Essays on Technology and Culture

As Few Points of Failure as Possible

The pains of being an early adopter typically include the risk that things will break. We know this, and yet there’s a growing chorus in my circles of early adopter type people bemoaning the fragile state of technological infrastructure. In fact, Episode 201 of Back to Work might have been the apotheosis of this latest round of griping. Who can blame them, really? People of a certain personality type are attracted to the shiny and new, the promise that we can have whatever we want, when we want it, or at the very least in two days when the UPS guy shows up. When it works, it’s magical. When it doesn’t, it’s crazy-making.

This is why I find myself moving towards minimizing the possible points of failure in my systems.

Think about, say, iTunes Match. When announced, I drooled at the idea of having all my music, no matter what method I chose to acquire it, everywhere I go—if I have a connection. Then, I found out I could only have a maximum of 25,000 non-iTunes purchased tracks on iTunes Match, crushing the dream. However, the reality of iTunes Match in execution, at least from what I’ve heard from people who try to use, leaves me quite content with having to plug in my iPhone, and manually manage the music I carry with me. There’s less chance of failure with locally stored music, instead of relying on the cloud. I don’t have to worry about having Wi-Fi, or a cell signal, or if the servers are behaving. The minor inconvenience of plugging into my computer is more than made up in reliable access to music.

Why not extend this approach to more places in my technological life? How many of the things that drive me batshit about the think I use every day are because I’m simply overreaching into something they’re either not designed for, or even capable of. Or, more likely, how many of them are just not fully baked and reliable enough to make part of my daily life? It’s a similar line of thinking to Patrick Rhone’s “Final Choices” and Jamie Phelps “Sensible Defaults”. Is something that works 95% of the time, but saves five minutes over something that works 99% of the time really worth it? Especially when it take far more than five minutes to get things to work when it fails? I say no.

So much of what we use exists beyond our control. When it fails, it fails in way we not only cannot fix, but in ways we cannot even determine the root cause of. Minimizing the potential points of failure is not a guarantee that things will work all the time. It’s a way to ensure that when things do go wrong, we have, if not recourse, a better sense of what we can and cannot do, to make things work again. It’s also a way to reduce the stress in our lives of either fixing things, or stress of being unable to fix things. Take a look at what you do every day and the systems in place to do them, find what fails most often, and find a way to route around it. It might take a hair more time in your day, but you’ll feel so much better.