece of post-war science fiction published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1956, serves as an exploration of the collective against the disruptive in fictional form. It offers some hints as to how we might get over our infatuation with disruptors, too.

The alien protagonist is a mind-altering, mind-reading disruptor. He could persuade anybody “that black was white, right was wrong, the sun had turned bright green, and the corner cop was King Farouk.” He was — and knew he was — invincible. But once the puny Earthlings had inferred his presence among them, sheer methodical legwork wore him down and captured his ship — the vanguard of an incoming alien fleet. Those aliens’ “contempt would have switched to horror if they could have seen the methodical way in which a bunch of specialist legworkers started pulling their metal sphere apart,” and started building better ones.

Russell’s Earthlings were Kuhnians to the aliens’ disruptive Popperians, we might say, and their example offers an antidote to our persistent habit of succumbing to Tesla Syndrome. We need to regain our sense of trust in our collective expertise rather than ceding control to singular and remarkable individuals. “Legwork” might be fiction, but I think there’s something very human about the way the humans’ triumph over the disruptive aliens is portrayed as the ultimate application of teamwork.

We might tell stories about heroic inventors, just as the Victorians did, but history is clear that successful innovation requires collective effort. Edison succeeded — and Tesla failed — not because of a conspiracy to deny the disruptive outsider the fruits of his labor, as his techie fans maintain, but because Edison understood — despite the hype with which he surrounded himself — that invention is collective. Innovation really is the work of multitudes, not singularities.

One of the reasons we’ve turned to individual disruptors as our new saviors, though, is that we have lost faith in existing collectives. Though this is gradually changing, our current pool of credentialed experts — scientists and engineers in particular — are disproportionately white, middle-class, and male. In the United Kingdom, for example, only 28% of full university professors are women and about 11% are nonwhite. In the United States, about three-fourths of postsecondary faculty members are white.

“We need innovation that is accessible and organic — that is owned by the communities to which it matters.”

The majority of experts conform to an image of expertise that we’ve inherited from the Victorians, one that seems increasingly disconnected with the general public. As a collective, therefore, experts — at least the visible ones — are easily dismissed as being in hock to special interests, too, even by other elites. “The people of this country have had enough of experts,” the British Conservative government minister Michael Gove famously said — and it is easy to find similar sentiments delivered by other populist politicians.

The marketization of expertise over the past few decades has also created a climate in which expertise is taken to be something that can be treated like just another commodity. The rigorous regimes of training that are essential to genuine innovation look inaccessible and alien to many people. It often seems easier to trust the charismatic iconoclast (even though they’re usually white and male as well) and seductive stories about the values of disruption rather than recognize the dogged and meticulous hard work that makes for real innovation. We need to reimagine who innovators are and where they come from.

In fact, disruptive is the last thing innovation and innovators should be. And the stakes are high: Our future depends on our ability to innovate our way out of the environmental crises that threaten to overwhelm us, the challenges of feeding a growing population, of redistributing resources in more equitable ways. We need innovation that is accessible and organic — that is owned by the communities to which it matters and that’s adapted to local cultures, rather than being the whim of iconoclasts. Genetically modified crops, or lab-grown meat, say, might seem like great disruptive technologies to tech entrepreneurs, but they’re rather less attractive to communities of subsistence farmers. Innovation needs to come out of such communities, rather than imposed on them. We need to be sure that the capacity to innovate — to be fully engaged in making the future — isn’t constrained by class, ethnicity or gender. That really would be disruptive.