August 19th, 2010

Rethinking failure: Google Wave

For a blogger, covering the demise of Google Wave as announced on August 4th several weeks later is rather slow but it’s given me time to reflect. Laikas did a great job getting the news out quickly to the medical library community, especially the part about where there is still perceived value in Wave from a health information technology perspective for electronic medical records.

I am glad I wrote up the coverage of Seattle’s use of Google Wave during a chaotic manhunt last fall from a community emergency communication perspective and hope Google is taking the lessons learned about how people used Wave to seek and add information into new communication channels to experiment with.

Was Wave an “outright failure” on Google’s part? Perhaps not.

Posted on Slate’s The Wrong Stuff the day before the Google Wave announcement was an interview with Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research. If you’re not familiar with The Wrong Stuff it was supposed to be a brief series of eight people discussing the role of error in their lives and professional fields. Thankfully they have agreed to continue the series and I highly recommend adding their RSS feed to your reader since they are fairly intermittent but well worth checking out when they publish.

Part of the first answer alone should grab you, bold emphasis mine:

If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

and further on down:

I’ve been at both ends. My previous job was at NASA, where you really don’t want your shuttles to blow up very often. So there they spend hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their astronauts’ lives. Here, we’re kind of at the other end. Failure is always an option at Google.

I encourage reading the whole article for some reflection, especially where he has an interesting take on library sciences technology (hint: not favorable or accurate in my opinion). From my limited time and perspective in the field thus far I see a lot of the library field as fearing and avoiding failure at almost all costs. Perfectionism can sometimes run so rampant that it squelches any hint of innovation in its path, yet it is innovation that leads to experiments in the first place.

Are libraries so NASA-caliber that failure can never be an option? No. Mark Funk reminded us in 2008 that “We Have Always Done It That Way” isn’t an answer, it’s an excuse. At the same time library science journals seem to follow suit with not publishing about failure often as other journals do in not publishing when drug experiments failed.

I can understand why: it takes a lot of extra time and effort that many librarians do not have to write for publication, and who wants that to highlight a failure? Is there an opportunity for a Wrong Stuff resource of library-related errors and experiments gone wrong so we’re not all reinventing the wheel in isolation from one another? The publish button in WordPress makes the process pretty painless!

One Response to “Rethinking failure: Google Wave”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nikki D., Carrie Sherlack. Carrie Sherlack said: RT: @eagledawg: Rethinking failure in Google Wave & libraryland http://bit.ly/chqAOq <<–P.S. cool avatar @eagledawg! :-) [...]

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