I don’t remember now why I first subscribed to The Urbanophile, a blog about urban planning. It’s one of several where I scan the posts quickly in hopes of occasionally finding a gem, something that happens often enough to keep me subscribed. Today was one of those days. The writer, Aaron Renn, considers a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, which in turn challenges Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption being the heart of innovative change.
I read Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma when it first came out in 1997. I thought Christensen was exactly right about the nature of the dilemma, namely that successful companies are too dependent on the strategies which made them successful to change them when the strategies no longer work (something that inevitably happens). And as far as I knew this was a fairly novel observation. But I didn’t think the book offered much in the way of a solution beyond the usual “Don’t be like that.”
Others apparently disagreed. It took ten years, but Christiansen’s theory finally caught on and is now ubiquitous. I see that the book is now subtitled The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, and that Christiansen himself is an industry. This part I haven’t really followed, except to notice that I was hearing his name again after such a long time.
But it is definitely true that the times are ripe for the theory of disruption. Back in 1997 you had to study carefully to see it in business history, now there are examples lying on the sands all around—music, publishing, television, retailing, advertising, and many more. Journalism is an especially clear example. Which makes Lepore’s challenge to the theory worth studying, since she is a well-known journalist whose career is directly affected.
This explicit link to journalism, along with the general tone of offense that pervade the article, betrays something more than a professional interest in the topic. Indeed, she’s hardly a neutral observer as her paycheck comes from an industry that’s being disrupted. The impression I get once again is of someone in deep love with the culture and traditions of her trade, something I’ve noticed over and over again in the incredible resistance and even hostility newsrooms have shown over the last decade or so to change and innovation. There’s a reason that people who experience an involuntary rupture can often never get over it. There’s a reason, after all, the Israelites who saw the miracles in Egypt never got to enter the Promised Land.
The topic caught my eye, but it was the reference to the Israelites that got me thinking. I’ve always been wary of vested interests. One of my favorite quotes comes from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This is why I avoid discussing whether pastors should be paid with pastors who are paid, or the call to missions with missionaries, or the Great Commission with evangelists, or the nature of authority with those in authority. It’s simply too much to expect those people to be disinterested on those particular subjects. I may ask to hear their particular apologetic, but I don’t bother asking them to consider other sides of the issue.
But lately I’ve been wondering if vested interests might be rooted in something deeper than “salary,” i.e. livelihood. For nearly all my Christian life I’ve been pondering the nature of authority—and not as a skeptic. In fact, for the first ten or so years I hungered to be one under authority, and did several things to seek out such a situation, some of them foolish. Unending disappointments finally started me on the path of questioning authority, both the justification for it and the need for it.
Whenever I bring up the matter with people in authority, I am dished out a heaping helping of unreasoned pushback, hardly unexpected. But what surprises me (sort of) is that when I bring it up with those under the authority of others, I get the same unreasoned pushback, often even more vehement. (I should say here that by “unreasoned” I don’t mean that I’m not offered reasons, just that the reasoning is second-hand, a parroting of the party line.)
When I’m writing these days, I will often google a word or phrase to check that it means what I intend. A few minutes ago I googled “vested interest”, and found the usual—”conflict of interest, especially one that is hidden”, and “a special interest in an existing system, arrangement, or institution for particular personal reasons”—but I also saw this more general definition at Merriam-Webster Online:
a personal or private reason for wanting something to be done or to happen
I love this, because it clears away some clutter. There are many reasons we can want something to be true. Sometimes the “benefit” doesn’t fall neatly into the class of things we consider benefits, and sometimes the true nature of the vested interest can be obscured by the existence of other benefits. When questioning a pastor or Christian teacher or missionary or evangelist about whether their work is mandated or simply discretionary, it’s good to understand that you are not merely questioning their livelihood, but their calling. To even pose such questions is to ask them to put some fundamental assumptions back under the microscope. It’s too much to ask.
Still, I think it’s helpful to regularly re-examine your own assumptions, to root out those reasoned conclusions which are actually informed guesses you made in the absence of knowledge, even wisdom, you may have since gained. Or, worse, well-reasoned conclusions that have gradually expanded to encompass areas where you haven’t done the necessary homework. Or, worst, bits and pieces of received wisdom, eagerly offered to you by those in authority, eagerly accepted by you in a show of trust—or as an expedient for avoiding the hard work of thinking things through yourself.
Jill Lepore thinks she is called to be a journalist, and can’t conceive of a world where her brand of journalism was not in fact the logical endpoint of history. For those of us who aren’t so called, it’s easy to review the history of newspapers and see that her brand of journalism was a transitory thing, brought into existence and shored up by cultural trends which have shifted in such a way that we don’t need or want that sort of journalism any more. Would that someone as knowledgeable about journalism as Jill Lepore could see that! She might be able to tell us interesting things about what is likely to replace it.
Similarly, it’s a sad thing that the folks who are most knowledgeable about church matters tend to be those who have a vested interest in those matters, and can’t be expected to give others a balanced presentation of the issues. Well, maybe not sad. Maybe I’m just moaning about a lost opportunity to be lazy. Better to study but not rely on what those with vested interests have to say, keeping their interests in mind, and continuing to work out my own conclusions with fear and trembling.