Move Fast and Break Things

by Jonathan Taplin

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Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright: April 2017
Printing: 2018
ISBN: 0-316-27574-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 288

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Disclaimer: I currently work for Dropbox, a Silicon Valley tech company. While it's not one of the companies that Taplin singles out in this book, I'm sure he'd consider it part of the problem. I think my reactions to this book are driven more by a long association with the free software movement and its take on copyright issues, and from reading a lot of persuasive work both good and bad, but I'm not a disinterested party.

Taplin is very angry about a lot of things that I'm also very angry about: the redefinition of monopoly to conveniently exclude the largest and most powerful modern companies, the ability of those companies to run roughshod over competitors in ways that simultaneously bring innovation and abusive market power, a toxic mix of libertarian and authoritarian politics deeply ingrained in the foundations of Silicon Valley companies, and a blithe disregard for the social effects of technology and for how to police the new communities that social media has created. This is a book-length rant about the dangers of monopoly domination of industries, politics, on-line communities, and the arts. And the central example of those dangers is the horrific and destructive power of pirating music on the Internet.

If you just felt a mental record-scratch and went "wait, what?", you're probably from a community closer to mine than Taplin's.

I'm going to be clear up-front: this is a bad book. I'm not going to recommend that you read it; quite the contrary, I recommend actively avoiding it. It's poorly written, poorly argued, facile, and unfair, and I say that with a great deal of frustration because I agree with about 80% of its core message. This is the sort of book from an erstwhile ally that makes me cringe: it's a significant supply of straw men, weak arguments, bad-faith arguments, and motivated reasoning that make the case for economic reform so much harder. There are good arguments against capitalism in the form in which we're practicing it. Taplin makes only some of them, and makes them badly.

Despite that, I read the entire book, and I'm still somewhat glad that I did, because it provides a fascinating look at the way unexamined premises lead people to far different conclusions. It also provides a more visceral feel for how people, like Taplin, who are deeply and personally invested in older ways of doing business, reach for a sort of reflexive conservatism when pushing back against the obvious abuses of new forms of inequality and market abuse. I found a reminder here to take a look at my own knee-jerk reactions and think about places where I may be reaching for backward-looking rather than forward-looking solutions.

This is a review, though, so before I get lost in introspection, I should explain why I think so poorly of this book as an argument.

I suspect most people who read enough partisan opinion essays on-line will notice the primary flaw in Move Fast and Break Things as early as I did: this is the kind of book that's full of carefully-chosen quotes designed to make the person being quoted look bad. You'll get a tour of the most famous ill-chosen phrases, expressions of greed, and cherry-picked bits of naked capitalism from the typical suspects: Google, Facebook, and Amazon founders, other Silicon Valley venture capitalists and CEOs, and of course Peter Thiel. Now, Thiel is an odious reactionary and aspiring fascist who yearns for the days when he could live as an unchallenged medieval lord. There's almost no quote you could cherry-pick from him that would make him look worse than he actually is, so I'll give Taplin a free pass on that one. But for the rest, Taplin is not even attempting to understand or engage with the arguments that his opponents are making. He's just finding the most damning statements, the ones that look the ugliest out of context, and parading them before the reader in an attempt to provoke an emotional reaction.

There is a long-standing principle of argument that you should engage with your opponents' position in its strongest form. If you cannot understand the merits and strengths of the opposing position and restate them well enough that an advocate of the opposing view would accept your summary as fair, you aren't prepared to argue the point. Taplin does not even come close to doing that. In the debate over the new Internet monopolies and monopsonies, one central conflict is between the distorting and dangerous concentration of power and the vast and very real improvements they've brought for consumers. I don't like Amazon as a company, and yet I read this book on a Kindle because their products are excellent and the consumer experience of their store is first-rate. I don't like Google as a company, but their search engine is by far the best available. One can quite legitimately take a wide range of political, economic, and ethical positions on that conflict, but one has to acknowledge there is a real conflict. Taplin is not particularly interested in doing that.

Similarly, and returning to the double-take moment with which I began this review, Taplin is startlingly unwilling to examine the flaws of the previous economic systems that he's defending. He writes a paean to the wonderful world of mutual benefit, artistic support, and economic fairness of record labels! Admittedly, I was not deeply enmeshed in that industry the way that he was, and he restrains his praise primarily to the 1960s and 1970s, so it's possible this isn't as mind-boggling as it sounds on first presentation. But, even apart from the numerous stories of artists cheated out of the profits of their work by the music industry long before Silicon Valley entered the picture, Taplin only grudgingly recognizes that the merits he sees in that industry were born of a specific moment in time, a specific pattern of demand, supply, sales method, and cultural moment, and that this world would not have lasted regardless of Napster or YouTube.

In other words, Taplin does the equivalent of arguing against Uber by claiming the taxi industry was a model of efficiency, economic fairness, and free competition. There are many persuasive arguments against new exploitative business practices. This is not one of them.

More tellingly to me, there is zero acknowledgment in this book that I can recall of one of the defining experiences of my generation and younger: the decision by the music and motion picture industries to fight on-line copying of their product by launching a vicious campaign of legal terrorism against teenagers and college students. Taplin's emotional appeals and quote cherry-picking falls on rather deaf ears when I vividly remember the RIAA and MPAA setting out to deliberately destroy people's lives in order to make an example of them, a level of social coercion that Google and Facebook have not yet stooped to, at least at that scale. Taplin is quite correct that his ideological opponents are scarily oblivious to some of the destruction they're wreaking on social and artistic communities, but he needs to come to terms with the fact that some of his allies are thugs.

This is where my community departs from Taplin's. I've been part of the free software community for decades, which includes a view of copyright that is neither the constrained economic model that Taplin advocates as a way to hopefully support artists, nor the corporate libertarian free-for-all from which Google draws its YouTube advertising profits. The free software community stands mostly opposed to both of those economic models, while pursuing the software equivalent of artist collectives. We have our own issues with creeping corporate control of our communities, and with the balance to strike between expanding the commons and empowering amoral companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon to profit off of our work. Those fights play out in software licensing discussions routinely. But returning to a 1950s model of commercial music (which looks a lot like the 1980s model of commercial software) is clearly not possible, or even desirable if it were.

And that, apart from the poor argumentative technique and the tendency to engage with the weakest of his opponents' arguments, is the largest flaw I see in Taplin's book: he's invested in a binary fight between the economic world of his youth, which worked in ways that he considers fair, and a new economic world that is breaking the guarantees that he considers ethically important. He's not wrong about the problem, and I completely agree with him on the social benefit of putting artists in a more central position of influence in society. But he's not looking deeply at examples of artistic communities that have navigated this better than his own beloved music industry (book publishing, for example, which certainly has its problems with Amazon's monopsony power but is also in some ways stronger than it has ever been). And he's not looking at communities that are approaching the same problem from a different angle, such as free software. He's so caught up on what he sees as the fundamental unfairness of artists not being paid directly by each person consuming their work that he isn't stepping back to look at larger social goals and alternative ways they could be met.

I'm sure I'm making some of these same mistakes, in other places and in other ways. These problems are hard and some of the players truly are malevolent, so you cannot assume good will and good faith on all fronts. But there are good opposing arguments and simple binary analysis will fail.

Taplin, to give him credit, does try to provide some concrete solutions in the last chapter. He realizes that you cannot put the genie of easy digital copies back in the bottle, and tries to talk about alternate approaches that aren't awful (although they're things like micropayments and subscription services that are familiar ground for anyone familiar with this problem). I agree wholeheartedly with his arguments for returning to a pre-Reagan definition of monopoly power and stricter regulation of Internet advertising business. He might even be able to convince me that take-down-and-stay-down (the doctrine that material removed due to copyright complaints has to be kept off the same platform in the future) is a workable compromise... if he would also agree to fines, paid to the victim, of at least $50,000 per instance for every false complaint from a media company claiming copyright on material to which they have no rights. (Taplin seems entirely unaware of the malevolent abuses of copyright complaint systems by his beloved media industry.) As I said, I agree with about 80% of his positions.

But, sadly, this is not the book to use to convince anyone of those positions, or even the book to read for material in one's own debates. It would need more thoughtful engagement of the strongest of the arguments from new media and technology companies, a broader eye to allied fights, a deep look at the flaws in the capitalist system that made these monopoly abuses possible, and a willingness to look at the related abuses of Taplin's closest friends. Without those elements, I'm afraid this book isn't worth your time.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-10-24

Last modified and spun 2018-10-25