On Seeing: There’s Gold in Them Thar “FAILS”


I’ve been seeing a lot of negative ‘FAIL’ rhetoric lately in social media about social media campaigns, or anything really. Many of the negatives are from social media commentators, but also come from a wider range of sources. Indeed, it is all too easy (and sometimes fun) to join the chorus. But what concerns me about this rampant (well it is for me at the moment) behaviour is what these people are missing. When one thinks in terms of success or fail as a simplistic binary opposition, then the opportunity to find gems, to discover the mechanics of a complex system, is lost. What do I mean?

Well, for a long time I’ve studied as many aspects of cross-media as I can. I’ve spent years reading, watching, playing and analysing theories, projects, processes and people. I’ve spent time with the inspired and banal in academia, mainstream media, marketing, independent arts and gaming. I’ve got flack from artists who consider me naive or selling my soul because I study and work with marketers; been encouraged by mainstream media folk to not spend so much time with independent arts and anything that doesn’t guarantee large incomes; have had it insinuated that by spending time in the corporate world I’m not a true academic, and have had it insinuated by practitioners that by spending time in academia I’m not a true artist. Aren’t I the rebel eh? To be fair, these are distant, small, rare voices that underlie people’s thinking, than anything said directly to me. And there are many that appreciate my diverse mix. But I have had to defend/or explain what I do in almost every environment I’ve been in.

What’s my point? My point is that I don’t segregate my life and my interests and my mind the same way others do.  I see value is lots of (seemingly unlikely) places. This spills over into the way I observe and analyse things. I do look at crappy projects (let’s face it, there are more of them than there are of the sublime). But if I look at a project that isn’t working I don’t fob it off as a failure. Really. I don’t. Even if it isn’t working, my mind is still interested in it. Why? Because more often than not I see one or two things that do work. Not because I’m trying to find something good in the bad, but because I see things that can work independent of the entire execution. For me then, what is interesting is trying to figure out what other parts stuffed it up.

You see, a project can have some top notch strategy and execution in there, alongside the terrible. You may think this a strange thing. But I’ve seen it. There can be some great thinking informing an approach, that is then thwarted by execution (duh). Or there can be a good technology or aspect to a project executed, that is dulled or even reversed with a weak pairing. By observing how people make good strategies crumble — what element they forgot, what element they had too much of, and what combination of elements didn’t work — I gain an understanding of what exactly the core design principle is, and how it needs to be executed within a delicate creative ecology. All of this is missed when you just stamp a big FAIL on a project that doesn’t seem to work.

I should end here. But I won’t. I’ll now ask why? Why is it that people analyse things so differently? Perhaps this approach requires different cognitive wiring. I’ll wack out some neuropsychology here to explain the pondering. In the 1990s, psychiatrist Eugene G. d’Aquili and radiologist and religion researcher Andrew Newberg investigated the behaviour of the brain during a religious experience (nuns praying, monks chanting and so on). In overly simplistic terms, they sought to discover more about how the brain shapes *reality*. During this research they developed a theory of ‘cognitive operators’ that ‘comprise the most basic functions of the mind’ (1999, 51).  These primary cognitive operators  (there may be more) ‘allow the mind to think, feel, experience, order, and interpret the universe’ (51), and they are:

  1. The holistic operator: “allows us to view reality as a whole or as a gestalt” (52)
  2. The reductionist operator: “allows us to look at the whole picture and break it down into an analysis of individual parts” (52)
  3. The causal operator: “permits reality to be viewed in terms of causal sequences” (53)
  4. The abstractive operator: “permits the formation of general concepts from the perception of individual facts” (54)
  5. The binary operator: “allows us to extract meaning from the external world by ordering abstract elements into dyads. A dyad is a group of two elements that are opposed to each other in their meaning. Therefore, dyads include good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, happy and sad, and heaven and hell…each opposite, in some ways, derives its meaning from its contrast with the other opposite” (55)
  6. The quantitative operator: “permits the abstraction of quantity from the perception of various elements” (55)
  7. The emotional value operator: “permits us to assign a particular emotional value to various elements of perception and cognition” (56)

Now, I’m no neuropsychologist, but it seems that for many in the social media world and beyond, the binary operator is…operating overtime! FAIL or FTW?! Is this because the recognition of, and involvement in, any *new* media involves seeing the opposite of what already exists? It should come as no surprise that a person (me) concerned with cross-media (how individual media plaforms work together) would be balancing the holistic and reductionist operators more than anything else.

I’m always keen on balance though, and so I’ll take two lessons from this personal pondering: there are benefits to seeing the parts separate from the whole (and how the parts work together in a whole), but there are also benefits to acknowledging something has failed…because it makes the wins easier to recognise.

There’s gold in them thar FAILS.

Source: D’Aquili, E. G. and A. B. Newberg (1999) The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press.

Photo ‘A Quiet Search in Paradise’ by moonjazz on flickr