☞ In Praise of Glitches
Embracing Errors in Technology
I love glitches. Obviously not all the time or in every case. In many situations, technological failures can be dire and these should be rooted out. But when they don’t have drastic consequences, or affect essential services, technological glitches can be more than just annoying; they are also beautiful and funny, sources of delight, or even sources of unintentional art or discovery.
In our virtual pandemic lives, we might have experienced the sheer disabling nature of an email outage or the complexities of sharing one’s screen—No, don’t share that window, the other one. Wait, now you’re sharing presentation mode with everyone!—and there are entire blooper reels of Zoom fails (though I imagine many of these might be human error).
But these ever-present bugs and glitches should also delight us, and we’ve already seen hints of people recognizing this fact. In February 2021, a man having to declare to a judge that he is not actually a cat went viral. It was certainly funny, but the spread of this video revealed how not only how much everyone was simply looking for a bit of fun in the depths of the pandemic, but that we craved this unexpected technological weirdness.
One of my first computing memories is sitting with my father as he entered some computer code for a downhill skiing game into our Commodore VIC-20. However, there clearly had been an error somewhere, because part of the screen turned into a cascade of gibberish. I didn’t know how to program at the time but I was entranced that minor unintended mistakes could make everything look so different, so unexpected. And one of my first stumbling attempts at making a simple computer game—you controlled a circle to shoot another circle—also was glitch-filled: it had some sort of error in it that caused the laser fire to be rendered as a kind of beam of rainbow technicolor. That was certainly nothing I had planned to build, but it was so much better than anything I could have intended on my own.
Lots of other programmers—many much more accomplished than me—have realized the delight in bugs from works-in-progress too. In a modern version of glitch art, many game developers or computer programmers even publicly share examples of when their programs break, because when they break, it can be beautiful.
But even in more polished pieces of software these kinds of bugs still happen, the kind that make us recognize the wonder and weirdness of computing. When Microsoft Flight Simulator was released in the summer of 2020, people were stunned to discover a very narrow and impossibly tall skyscraper in Australia, or that Buckingham Palace was rendered as a massive office complex. These were obviously errors, but they gave many players a sense of unexpected delight. The mind-bogglingly complex computer game Dwarf Fortress has a changelog for the ages, as it roots out errors that include “Giraffe is trainable for war” and “Honeycombs get encrusted with jewels” (these are just two from one list of great patches. And if you want more on Dwarf Fortress, I’ve written previously about it here).
Glitches can also be learning opportunities. In June 2021, an obscure web service went down, taking many massive websites along with it. But in the process, users of the Internet learned about Fastly: a company that cached and served webpages more efficiently, and is used on the backend for such sites as CNN, Reddit, The New York Times. Bugs allow us to learn more about how systems work when they fail; they are windows into our technologies, exposing the gaps between how we thought they worked and how they actually do.
But in order to learn, and appreciate glitches, we need to be attuned to them. Years ago, the researcher and writer Clifford Pickover discovered a new set of equations that generated images that looked like virtual protozoa, something that only happened because he incorrectly wrote his computer code. Pickover didn’t just ignore the weird little bug. He noticed it and harnessed this unexpectedness and, in the process, created something new. Awhile back, I even wrote a computer program that injected errors into weird visualizations to both see how they worked, as well as to perturb the programs in order to make something else pretty and new (I previously wrote about this program of mine, as well as Pickover’s work here, if you want some more details).
Tech failures can point the way towards a more chaotic but more delightful online experience. So, if you seek spontaneity and unexpectedness in your life, some unplanned beauty or weirdness, look for bugs in the software around you.
Embrace the glitch.
I recently participated in a virtual workshop on Novelty in Science Organizations. The discussion had some relevant points related to the Overedge Catalog and new types of scientific organizations. You can watch the video of the workshop here.
And a few links worth checking out:
The Science of Mind Reading: Reading thoughts using fMRI plus A.I.
Can we influence the values of our descendants? “So, can we influence our great great great grandchildren's values? The answer is a very scientific and very disappointing maybe.”