The Patterns

we have discovered for designing the future

301. The First Law of Designing the Future: ‘You Break It, You Buy It.’ *

(Image) Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, being grilled by the United States Congress regarding his role in the Russian hacking of the 2016 election.  [Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images] 


As a designer of the future, first, make sure you do not contribute to there being no future.

The accelerating pace of technological and social change is a major constraint and opportunity when designing the future.   Yet especially when you are designing futures with abundantly obvious first-order consequences for even the short-term future of the species (AI comes to mind), you must ask yourself not only what you can do, but what you should do.   That is the core concern of ethics.   Massive human loss is rarely an acceptable ethical outcome.




The most fundamental ethical principle in the universe may well be:  “You break it, you buy it.”  That’s what’s wrong with the ideology of “move fast and break things.”   It encourages breaking things to the benefit of your small group without thought of larger responsibility.

“Move fast and break things” is the ideology of blitzkrieg.  It works great at destroying and conquering, as demonstrated by the Nazis early in World War II, and the Russians in the 2016 U.S. election.   But blitzkrieg has little track record at consolidating futures, as also demonstrated by these examples.   Blitzkrieg may be good for world destroying, but it has no track record as a winning strategy for world building.

To be sure, future-crafters have no choice but to “move fast.”  In an evolutionary sense, it is the only fit principle in the modern environment.   “You can’t wait for TenCent and Baidu and Alibaba to eat your lunch,” observes Braden Allenby, co-author of The Techno-Human Condition.

But separate from that is “breaking things.”  That is not design thinking a la Steve Jobs.  That’s not the way “insanely great” Macintoshes got shipped.  On the societal scale, Uber and What’s App show how “breaking things” can break trust.  Even at the everyday code-writing scale, devs mourn their mistakes -- rapidly shipped -- cumulatively leading to crappy products with poor UX (user experience). 

Design thinking starts with understanding and satisfying human needs and desires and works backwards.   Breaking Things starts with pushing product.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook in 2018 warned the world’s most powerful regulators that the poor privacy practices of some tech companies, the ills of social media and the erosion of trust in his own industry threaten to undermine “technology’s awesome potential” to address challenges like disease and climate change. 1

“In a searing critique of Silicon Valley — delivered from the well of European Parliament in Brussels — Cook began by stressing he remains optimistic that ‘new technologies are driving breakthroughs in humanity’s greatest common projects,’ ” The Washington Post reported.

“But the Apple leader expressed alarm about divisive political rhetoric that proliferates on social media platforms, and rogue actors and governments that seize on algorithms to ‘deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.’”

Silicon Valley noted bad boy Anthony Levandowski, formerly of Google, says, “That’s how  Silicon Valley works.  You have to shake things up, create pressure.  The people who win here are the ones who believe in the biggest future and are willing to take risks to make it come true.”2

However, taking calculated risks to advance the biggest futures is not the same as adolescently “breaking things.”   There’s a difference between betting the company, and routinely and intentionally ignoring the consequences of your actions to society.3  There is such a thing as risk management; it’s a well-developed field.

“…What makes [Break Things] so dangerous is that … it quickly became the mantra of Silicon Valley,” said the veteran Valley observer and commentator Troy Wolverton in 2018.4   “It’s been imbued in the culture and the way the tech industry as a whole has developed products for much of the last decade.   You can detects its influence in everything from Uber’s numerous scandals to Google’s recently acknowledged security hole in its Google+ social network.   And because of its pervasiveness, we’re certain to see its effects in many more fiascos to come.”

Most dangerous is the scope of Break Thing’s threat to society.   “The Cambridge Analytica scandal … was an outgrowth of that mentality,” said Wolverton in an investigation in Business Insider.  “The company shared data about its users … without worrying about the potential consequences or downsides of doing that and without bothering to check – until the fiasco – if the [use by the Russians] was on the up and up.”

“The consequences of its motto are likely to live with us for years to come,” Wolverton reported.  “That’s because the ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ mantra was embraced far and wide….  Entrepreneurs and startups, venture capitalists and other investors, and the tech giants have all espoused it in some form or another. Tech industry trade groups such as the Consumer Technology Association and libertarian think tanks such as the Mercatus Center have touted the philosophy as part of the notion of ‘permissionless innovation.’ Even right now, when the drawbacks of the [Break Things] mentality have become all too clear, LinkedIn founder Reed Hoffman is touting a new book promoting the idea, calling it Blitzscaling.   ... Standards have arguably fallen everywhere. … If your rivals aren't worrying about the aftereffects of the technology they create or the business methods they adopt but instead are charging ahead … you're going to do the same — damn the consequences.

“In many cases, thanks to the [Break Things] mantra, tech companies have created services that even they don't have a handle on. Take Google-owned YouTube. Numerous times last year, it was found to be distributing and promoting disturbing videos to children. YouTube repeatedly vowed to address the problem, and it repeatedly failed.  …Under the [Break Things] mentality, tech companies have flaunted local laws and local sensibilities in their rush to seize local markets. Uber and Lyft were notorious for this, but so too, more recently, were scooter rental companies such as Lime and Bird.”

“As we've seen repeatedly, when you're moving fast, you don't have any time for reflection. You don't have time to think about what, exactly, you might be breaking or the larger social consequences of what you're doing. And there's even less time for public officials or the rest of society to catch up and keep an eye on things — even though real people outside the company may and have been harmed.

“… The consequence-free, ‘permissionless’ innovation mindset has real costs that we'll be paying for a long time to come.”

To be sure, all revolutions – think the American, the French, the Scientific, the Industrial – break things good.  That was their point.  One can easily imagine a fastidious academic back in 1776 backing George Washington down proper: “Think of all the good things the British do!  Think of the structure and culture you are ripping apart!  You’re taking working colonies and turning them into chaotic messes!  Where will the money come from?” and so forth.

Yet in the American Revolution, at least, a very great deal of effort also went into thinking about how to build what would come next.  Read the Federalist Papers.   The outcome was one of the most miraculous and durable operating systems the world has ever known:   The United States Constitution.   These revolutionaries took responsibility.   Ethics works.  They were aiming to work fast and *fix* things.

Breaking things always has a cost.  Unfortunately, the benefits are often inchoate.  To say that Facebook should not have moved fast and broken things is to say there should not be a Facebook.  Whether that’s “good” or “bad” depends on so many normative and timing issues that are difficult to judge systemically.  

Yet we do know that even Facebook in 2014 abandoned its “Break Things” motto as unsustainable to the enterprise, embracing it with the lame “Move Fast With Stable Infra.”

“We used to have this famous mantra,” said Zuckerberg.  “And the idea here is that as developers, moving quickly is so important that we were even willing to tolerate a few bugs in order to do it.  What we realized over time is that it wasn't helping us to move faster because we had to slow down to fix these bugs and it wasn't improving our speed.”

But the damage to Silicon Valley and the global societies had been done.  

Long before the then-29-year-old Zuckerberg began to realize its implications, “Break Things” was demonstrated as not sustainable for long-term growth.   Look at the outcomes in Apple v. Microsoft.   Steve Jobs led the innovation pack by creating a culture of tough and profitable but thoughtful human-orientation that continues to this day.  Microsoft, which famously pushed product out the door only to endlessly fix it later, continues to play catch-up.  



When creating new futures, if you break it, you buy it.  Catastrophe is always more expensive than design thinking.  It risks the enterprise.  “Moving Fast” is essential.   But never throw your ethics overboard.   Focus on what you *should* do, not just what you *can* do.   Work fast and fix things.5