What are disruptions - and how should we judge them?

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Lutz Wingert. (Photograph: courtesy of L. Wingert)

Lutz Wingert. (Photograph: courtesy of L. Wingert)

We register disruptions as a deviation from our expectations. We often experience this as a moment of uncertainty or as frustrated expectations. Does this mean that disruptions are always a bad thing? The philosophical essay explores these questions.

A disruption is mostly irritating or annoying, though it can also be unsettling. It makes you stop and think, and may grow into something bigger. For example, a pneumatic drill hammering beneath the office window might disturb your concentration. Or the announcement of a disruption to rail services might make you feel angry. Being diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia is disquieting and stops you in your tracks. And, on a larger scale, the growing disturbance to the world’s ecological systems now threatens to destroy our own ecological niche.

A disruption is a deviation from a normal state, process, practice or attitude that serves to fulfil certain functions or norms - or that is considered to fulfil such functions and norms. A heart murmur may sound romantic to someone with a poetic nature, but actually refers to cardiac arrhythmia, a serious condition also known as ventricular fibrillation, in which ventricular excitation deviates from normal. This hinders or even prevents the heart chambers from filling and emptying effectively, thus disrupting the heart’s proper functioning, namely to pump blood. Similarly, an excessive influx of phosphorus or nitrogen into bodies of water and oceans, e.g. as a result of intensive farming, disrupts the dynamic balance between the formation and breakdown of phytoplankton. This equilibrium is vital for biodiversity and thus for an ecological system’s resilience to changing environmental conditions. (For example, algal bloom reduces water oxygenation levels at greater depths. This kills fish eggs, asphyxiates small organisms such as worms and crustaceans, and drives away other forms of aquatic life.) 1

Disruption, which is not the same as destruction, can be remedied. Algal bloom can be broken down to some degree, and with the help of a defibrillator a doctor can correct cardiac arrhythmia. Moreover, some forms of disruption can be anticipated and thereby prevented. For example, roadblocks and no-go zones around the seat of government help keep disruptive demonstrators away from centres of power. Other forms of disruption can be similarly neutralised.

The hammering of a pneumatic drill can disrupt someone trying to solve a mathematical problem. Similarly, if a sensor’s reliability is reduced due to extreme temperatures or vibrations, this can disrupt the algorithm used by an autopilot to calculate an aircraft’s flight path. But like a person with robust powers of concentration, an algorithm can also be robust in the face of disruptions and neutralise them as they occur. 2 This quality of robustness, incidentally, is also a key characteristic of someone who possesses knowledge about a specific topic. Such a person does not allow herself to be irritated by circumstances that do not in any way alter the truth of her opinion on the matter at hand. Knowledge is a disruption-proof belief in what is true, what should be done, or even what is morally necessary.

Whenever we register a disruption, we experience this as a deviation from our expectations. We often experience this deviation as a moment of uncertainty or frustrated expectations. Does this mean that disruptions are always a bad thing? Not necessarily. Take fine art. Beyond its depiction of religious themes and courtly scenes of historical events and figures, it occasionally aims artfully to disrupt the stereotypes that guide our perception of the world and ground our expectations of what our senses will reveal. When this is sufficiently subtle, it makes us aware of those stereotypes and suggests other ways of looking at things. Disruptions can also challenge the accepted functions and norms that underpin our expectations.

This is what demonstrators who practice civil disobedience do by standing in the street and defying a ban on demonstrations without resorting to violence. They frustrate motorists’ expectations that they will be able to drive quickly through the city at this time of day. And they confront authorities’ expectations that citizens should behave in a certain way and stay quiet. The demonstrators challenge, in a restricted sense, the normative requirement that people should always obey the law. And they do so, justifiably or not, in the name of weightier norms of a community based on the rule of law, such as a fairer distribution of communally generated wealth. As the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith once protested: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay."

Disruptions should be judged according to whether, and to what extent, the expectations they frustrate are themselves justified. This in turn depends on what one thinks of the functions and norms upon which these expectations rest. Cardiac arrhythmia is an evil, since nobody can really want their heart not to function in the way it is expected to. Certainly, an evil can be tolerated, but this does not make it any less of an evil. A disruption to traffic by demonstrators may seem a trifle by comparison. Yet disobeying the law in a democratic state subject to the rule of law is no such thing. In this case, a disruption is judged according to whether this act of civil disobedience is making a crucial contribution towards the common good for citizens. On the other hand, there seems little doubt about how to judge the disruption of an ecosystem. Who argues against environmental concerns these days? And nobody is really against biodiversity - so long as this harmony remains purely rhetorical. But this does not rule out different assessments: for example, whether the impact of ecosystem disturbance on biodiversity is judged bad because it frustrates the fulfilment of a function of that diversity, namely benefiting us humans, or whether it is judged bad because biodiversity itself has intrinsic value.

Yet the fact that there can be differences regarding how we evaluate a disruption does not mean that there is no such thing as an objective, correct judgement. The existence of a disruption - either in the form of the opposition and indignation of others, or in the resistance of nature - tells us something important; on the one hand, we have expectations about what is or should be the case and, on the other, there is objectively that which is or should be the case. When our expectations are shaken, this teaches us, sometimes painfully, to be mindful of this difference. Knowledge of this difference is what prompts us to experiment in the empirical sciences and have discussions in a democratic society. We subject our own expectations to the test of a reality that may then disrupt them.

Dogmatic people don’t do this. They tend to neutralise disruptions to the point of denying reality. Those who rightly claim knowledge about the world of experience behave differently. Instead of merely regarding disruptions as a negligible irritant, they consider that they expose errors in our assessments of reality. For what disruption reveals is a reality, be it natural or social, that is beyond our reach. Knowledge is also an error-sensitive belief in what is true or right. Those who believe they can completely eliminate disruption also believe they can mould reality like putty in their hands. This belief is not disruptive; rather, it is destructive.

This text has been published in the 21/01 issue of the Globe magazine.


1 I am grateful to my doctoral candidate Jérôme Léchot for providing details about this.
2 My thanks to my student Jonas Derissen for alerting me to this example.

Lutz Wingert