Skip to main content

Always punch up

“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” - Molly Ivins

Comedians debate about punching up vs punching down - the idea that making fun of people more powerful than you is more equitous than making fun of people with less power and agency. Some argue that this rule is unnecessarily restrictive, but they're often the same people who complain that people can't be racist or sexist anymore.

Anyway, I'm not a comedian, and I've taken the idea to heart.

In technology, we often talk about disruption. In the Clay Christiansen sense that most people refer to it, disruptive innovation "describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors."

Internet companies have disrupted incumbents again and again. The question is: who is worth disrupting?

I think "always punch up" has a place here, too. When you're building a new platform, your targets should be the slow, inefficient mega-corporations further up the food chain. By punching up here, you're probably removing gatekeepers and democratizing a part of the market that had been previously locked up by one or two established players. Conversely, if your technology disrupts, say, public transport or the social welfare system, you're punching down: your platform negatively affects people with less power than you. Rather than democratizing, you're locking up an important resource that was previously owned by the people.

It's a simple test that you can rinse and repeat. Disrupting small, independent bookstores? Punching down. Disrupting WalMart? Punching up. Food co-operatives? Down. Monsanto? Up.

Of course, it's all relative to your own power and agency, which changes over time depending on how successful you are. White, male Stanford graduates from wealthy families have a different power equation than people of color who have had to overcome generational inequalities, for example. Someone emerging from poverty by creating an alternative to the neighborhood bookstore is punching up, but if Amazon did the exact same thing, they'd be punching down.

One could argue that it's an unnecessarily combatative metaphor, and it probably is. Life and business should be much more about collaboration than "punching" in any direction. In my defense, I've co-opted the idea rather than inventing it. Nonetheless, I find it a useful yardstick for which opportunities to take, which ideas are worth pursuing, and which ventures are likely to run into ethical trouble in the future.