The Importance of Failure


If an electronic scholarly project can't fail and doesn't produce new ignorance, then it isn't worth a damn.

Contrast the spirit of this assertion with the rhetoric that characterizes much of what we say, write, and read about the subject of electronic text, the World-Wide Web, and information technology in general: the trope is one of change, invention, evolution, with overtones of progress and improvement, and with undertones of inevitability and universality. We meet this trope in mass-media news and advertising about computers and communications, in the promotional literature of our educational institutions, in scholarly books and articles about hypertext and digital libraries, and in grant proposals for electronic scholarly projects which aim, or claim, to break new ground, undertake pilot projects, provide models for the future.

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My focus here will be on the academic part of what is clearly a larger cultural trend, and specifically on hypertext projects and hypertext theory, as they address the subject of transformative change, but I will be holding these projects and this theory to an extrinsic standard, a standard suggested by the rhetoric of invention, discovery, and progress -- namely the standard of science. I think I can predict the objections to this exercise, but in spite of those, I believe this is a worthwhile experiment, and a worthwhile discussion, because it may help us to sharpen distinctions among different kinds of writing about hypertext, and because it may help us to arrive at some principles for evaluating both theoretical and applied work in this area of research.

I should acknowledge that my remarks here are the direct result of being asked a question for which I didn't have a very good answer, about a year ago. At a conference at the University of Maryland, Neil Fraistat (whose Romantic Circles Web site some of you may know) asked me if there were any writing on specific humanities hypertext projects that was neither promotional nor anecdotal, but that reported and analyzed and theorized the experience of constructing such a project. I could think of a couple of examples, but only a couple, and none perfectly apt. The conversation with Neil progressed to the topic of the importance of reporting and analyzing failure in any research activity, humanistic or scientific, and to the patterns of funding that discouraged such reporting and analysis. I owe whatever illuminations emerge in the following to that conversation, and I take it as an emblematic instance of a research opportunity: a question for which there should be an answer, for which one could imagine an answer, but for which no very good answer was at present to be found.

Certain Limits, Uncertain Cases
At the most basic level, the level of survival, it is a given that resources -- in academia as elsewhere -- are limited, and that we struggle for those resources in the form of institutional support, outside grant funding, and release time. Given those limited resources, we are obviously obliged, for practical as well as intellectual reasons, to argue for our projects and our programs. In short, there is a kind of evolutionary pressure at work in the transformation of the book: some projects will survive, others will not; some theories will flourish, others will wither. If we hope that rationality rather than sheer force might guide that process, then the only rational course, for both the proposers and the funders of such projects, is to declare and defend our evaluative criteria, particularly when we consume or allocate resources that might otherwise go elsewhere.

By the same token, and before going further in my discussion, I would say that any academic or funding activity bears the same responsibility: it is no more a justification to say "it has always been done" than to say "it has never been done." In either case, we need to know why it should be done, and we need to know how we will determine whether we succeeded or failed in the endeavor.

I'd like to begin, then, with two theses from Sir Karl Popper, the founder of the philosophical school known as critical rationalism, a school of thought from which many of the arguments in what follows will be derived:

First Thesis: We know a great deal. And we know not only many details of doubtful intellectual interest, but also things which are of considerable practical significance and, what is even more important, which provide us with deep theoretical insight, and with a surprising understanding of the world.

Second Thesis: Our ignorance is sobering and boundless. . . With each step forward, with each problem which we solve, we not only discover new and unsolved problems, but we also discover that where we believed that we were standing on firm and safe ground, all things are, in truth, insecure and in a state of flux. ("The Logic of the Social Sciences" in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, 1976)

Popper's theses, and his writings in general, do a fine job of expressing something that I want to emphasize today, in the context of the Transformations of the Book, namely, on the one hand, the importance -- the utility -- of what we do know and, on the other hand, the ephemeral, contingent, transitional character of that knowledge -- and therefore, the need for experiment, the indispensability of mistakes, and the necessity of recognizing, documenting, and analyzing our failures.

Transformation as Evolution
There is no question that the book, or more properly text technology -- what Jay Bolter calls "writing space" -- is currently undergoing a major transformation. Inasmuch as we think of that transformation as progress, or hope that it will be, those changes are implicitly being treated as evolutionary. It has been observed that

[a]ny theory of evolution is about processes of change. An extra requirement for an evolutionary theory is that purely random and entirely time-reversible patterns are excluded; evolution concerns exclusively change that is, at least statistically, irreversible. To qualify, irreversible change must entail processes that lead to emergence, or at least the persistence, of ordered structure in space and time. (E. Laszlo, The New Evolutionary Paradigm, 1991, xxiii.)

Evolution is our name for a positive, unidirectional change -- an alteration in the direction of something better, where better is defined as more complex, more ordered, more useful, more adaptive, more fit to a particular purpose. The test of whether a transformation qualifies as an evolution, then, is whether or not it improves on what it changes, and does so in a way that external forces are likely to reward and reinforce.

Is Change Improvement?
We know from observation -- of our own aging bodies, for example -- that not all changes are improvements. So if we are advocating a change, or

"If a statement cannot possibly be proven false, then it can't be considered a scientific statement."

participating in one, we ought to be deeply concerned with evaluative questions. In the case of the transformation of the book, the question could be phrased, "Does hypermedia improve on the book?" And that is a question that ought (in principle) to be answerable, with some combination of empirical evidence and rational argument. But in order to gather such evidence, or make such arguments, we would first need to establish evaluative criteria. What might such criteria look like, in the case of hypertext projects or hypertext theory?

Before attempting to answer that question, I should point out that the criteria by which evidence would be selected and on which arguments would be based will be rather different in these two cases: Theory has one set of responsibilities, and craft has another. But the two are, or ought to be, connected and mutually responsive. Where experimental endeavors are concerned, theory ought to be able to explain, predict, and produce practical results, and practice ought to provide the occasion to test, implement, modify, or falsify theoretical assertions.

Evaluative Criteria in Hypertext Theory
Hypertext theory is a recent but broad and interdisciplinary field: It includes literary scholars of many different periods and specialties, philosophers and sociologists, computer scientists, user-interface and human-computer interaction experts, librarians, publishers, and practitioners. Hypertext theory is still sorting out its relationship to the even broader fields of literary theory, communications and media theory, architecture and design, and many others. In an important sense, then, the task for hypertext theory at this point is to define itself, to describe and understand its constituent parts, and (perhaps most of all) clearly identify the object of its attention. What I have to say here about evaluative criteria is addressed to a narrowly defined "hypertext theory," and even within that, principally to the literary type, but I think it could apply as well to the broader field of media studies in which hypertext theory sometimes finds itself. In addition, I'm going to work with a much narrower meaning of the word "theory" than is usually used in connection with hypertext, and especially in literary hypertext theory. In brief, "theory" here is taken to mean assertions (about the nature or function or design or impact of hypertext) that have the potential to be proven or disproven.

Evaluative Criteria in Hypertext Projects
As I noted earlier, the evaluative criteria appropriate to hypertext theory and to hypertext practice are likely to be different. Whereas the criteria I would apply to theoretical statements turn largely on the claims implied or expressed at an epistemological level, the criteria I would apply to hypertext projects have more to do with the implementation of theory, and thus with the results themselves, or with the goals expressed for the particular experiment. We should be able to say whether a particular project's goals proceed from some implicit or explicit theory or theories, and we should be able to say whether those goals seem to us to be worthy, and why, but we do not, and should not, on the whole, expect a particular project to focus its energies and resources on elaborating or defending its theoretical superstructure: it is enough, I think, that it should provide evidence for accepting or rejecting a theory, produce a useful product, and/or raise interesting new problems or solutions.

We are in an important evolutionary moment: an important transformation is taking place, and we are a part of it. Many things that we take to be trivial, or embarrassing, or simply wrong, will be of interest to our peers in the future. Our first responsibility, therefore, is to document what we do, to say why we do it, and to preserve the products of our labor, not only in their fungible, software-and-hardware-independent forms, but also in their immediate, contemporary manifestations. The greatest mistake we could make, at this point, would be to suppress, deny, or discard our errors and our failed experiments: We need to document them with obsessive care, detail, and rigor. Our successes, should we have any, will perpetuate themselves, and though we may be concerned to be credited for them, we needn't worry about their survival: They will perpetuate themselves. Our failures are likely to be far more difficult to recover in the future, and far more valuable for future scholarship and research, than those successes. So, if I could leave you with a single piece of advice, it would be this: Be explicit about your goals and your criteria, record your every doubt and misstep, and aspire to be remembered for the ignorance that was uniquely yours, rather than for the common sense you helped to construct.

This paper was presented October 25, 1997, at a conference on the "Transformations of the Book," an event in the Media in Transition series.

The Journal of Electronic Publishing
December, 1997   Volume 3, Issue 2
ISSN 1080-2711