"Move slowly, and mend things."
November 21, 2020 7:28 PM   Subscribe

Over in the Fleets thread, Nelson mentioned the erstwhile Facebook, and general techbro, motto of "move fast and break things", and it reminded me of this terrific 2013 speech (annoying Issuu link) by high school teacher Rebecca Hong I stumbled upon earlier this year.
Why do we want to move so fast? Where are we going, and what are we leaving? What, exactly, is it that has to happen so quickly? What happens to history when we move fast, does it become obsolete? What, or who, might we miss or pass by as we zoom along? What about social norms, structures of oppression, traditions, backs and hearts and minds—are we really okay with breaking all of those things?
You can refuse to perpetuate what's wrong about the world, and act in ways that are intentional and right. Move slowly, and mend things. Not to induce paralysis or stimulate fear, but rather to make it habit that you consider your impact on other people. The hard truth is, the consequences of so many who came before you, intended or not, already make up your reality, and those consequences, ultimately, are part of your responsibility to address.
posted by bixfrankonis (25 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
(I hit post before mentioning that I stumbled upon Hong's speech because this Kimberly Hirsh blog sent me googling for uses of the phrase.)
posted by bixfrankonis at 7:33 PM on November 21


New designs are frequently unpopular, even if they are good. The Canadian flag and the Sydney Opera House were both massively unpopular until people had to live with them and evaluate them more objectively. We have many cultural stories about the Terrible New Thing, and relatively few about the Great Idea Strangled In Its Crib, because a change that doesn't happen is not compelling unless the act of strangling it is scandalous.

I suspect moving fast and breaking things is about not worrying about the people who are going to object to your new design simply because it is new. The trick is not confusing objections because it is new and unfamiliar with objections that the thing you're building cannot work.
posted by Merus at 8:21 PM on November 21 [2 favorites]


I suspect moving fast and breaking things is about not worrying about the people who are going to object to your new design simply because it is new.
Recent tech history really doesn't bear out this limited definition.
posted by bixfrankonis at 9:50 PM on November 21 [16 favorites]


The Sydney Opera House came in massively over budget and past schedule, was riddled with design errors - the roof leaked, for one - and didn't accomodate nearly as many people as required. It wasn't popular because of many very good reasons, and I understand it's only a cultural treasure now because it Looks Pretty.

Moving fast I have no objection to on the whole, but why do we need to break things? Leave them whole, if they're still good.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 10:40 PM on November 21 [5 favorites]


Recent tech history really doesn't bear out this limited definition.

I would draw a distinction between when the phrase was coined, and big tech now, where it's less 'move fast and break things' and more 'we are too big and arrogant to stop'. There's a continuum between then and now - Google's "don't be evil" was hopelessly naive and was destined to dissolve against the slightest moral quandary, but now they don't even pretend.

The Sydney Opera House came in massively over budget and past schedule, was riddled with design errors - the roof leaked, for one - and didn't accomodate nearly as many people as required.

This is true, but it underscores my point - the original design made the committee too nervous, and was given to another team to make more 'reasonable', and they largely fucked it up.
posted by Merus at 11:18 PM on November 21 [2 favorites]


I was very effectively taught "measure twice, cut once" - which is a sort of corollary of "move slowly and mend things" by a woodworking teacher with 9 fingers. There is a long tradition of commencement speeches which extol the merits of failing at things, getting up and trying again, however - here is JK Rowling's for example. Maybe the real lesson is that we have to lose a finger in life so as to learn to take care.
posted by rongorongo at 2:43 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]


On an individual (or small group) level...

We tend to do things automatically and habitually, and while it's comfortable for us this automatism is invisible to us. In order to see it, we can do things either much faster or much slower, which disrupts the habit and forces us to pay attention to what we're doing. Going much faster, in particular, will tend to break the process, but observing the circumstances and ways in which it breaks can be useful information if we want to make better habits. Deliberately going very slowly is actually harder, and can often result in breakages as well.

So it can be a useful strategy.

Get above even a small team, though, and what you end up with is a mess.
posted by Grangousier at 3:09 AM on November 22 [2 favorites]


I had a 9 finger biology teacher. On the first day of class, he gave a talk about various dangerous things we'd be working with table saw. As he was demonstrating what not to do with a scalpel, he'd screaming and start waving his missing finger around.
This prompted freaked out the whole class, except for a few students who he lost the finger on a tablesaw a decade prior.
posted by CostcoCultist at 6:00 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]


The Maintainers are “a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.” It’s a gang of STS academics interested in this exact topic. David Edgerton’s Shock of the Old presents much of the same viewpoint in book form.

I’m also excited to read The Innovation Delusion whenever my library gets a digital copy.
posted by migurski at 7:43 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]


"We think of work primarily as making things—each sector is defined by its “productivity,” even real estate!—when in fact, even a moment’s reflection should show that most work isn’t making anything. It’s cleaning and polishing, watching and tending to, helping and nurturing and fixing and otherwise taking care of things. You make a cup once. You wash it a thousand times. This is what most working-class work has always been too—there were always more nannies and bootblacks and gardeners and chimneysweeps and sex workers and dustmen and scullery maids and so on that factory workers. And yes, even transit workers, who might seem to have nothing to do now that the ticket booths have been automated, are really there in case children get lost, or someone’s sick, or to talk down some drunk guy who’s bothering people.

Yet we leave this out of our theories of value which are all about “productivity.” It’s very important, I think, to reconsider how we value our work, and these things will become ever more important as automation makes caring labor more important—especially because these are the areas we would not want to automate. We wouldn’t want a robot talking down drunks or comforting lost children. We need to see the value in the sort of labor we would only really want humans to do."

-David Graeber
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 11:06 AM on November 22 [37 favorites]


Wow, GrimpOteuthis, that's a really great quote - and it immediately made me think of how few of those things can actually be done faster, which is often a measure of "productivity" for much of the kind of work you describe.

Thank you so much for posting this, bixfrankonis!

(By the way - I found the original speech REALLY hard to read in that appalling Issuu format, so I copied the text to my blog in hopes it might make it easier for the community to read. The link is in my profile.)
posted by kristi at 12:07 PM on November 22 [6 favorites]


The trick is not confusing objections because it is new and unfamiliar with objections that the thing you're building cannot work.

"Cannot work" is a pretty narrow definition of breaking things that, to me, suffers from the same core issue as "move fast and break things" as an ideology, which is that it is fundamentally amoral.

After all, "breaking things" isn't limited to code or a leaky roof design. It extends to the environmental and social impacts caused by people who are usually isolated from the consequences of their destruction, and therefore believe that consequences should be damned.

So these self-proclaimed visionaries barrel forward and break things, confident in their genius and exceptionalism, without truly understanding what they've done, let alone mending that which they've destroyed.

And instead of heeding the pleas, expertise, and lived experiences of the people (often less white, less wealthy, and less male) who have been or will be impacted by the breaking of things, they dismiss their critics out of hand as cranks who lack vision and fear the unknown, even though those same people are the ones who will be left to pick up the pieces.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:30 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]


To me, MF&BT is all about frontiers: Facebook's rise was also the establishment of an industry. Social media had been a thing for 10 years or so beforeheand (more if you include Usenet and IRC and mailing lists), but Facebook made it an industry. Part of this position at the leading edge of a new business sector is in defining its terms. This, I feel, is the output of MF&BT, and AFAIK "frontier" as a concept is primarily a US sensibility. So, FB chose to grow in a way that established and maintained their role as the primary definer of the terms of operation, commerce, and responsibility, within this idiomatically US perspective. Everybody else (almost) is left to copy FB's model, or some other dominator's as the industry expands to allow niches. See also: Fleets!

Splash damage is inevitable here as the effects of FB's imperfect decisions (also inevitable) on the wagon trail get multiplied through use by the emerging industry, and then that industry becoming integrated into other areas of business and society (metastasized, another link from the Fleets thread). This has been going on for about 13 years and from Zuck's public pronouncements is not going to let up so much as circle the wagons into a closed garden of murder hornet nests. Another frontier feature that appears to be a fundamental FB organizing principle: we'll choose our sheriffs.

most work isn’t making anything. It’s cleaning and polishing, watching and tending to, helping and nurturing and fixing and otherwise taking care of things. You make a cup once. You wash it a thousand times.

There is indeed some caretaking in software and internet businesses, but to unify these arguments you have to account for self-cleaning cups, if not self-manufacturing.

Sometimes I get the feeling that our times are a lot more revolutionary than I can see.
posted by rhizome at 1:15 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


There is indeed some caretaking in software and internet businesses

All the traumatized people trying to keep murder video out of Facebook are caretaking labor Facebook requires. Without them the illusion of safe-enough would not hold and Facebook couldn’t slither into as many lives.
posted by clew at 1:39 PM on November 22 [6 favorites]


kristi, thank you so much. I was really struggling with reading this, but it seemed promising. I appreciate having a more accessible form.
posted by Lonnrot at 1:56 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]


Ftfa (thanks to Kristi's help with transcription):
What happens to history when we move fast, does it become obsolete? What, or who, might we miss or pass by as we zoom along? What about social norms, structures of oppression, traditions, backs and hearts and minds—are we really okay with breaking all of those things?
Microsoft's backwards-compatibility is the thing that "move fast and break things" is intended to counter. MS Office users have decades of lasting compatibility, at huge engineering effort by Microsoft. Facebook's engineers were allowed to change things in incompatible ways so that other engineers would need to keep up. (They have a rigorous software testing discipline so that your changes won't be integrated without validation, then get tested on colleagues, then a subset of global users.)

The history this obviates is a restriction, a structure of oppression, that means radical improvement is possible only on geological timescales. It does make metricated change where your step forward wins out by scoring better than the last version. But in that, controlling what scores highly is the game, and so Facebook (and even Alphabet Google, retiring products prior are still happy using) are hyper-focused on scoring well on those metrics.

...so I think the talk says many positive things from this iffy springboard.
posted by k3ninho at 2:47 PM on November 22


There is indeed some caretaking in software and internet businesses, but to unify these arguments you have to account for self-cleaning cups, if not self-manufacturing.

Having worked in software for two decades now, there are no self-cleaning cups, and the very much not-self manufacturing process leaves everything with an inch-think layer of grime that you can chisel the phrase "tech debt" into very legibly.
posted by fnerg at 5:47 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]


A tester walks into a bar and orders a beer. “Sorry,” says the bartender. “We moved too fast and broke all the beer.”
posted by Revvy at 5:47 PM on November 22


Move fast and break things is too abstract for me. It’s not human enough. I prefer fail fast, fail often. That phrase incorporates your own responsibility for the events and that there is some personal risk involved. You may fail but try you must.
It implies that you will learn from you mistakes. MF&BT reminds me of Godzilla stomping through a city.
posted by mmkhd at 5:56 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]


"Move fast and break things" is a perfectly valid philosophy for software development -- the flip side is "analysis paralysis" where a developer gets lost in planning for an exponential number of contingencies and never starts. When developing in an environment that's poorly understood, it's often better to try things and learn from those failures than to try to get it right the first time.

But (as in everything involving Facebook and tech-bros in general) they apply this to the real world in a way that treats people like things, and, well, that's where it starts.
posted by bjrubble at 6:11 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]


I blame the assumption that new things are always better things for the electronic design world's resistance to admitting, finally, that touch screens SUCK compared to big clear monitors and unobtrusive little pointers controlled by an easily grabbed mouse that I can push around on a desktop without obscuring my view of whatever I'm working with.

The computer mouse and its more refined descendant the desktop drawing tablet are thoroughly underappreciated works of pure genius. Physically decoupling the locus of control from the locus of visual feedback so that each of these things could be independently optimized was a stroke of staggering insight, and the rush to make it obsolete by putting a fucking touch screen on every fucking thing counts as moving exceedingly fast in a totally backwards direction while breaking everything in sight.
posted by flabdablet at 3:08 AM on November 23 [5 favorites]


treats people like things, and, well, that's where it starts

...right there in Human Resources.
posted by flabdablet at 3:15 AM on November 23


I don't have to lose my own finger to know to slow down, since I can learn from those who did. The issue is not letting them scare you away from using the tool, which some will do, but learning to use it right. Knowing the difference is the problem.

My job is in automation inside a giant company that is all about moving fast and has been for 10 years. I am tired of hearing it, frankly. I have been here for almost 25 years and spent more than half my career fixing things myself. I am now at the point where I am helping others identify the things that need fixing. The layer that is slowing things down is 2-3 levels above mine. Quantity in work is necessary, but quality is also important.
posted by soelo at 9:06 AM on November 23


I see “move fast and break things” as being tied closely to Silicon Valley’s obsession with youth. Taking shortcuts, ignoring the voices of experience, not thinking things through before acting, those are all things young people are expected to do, which is why we don’t put them in charge of important things on day one. Losing a finger, metaphorically or literally, is the best teacher you’ll ever have. On one hand, I don’t fully trust anybody who’s never had the experience of fucking something up so badly it couldn’t be fixed, because that’s somebody who’s overcautious on principle, not prudent because they truly know better. On the other, “move fast and break things” dismisses the entire value of learning those lessons at all.

It’s also just another in a long line of Silicon Valley cargo cults. Facebook makes a billion bucks, Zuckerberg makes an offhand comment, and suddenly it’s gospel for all sorts of relative wannabes dreaming of their own billion dollars.
posted by gelfin at 1:33 PM on November 24


Having worked in software for two decades now, there are no self-cleaning cups, and the very much not-self manufacturing process leaves everything with an inch-think layer of grime that you can chisel the phrase "tech debt" into very legibly.

Counterpoint: "software has zero marginal cost." Once it's written, there is maintenance and infrastructure overhead, sure, but there are no economies of scale to worry about with regard to the number of people who want to use your stuff. And really, tech debt at these levels is miniscule when compared to what it takes to make something tangible that two billion people use.
posted by rhizome at 11:55 AM on November 25


« Older On Not Meeting Nazis Half way   |   Dune as a measure of our discontent Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.