Note: The following commentary ran on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" sometime in early September 1998. Unfortunately, it was preempted on almost all stations by some Bill-loves-Monica news. (You can listen to other commentaries by David Weinberger by clicking here.)

Web Brokenness

One really important characteristic of the Web is that it's always going to be a little bit broken. So says the man who invented the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, and he's right. And it's a great thing.

Sure, it means the Web is frustrating. You click on a link and the page you're going to isn't there. Or, you try to view some multimedia, singing and dancing page in Argentina and your machine freezes up in mid-Tango. There's no central authority that controls all the stuff on the Web and maintains all the links, so it's always going to be at best a little bit broken. That's different from big professional systems like the telephone system or the post office.

Well, hold on. With telephones you get wrong numbers, and crossed wires, and downed lines and messages that tell you the area code has changed but won't connect you anyway even though they obviously know what the right one is. And the postal system has long lines and packages that arrive in pieces and glue that tastes really bad and not just one but two types of Elvis stamps. All large systems are always a little bit broken, The only difference between the Web and telephones and the postal system is that because no one owns the Web, there's no one to blame. So what can you do but take it in stride? The brokenness is the same, but your attitude towards it isn't.

I find this enormously liberating. Things break. It's part of their nature. And we humans make mistakes. There, I said it. We make mistakes in our jobs, in our hobbies, in our families. Even the most professional of us just plain screw up sometimes.

The Web is helping us to accept this brokenness even outside of the Web. In business, some very large companies are recognizing that perfectionism is way expensive. At one major manufacturer, the person in charge of information systems says he tells his folks that they can't afford to wait until what they're working on is perfect. They have to do the best they can and accept the fact that the systems they build are going to be, well, a little bit broken. And some companies are recognizing that having a record of consistent success at your job probably means you're not taking enough risks.

Let's hear it for adventurous failures! That's how you move your company --and your culture -- ahead. You know, we humans weren't built for a perfect world. It's just surprising that it's a technology, the Web, that's teaching so many of us the virtue of good-enough.

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David Weinberger
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