Failing at systems vs. in systems. Issue #102.
Plus a recycled font. I just dropped my phone.
Welcome back to Gornisht, where I spout off on the state of design, the nature of mind, and their occasional and occasioned intersections. This newsletter is small a labor of love. If you like it, please consider sharing it with others. If it’s not to your liking, that’s okay. If you really like it, please consider becoming a paid subscriber and basking in my everlasting gratitude. Even with mild inflation, that should count for something.
This is a button:
Failure is not an option at work, but we need it systematically
You don’t hear it as often we once did, but there’s this very odd concept of “failing early and often” that has incredible staying power when it comes to design and technology. Failing early and often is a charade wrapped in the smooth logic of corporative productivity and Silicon Valley’s grip on our collective consciousness. One hundred years ago — or even 20 years ago (metaphysically a century, given our technological advancements) —the idea that one could, or should, fail was a grotesquerie.
I cannot imagine my father, an aerospace engineer his entire life, who worked for a very large company, coming home and saying “I failed today and guess what? Not only are my colleagues happy but my boss is elated. We learned things!”
For him, as for most of us, failure in work, or in any local system, is akin to failure in life. You cannot fail in your job because the shame and the resulting madness could be both catastrophic and contagious. You cannot fail as a board member because your nonprofit may wither. Etc.
So imagine how liberating it must have been for a number of miscreants in the Valley (and other places of technological paradise) to announce with no fanfare at all: Fail. Fail and then fail again. You are not only allowed to fail; you are encouraged and even rewarded for failure. Then, enjoy the jump by three levels on the living ladder of human development.
One of the earliest articles I can found about this idea comes from the Washington Post, which begins, “The future of innovation is in learning how to fail." It then goes on to talk about rapid prototyping and the importance of compressing “internal product development cycles”; this is language that still somehow exists in design/tech circles.
I am sure that the broad shoulders of energized software engineers fell two or three inches when they were told by their superiors that failure was fantastic. You would be paid to break things and if those things continued to stay broken, your rewards remained. Failure is king.
But what if you didn’t break things? What if you played it safe and, still, nothing worked? Would you get ahead under some new aegis of agony?
This idea of failure is an example of corporate managers co-opting the soft-peddled HR logic of worker empathy and companionship.
For most people, for most humans on this fragile planet, failing and failure are not an option. A failed job, a failed marriage, a failed family amount to devastating acts of misfortune and mire.
The failure of this reified culture of happy failing is actually a failure of imagination. We absolutely need to be able to fail. But we need the same concrete floor that exists for corporate managers to also exist for all of us.
Some of that floor is within political sight with new tools and systems like universal basic income or guaranteed income. Others, like free public transportation, are en route. Some, like ending fossil fuel subsidies, are works in progress.
If we want to embrace failure, one answer seems to be to design failure into the system. Rather than keep it local, let’s bring the broader externalities or risk (climate, immigration, poverty, transport) into our social infrastructure. I remember first understanding this when moving to Canada many years ago. Then more people can literally afford to fail.
As a freelancer in the U.S., it was incredibly hard to take risks when your family’s health insurance was one failed project away from being put out to pasture. One slip up, one month of a client not paying their bills could mean healthcare ruination for me. Because of Canada’s universal healthcare system, I found that I could take risks, try new things, and “innovate” without worrying that me and my family might lose our access to doctors and the healthcare system.
Spreading social risk means that individual and organizational opportunity costs are less costly.
Reading: I’ve started Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by the brilliant and beautiful Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh has written or edited dozens of books and, if anyone can figure out a way to preserve our sanity and our station, it will be him. An excerpt from the book’s website:
When you wake up and you see that the Earth is not just the environment, the Earth is us, you touch the nature of interbeing. And at that moment you can have real communication with the Earth… We have to wake up together. And if we wake up together, then we have a chance. Our way of living our life and planning our future has led us into this situation. And now we need to look deeply to find a way out, not only as individuals, but as a collective, a species.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Finding: I just found this this lovingly modified Times font that Laurel Schwulst designed in 2010 for a Rhizome benefit. It’s the perfect re-use of the ubiquitous font, crowned with a shiny black sun.
(Come to think of it, this same black sun also graces our studio’s new logo.)
Wishing you a good, healthy and persuasive week ahead.