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The Laws of Disruption

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The Laws of Disruption

Harnessing the New Forces that Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age

Basic Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

The technology of the digital world is changing everything. Now nine laws explain just how – and how much.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Applicable
  • Well Structured


Business strategist Larry Downes, author of Unleashing the Killer App, sees how digital technologies are changing the world – and why technology will advance more and have more impact. Downes looks beyond the obvious implications of digital technology to examine the root causes of change. He pays informed attention to the law and legal structures. He also draws parallels between the digital revolution and social change. This forward-looking book is fun, lively and useful for those who wish to study digital technologies or social structures.


The Digital World and the “Law of Disruption”

When a new technology is introduced, society must adapt. To understand how a major technological change creates far-reaching ripples, consider the effect of replacing metal stirrups with “flexible leather” stirrups in Europe during Charlemagne’s reign. This simple innovation provided medieval knights with more balance, efficacy and deadly success. Essentially, the leather stirrup “saved Europe.” But, rather than pay their knights directly, kings gave them land and the right to collect rent. This led to a structured feudal society that outlasted – by 1,000 years – the initial need to pay victorious mounted knights. If you buy property in some areas of London even today, you pay “tribute to the Duke of Westminster.”

Consider the effect of another disruptive technology, the railroad, which changed shipping in 19th century America. The courts had no “clear precedent to determine ‘fair’ rates” for rail shipping. Attempts to adapt old laws proved useless. As famous attorney Brook Adams argued, “The character of competition has changed and the law must change to meet it, or collapse.” The legal system had to accommodate this new...

About the Author

Larry Downes, a partner with the Bell-Mason Group, is a nonresident fellow at the Stanford Law Center for Internet and Society and the author of Unleashing the Killer App.

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