« The license, the judge, and the wardrobe | Main | In the country of the free »

The ninth circle of HOPE

Why do technologies fail? And what do we mean by failure?

These questions arise in the first couple of hours of HOPE 9, this year's edition of the hacker conference run biannually by 2600, the hacker quarterly.

Technology failure has a particular meaning in the UK, where large government projects have traditionally wasted large amounts of public money and time. Many failures are more subtle. To take a very simple example: this morning, the elevators failed. It was not a design flaw or loss of functionality: the technology worked perfectly as intended. It was not a usability flaw: what could be simpler than pushing a button? It was not even an accessibility or availability flaw: there were plenty of elevators. What it was, in fact, was a social - or perhaps a contextual - flaw. This group of people who break down complex systems to their finest components to understand them and make them jump through hoops simply failed to notice or read the sign that gave the hours of operation even though it was written in big letters and placed at eye level, just above the call button. This was, after all, well-understood technology that needed no study. And so they stood around in groups, waiting until someone came, pointed out the sign, and chased them away. RTFM, indeed.

But this is what humans do: we make assumptions based on our existing knowledge. To the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the person with a cup and nowhere to put it, the unfamiliar CD drive looks like a cup holder. To the kids discovering the Hole in the Wall project, a 2000 experiment with installing a connected computer in an Indian slum, the familiar wait-and-wait-some-more hourglass was a drum. Though that last is only a failure if you think it's important that the kids know it's an hourglass; they understood perfectly well the thing that mattered, which is that it was a sign the thing in the wall was doing something and they had to wait.

We also pursue our own interests, sometimes at the expense of what actually matters in a situation. Far Kron, speaking on the last four years of community fabrication, noted that the Global Village Construction project, which is intended to include a full set of the machines necessarily to build a civilization, includes nothing to aid more mundane things like fetching fresh water and washing clothes, which are overall a bigger drain on human time. I am tempted to suggest that perhaps the project needs to recruit some more women (who around the world tend to do most of the water fetching and clothes washing), but it may simply be that small, daily chores are things you worry about after you have your village. (Though this is the inverse of how human settlements have historically worked.)

A more intriguing example, cited by Chris Anderson, a former organizer with New York's IndyMedia, in the early panel on Technology to Change Society that inspired this piece, is Twitter. How is one of the most important social networks and messaging platforms in the world a failure?

"If you define success in technical terms you might only *be* successful in technical terms," he said. Twitter, he explained grew out of a number of prior open-source projects the founders were working. "Indymedia saw technology as being in service to goals, but lacks the social goals those projects started with."

Gus Andrews, producer of The Media Show, a YouTube series on digital media literacy, focused on the hidden assumptions creators make. Some believed, for example, that open source software was vital to One Laptop Per Child, for example, believed that being able to fix the software was a crucial benefit for the recipients.

In 2000, Lawrence Lessig argued that "code is law", and that technological design controls how it can be used. Andrews took a different view: "To believe that things are ineluctably coded into technology is to deny free will." Pointing at Everett Rogers' 1995 book, The Diffusion of Innovations, she said, "There are things we know about how technology enacts social change and one of the thing we know is that it's not the technology."

Not the technology? You might think that if anyone were going to be technology obsessed it would be the folks at a hacker conference. And certainly the public areas are filled with people fidgeting with radio frequencies, teaching others to solder, and showing off their latest 3D printers and their creations (this year's vogue: printing in brightly colored Lego plastic). But the roots of the hacker movement in general and of 2600 in particular are as much social and educational as they are technological.

Eric Corley, who has styled himself "Emmanuel Goldstein", edits the magazine, and does a weekly radio show for WBAI-FM in New York. At a London hacker conference in 1995, he summed up this ethos for me (and The Independent) by talking about hacking as a form of consumer advocacy. His ideas about keeping the Internet open and free, and about ferreting out information corporations would rather keep hidden were niche - and to many people scary - then, but mainstream now.

HOPE continues through Sunday.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)