The Laws of Disruption: A book review by Bob Morris

The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces That Givern Life and Business in the Digital Age
Larry Downes
Basic Books (2009)

In The Laws of Disruption, Downes asserts that there are three laws of digital life. Together, they comprise “the laws of disruption.” Moore’s Law: In an article published in 1965, Gordon Moore (the founder of Intel) claimed that the number of transistors on his company’s chips would double every year or two without increasing their cost to users. This law explains why computers continue to get faster, cheaper, and smaller. Metcalfe’s Law: Formulated by networking pioneer Robert Metcalfe, this law explains what anyone with a telephone already knows. The more people you reach, the more reasons you find to reach them. Standardization enables this process to accelerate at an ever-increasing rate. The Law of Disruption: “As Moore’s Law continues its relentless journey into the realm of smaller, cheaper, and faster, new applications arrive more quickly. As they do, Metcalfe’s Law is there to spread them around.”

Together with Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law, the Law of Disruption is systematically rewriting the aging corpus of industrial-era law. “The result will be a new code, better suited to life in the digital age. In the midst of revolutionary change that is both fascinating and frightening, it’s hard to look away. Confronted with the weird economics of information, the core principles of public law, private law, and in formation law are being turned upside down.”

What to do? Downes proposes nine principles – the laws of disruption – that form the foundation for a new legal system. “One way or another, these principles will prevail. Open always wins. Whether the transition is relatively slow or fast, straight or zigzagged, peaceful or violent depends on all of us. Policymakers, business leaders, consumers, and citizens all have a critical role to play in the legal revolution.”

With all due respect to Unleashing the Killer App, there are several reasons why I think this book is a greater achievement. Here are three. First, there are more and more valuable insights as well as an abundance of advice on how to take appropriate action on each. I presume to characterize this process as “killer execution.” Also, Downes creates a frame-of-reference, indeed a multi-dimensional context for each of his core concepts that include but are not limited to the aforementioned nine principles. This helps the reader to understand the “why” as well as the “what” and “how” of “harnessing the new forces that govern life and business in the digital age.” Finally, demonstrating the skills of a world-class anthropologist, Downes anchors his core concepts within human experience, suggesting the implications and consequences of myopia as well as the opportunities and benefits of what Joseph Schumpeter once characterized as “creative destruction.” Downes is a dreamer, a visionary but also a relentless empiricist — driven by insatiable curiosity — and a diehard pragmatist — almost wholly preoccupied with understanding what works, what doesn’t, and why.


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