On the Crucial Importance of Mistakes
All too often we think of mistakes as inherently wrong, as disappointments, as fundamental disjunctures. They’re everything we strive against, and witness to our bitter failings. But I want to suggest that mistakes can be liberating, that they’re small, undernourished risks of the sort that, tended carefully, just might deliver enormous opportunities. Of course, they could also slap us back down to the grit of our everyday lives, but then we’d be none the wiser anyway. So we have the opportunity to learn given to us when things don’t work out, like a half-minute free-for-all in the supermarket of change. Now that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
After completing my last post I both made and unmade a mistake, which is no mean feat. I learned something, I lost something and I eventually gained a whole lot more. My mistake, after receiving a friendly comment from Dave Wallace, lay in presuming that the fantastic ‘Lifekludger first idea’ image I originally used in the post was really meant for his Lifekludger blog, even though his friend Roy Blumenthal had offered it on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I removed the image just in case, writing to both men to explain. But, as it happened, Roy left the most gracious comments here noting that I was free to use the image and any others that he offered.
So the image is back in this post, partly because I want to discuss ideas that Dave Wallace is grappling with on his blog, and partly because it matches nicely the other two Roy Blumenthal images that I’m using.
If a picture says a thousand words, then Roy’s paintings speak long and then speak again, at the interval between technology and art, on the margins of creation and reproduction. Roy creates most of his images on a tablet PC, and works – in one of his many guises – as a visual facilitator, someone who attends conferences and captures speech as it’s spoken, distilled into images that refine and release thought, motion, colour, shade, difficult to grasp abstracts and absolute certainties.
The initial image on this post is one of the fascinating results, a mix of metaphor, movement and challenge to change all rolled into one. Roy’s art speaks of the very moment at which risk becomes reality, that split-second when an opportunity – to learn, and to unlearn – rushes up, about to rush by. It’s not precise, it’s not exact in a formal way; it’s more of a workaround, a compromise, a sort of accommodation with the promising inadequacies of life.
Dave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog is a lot like that too, although to call it a blog overshadows its power as a kind of electronic thought tablet. Dave uses the term meme, and it seems to be a work in perpetual process. A Kludge, not incidentally, is a workaround, a way of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. Dave Wallace is interested in what you might call life-hacks, and he brings to bear on them the perspective of a quadriplegic former mechanic who is seeking new tools to shift between contexts, who is exploring the possibilities of social networks in the Cyber Age.
An important point that Dave makes in a post he published late last year is that mindsets are not only limiting, they’re potentially lethal. Resistance to new ideas, particularly to the innovation and change inherent in technology, enhances social isolation, renders it close to compulsory. He discusses the deadening decontextualisation of “people with disability living in ability boxes” – conventional architecture, existing building codes – and his frustration with people who consider computers, those exemplary tools for communication, as little more than toys.
This intertwining of deprecating mindsets and social isolation goes to the heart of what I discussed recently in my post on perceptions of poverty. Presumptions are powerful, and powerfully damaging when they manipulate disadvantaged people, demand that they act, and possibly even think, in certain ways. Over at A Death in Hong Kong I’ve recently had the somewhat distasteful task of reporting on the outrageous, and barely factual, presumptions of the local police in their investigation into the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores. Characterising a woman who had been largely isolated in her employment six days a week as almost surprisingly stressed and somehow irrational enough to have fled her employer’s residence for no apparent reason and died soon after is to render her, and all migrant workers in Hong Kong, dangerously marginal.
That’s a situation in need of a lifekludge, a workaround, if not only for Vicky’s sake then for the benefit of her fellow domestic helpers, those who are forced by law masquerading as policy to live in the “ability boxes” of their employers, to suffer the mindset of privilege for which poverty has no immediate answer.
But I’m heartened by Dave Wallace’s insistence that workarounds should be fun as they connect people, and by Roy Blumenthal’s sheer enthusiasm for creating and questioning. And I realise that there’s no need to browbeat, to make a difficult situation more solemn. It pays to step back sometimes, especially after you’ve made a mistake, and ask what you’ve done, what you’ve achieved. Was it worth it? Yes it was. Today I’m proud that I learned the value of error and the importance of levity. Tomorrow I’ll put them to use in my attempts to understand this ever-puzzling world.