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Magazines > ONLINE > November/December 2010
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Online Magazine

Vol. 34 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2010

Failure at the Margin of Error
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

On a recent visit to my local public library, I noticed two books next to each other in the New Books area. One was The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, edited by Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson (Lexington, Ky., University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 354 pp.). The book consists of 19 essays and an introduction by the editor. The second was Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. 405 pp.). Schulz is a journalist who investigated why people want to believe they are correct even when they’re dead wrong. Part of her thesis is that mistakes can be a means to an end, that being in error can be transformative.

Was my library promoting ignorance? Celebrating errors? Rejoicing in mistakes? Advocating failure? No, it was buying popular nonfiction. These two books—yes, I checked out both of them on the spot—celebrate what we can learn from failure. Essays in the Vitek and Jackson book also discuss why science is constantly correcting itself and the ethical implications of imperfect knowledge. Schulz puzzles over why even eyewitness accounts of events are “notoriously wrong.”

It sounds like motherly advice: “Don’t worry, dear, just learn from your mistakes.” On the other hand, there’s the more ominous notion of “too big to fail” and the even more frightening “failure is not an option.” Being wrong can have disastrous consequences. A bridge collapses. A patient dies. Although the bridge builder and the surgeon may learn from these mistakes, the people on the bridge when it collapsed and the family of the deceased patient are unlikely to take so philosophic a view.

Thanks to Twitter’s Fail Whale, the #FAIL notation is permeating online communities. I’ve noticed an increasing tendency of people to write #FAIL over the smallest of errors. The plane is 5 minutes late. The bus is slow. The search interface isn’t what I’m accustomed to. My monitor isn’t bright enough. Thunderstorms knocked out the electricity. #FAIL.

Things do go awry in our online world. It’s important to distinguish between those that cause real harm and those that are minor annoyances. Overlooking a crucial piece of information because you did a bad search is probably in the middle. Missing important data because you can’t afford it is another matter entirely. That’s not your error; it belongs to someone else, someone who controls the budget. Introducing new technology to your work environment is admirable. But if people don’t use it, is it a failure of the technology or a training deficit?

If we’re going to learn from our mistakes and enjoy living at the margin of error, let’s not trivialize failure. The occasional lapse should not merit a full-scale meltdown or a worldwide #FAIL campaign. Instead, let’s concentrate on being better at what we do and helping our information providers to be better at what they do.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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