Lexicon Valley

Let’s Break Shit: A Short History of Silicon Valley’s Favorite Phrase

Shit, broken

Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

The New Republic as we know it is broken, and the looming question is whether that breakage will produce anything more intellectually valuable or economically viable than a dust cloud of corporate jargon. In New York, Jonathan Chait describes the beginning of the end: “Several weeks ago, [TNR CEO Guy] Vidra communicated the new vision to the staff in what I am told was an uncomfortable stream of business clichés ungrounded in any apparent strategy other than saying things like ‘let’s break shit’ and ‘we’re a tech company now.’ ”

What that means: The magazine will relocate to New York City, sharply curtail its print edition while ramping up its online presence, make as-yet-unknown adjustments to “staff structure,” and in general “reimagine” itself as “a vertically integrated digital media company.” Others have unpacked the implications of this conversion—the prevailing attitude seems to be that TNR fell off a horse, but not in an illuminating way—but I’d like to return to Vidra’s buzzy phrase, “let’s break shit.” It belongs to an instantly recognizable lexicon of brands, content, disruption, and the “new media landscape.” Where did it come from?

People have been breaking shit and talking about it for decades. Used literally, the phrase “break shit” appears in magazine articles and plays from the 1990s (“C’mon, we’ll play college again. We’ll get loud and break shit,” coaxes a character in Gary Rue’s Painting It Red) and books from the early aughts (“Being poor ain’t fun, dog. Sometimes I just wanna break shit,” a working class teenager tells reporter John Jackson in a 2001 history of Harlem.) It had a cameo in the 1970 journal article “The Music of Their Laughter,” which quotes “thirty-two young people” on “their experiences with and views about drugs, sex, politics, and society.” These examples, ancillary as they seem, have a common denominator: youth. Kicking over sandcastles, crashing towers of Legos, totaling your parents’ car—recklessly going around and breaking shit is kid stuff. So is disaffectedly lashing out and breaking shit. And the swear word just drives home the puerile irreverence of the activity: We’re going to overturn convention, and knock down linguistic decorum, too. (Maybe in a staff meeting!)

Before breaking shit became the official sport of Silicon Valley, a place in which utopian idealism and forehead-smacking immaturity often converge, it made a home in punk rock. Henry Rollins, frontman for the hardcore band Black Flag, infamously told an interviewer: “When I was 18 I wanted to fuck on the floor and break shit. When I was 25 I wanted to fuck on the floor and break shit. When I was 35 I wanted to fuck on the floor and break shit. Now I’m 40 and I want to fuck on the floor and break shit.” While Rollins’ words may have contained a tinge of revolutionary ardor, they are less about the brilliant future than the desperate present. Mostly, they recall the nihilistic anarchy of Mick Jagger painting everything black. Once upon a time, iconoclast novelist/punkish rocker Neal Pollack—he who “wipes his ass with your novel,” according to Bookslut—said of the literary establishment, “I don’t like it. It’s boring, it’s elitist, it’s pretentious. And I wanna break shit.” You got the sense he was not advocating creative destruction so much as destructive destruction. Breaking shit implied transgression with no higher purpose. (Ten years later, a more wistful, sage Pollack said he doesn’t want to break things any more.)

Recently, though, the rending of crap got a makeover. It was swept up in Schumpeter’s gale, a theory of economic progress from the 1950s that saw new businesses constantly rising from the ash of old businesses. The Innovator’s Dilemma, a 1997 best-seller by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, spun this ivory tower insight into a catchy movement.* Christensen’s hypothesis of “disruptive innovation” put a relentlessly positive spin on novelty, proposing that economies flourish when hungry upstarts usurp established giants for cheap. In this world, you could begin to imagine that the kid stomping on his dad’s eyeglasses wasn’t just being dumb, or enacting some Freudian drama. Maybe he was ushering in the future!

We Break Shit—Innovate Fearlessly,” reads the title of a 2012 post on iKickStart, a website for “the agile entrepreneur.” The article takes aim at truisms like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” arguing that such conservatism is “the stuff of innovation anti-patterns … paralysis … the loss of all things pragmatic.” A year later, the Makers Movement Manifesto told its audience of hackers and crafters to “Break Shit. Disrupt Schemes.” These days, a congratulatory use of the phrase “break shit” seems to reflect the Silicon Valley ethos that there are no incremental improvements or careful course corrections. There is only revolution.

Maybe quoting someone who died in 1892 goes against the innovative spirit of breaking shit, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson also had thoughts on the cycle of destruction. “Break, break, break/ on thy cold gray stones, O Sea,” he wrote wearily. “The tender grace of a day that is dead/ Will never come back to me.” Tennyson means, in the first two lines, that too many breaks have a way of becoming repetitive, old hat. (That’s something that anyone sick of hearing about #disruption can relate to.) But the exodus of retiring TNR editors—not to mention the staffers who remain—might argue the punch comes at the end of the stanza, when you realize the dead thing is irretrievably gone.

Correction, Dec. 5, 2014: This post originally misidentified the publication date of The Innovator’s Dilemma. It was published in 1997, not 2011.