This is an excerpt from Ruined by Design, a book about design ethics and activism. You can find out more about it here.
In 1944, the CIA (or technically, the OSS, its precursor) published one of the greatest design manuals of all time, and by far my personal favorite. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was clandestinely, and I hope very carefully, distributed to people living in Axis or Axis-controlled countries who sided with the Allied cause, including our good friends and role models in the French Resistance. It was declassified in 2008. The manual is filled with dozens of little tips and tricks about how you can sabotage your workplace in ways that won’t be too obvious. (You can do a lot more sabotage if you’re not getting caught.) Why do I call it a design manual? Because, like we’ve discussed before, design is the solution to a problem within a set of constraints. We have a problem: Nazis. We have a solution: sabotage. We have constraints: don’t get caught. It’s a design manual. Among the highlights are:
• Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
• Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
• To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.
• Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
• Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.
And my personal favorite:
• Act stupid.
Reading these, I wonder if Silicon Valley hasn’t accidentally been following this manual of sabotage for the past thirty years.
So, is sabotage ethical? If you got the right lessons out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you realize that the Axis (Nazis and friends) were the bad guys and the Allies are the good guys. So, this is a manual for sabotaging bad guys, and I’d argue that Nazis are about as bad as you can get on the bad guy scale. In fact, I’m not even gonna argue that. I’m just gonna call it a universal truth. Nazis were/are hateful fucks, and sabotaging their work isn’t just ethical, but is your duty as a good human being. Now, I’m not going to do the thing where I compare the place you work to a Nazi-run factory or office. That’s a little bombastic even for me. The question on the table is whether sabotage is ethical, so let’s pull back a bit.
It’s worth noting that this manual was being distributed to people who mostly couldn’t leave their jobs. Some of them were actual prisoners, some of them were in prison-like circumstances. All of them were in danger. In some cases, the punishment for walking away would’ve been death. Obviously, the punishment for sabotage, had they been caught, would’ve been just as horrible. In this scenario, I’d say sabotage was ethical. When your only option is doing unethical work or death, sabotage is ethical.
You, however, can leave your job. So, while we may agree that sabotage is ethical, I’d have to ask you why you’re sticking around a place that does unethical work. Maybe it’s the health care and student loans. Fair enough. Just be honest with yourself that you’re making that call. Don’t confuse an inconvenience with a constraint. This may not be a good time for you to leave your job and those reasons may be well and good, but you are still making a choice.
Sabotage is an ethical option when a better option isn’t available to you. When it’s a matter of wanting to live in the manner in which you’re addicted, then no, sabotage isn’t ethical. It’s passive aggressive, at best. For example, “I want to do something, but I really like getting this big fat paycheck.” Then no, sabotage isn’t ethical. It’s a way to justify the biweekly tug at the teat of unethical profit while wearing your Stay woke shirt to Sunday brunch.
At best, sabotage slows things down, sometimes to a molasses-like pace. Its effects are to delay the inevitable or to buy time until something changes. It’s worth noting that the people following the Simple Sabotage Field Manual were, literally, waiting for the cavalry to show up. They were throwing a monkey wrench in the means of production until the Allies came over the hill. At which point, the Allies would destroy the means completely. (Minus a few rocket engineers that they absconded with for their own purposes. Turns out there were never actually any good guys, just people who were on the better side of history for a slight bit.)