A few years ago, I stumbled across a discussion on Facebook that briefly mentioned the Ethnos Project. I wasn’t able to find it again for reference, but I recall that one of the participants had come away from this site with the feeling that the project (or rather, I as its creator) smacked of technological determinism. The criticism was that the site seemed to take for granted that disappearing cultures must use technology to survive or that Indigenous communities wouldn’t thrive if they didn’t adopt ICTs. In general, that the site suffers from a lack of alternative perspectives.

I’ve been adding items to the Ethnos Project Resources Database recently and I took some time to examine the collection as a whole through the lens of this criticism. Although there are a handful of items that address certain challenges at the crossroads of Indigenous Knowledge and ICTs, there are scant resources that outright address the bad, the negative, the failures, the unintended consequences of technologies used in the service of sustaining traditional ways of knowing or ICT4D endeavors (for example).

failureExamining the “absence” of failure literature

I have my notions of why there aren’t many “negative” resources in the database. It isn’t because technology is inherently good or that most projects involving ICTs succeed (be they ICT4D, language preservation, digital humanities, etc.). Projects and initiatives do fail and they fail for a variety of reasons: funding runs dry, politics impede progress, conditions grow dangerous, time runs out, idealism falls short of reality, planning is weak, stakeholders aren’t involved, resources aren’t sustainable, and so on. But I suspect that these things aren’t the reasons we don’t hear or read about failure. The reasons are more likely that failure doesn’t attract future funding. Failure doesn’t earn the doctorate. It doesn’t look good on a CV or help build to the next promotion. With the exception of rare movements like FAILfaire (originally organized by MobileActive.org) – a bold endeavor to reveal, discuss, and learn from failure – we treat failure as a deadzone defined by the silence that surrounds it.

It is understandable that organizers of ICT projects (or researchers, project managers, grad students, etc.) don’t write about failure. It is partly due to timing: we typically write papers at the outset of a study or project. Papers written in conclusion will invariably cast negative outcomes in language that shirks the mantle of failure. I can imagine many reasons why this would be the case: to appease an NGO’s board of directors, mollify a start-up’s investors, pacify a critical doctoral committee, and so on. We also don’t hear from (for lack of a better term) ‘victims’ of projects gone bad. I have yet to read a paper written by any project participant (or recipient, subject, member of the underserved population, community stakeholder, etc.). Journals don’t publish rebuttals by Indigenous stakeholders who are on the receiving end of, say, a failed cultural mapping initiative. They don’t because presumably the individuals that such projects serve exist in communities less likely to produce publishing scholars. To put a finer point on it, things like low-literacy, poverty, hunger, persecution and so on get in the way of writing papers for peer review.

I don’t mean to be snarky. It is understandable that what gets written about the sister crossroads of ICTs and Indigenous Knowledge, ICTs and development, ICTs and cultural heritage, ICTs and social change, and so on favors the innovation and deployment more than the conclusion or failure of a project. No one wants to write the paper called, “MyProject: the Abysmal Failure of a Poorly Conceived ICT4D project in Cambodia,” or “MyDatabase: How the Aboriginal Community Ultimately Rejected the Cultural Heritage Database We Co-Designed.” But wouldn’t it be great if someone did? Wouldn’t it be fruitful to get data on the ways mobile phones might be harming rural farmers? Or details about the lackluster reception of a new Indigenous language learning app for the iPad? Or an examination of the drawbacks of deploying a mobile telecentre in underserved areas?

Some good links to bad failures

There are some examples on the interwebs that examine ICT4D failures: an older Fast Company story about GrameenPhone’s Village Phone Program, a CHANGE seminar (discussed in detail here), an ICTworks post about the World Bank, this IDS post about Maji Matone, to name a few. I have also seen Clint Rogers’ video “Top 7 Reasons Why Most ICT4D Projects FAIL” used as a springboard for discussing projects. But I’d really like to learn more from people who’ve experienced failure up close and personal.

And your point is?

I know my observations about the lack of “fail” literature echo several others who have written about the subject. What I am hoping to do that is different however, is curate a collection of failures here on the Ethnos Project: the bad outcomes, unintended consequences, cultural snafus, ideas withered on the vine, backfires, misfires, ill-fated projects of every ilk.  I see this potential collection as a one-stop shop for cautionary tales, a place where others may learn from those brave enough to share what went wrong.

I know it is stupidly optimistic to expect that visitors to this site would scramble to share their own stories of failure. To do so is akin to committing career suicide in some situations. Perhaps there are ways to tell the stories, however, that respect an individual’s or organization’s desire for anonymity while still providing a meaningful exposition. I should probably admit that I have no idea what form this collection would take or how and where it will be showcased on the site. I imagine that the Resources Database is a likely home. I’d love to hear your ideas about how to present it.

Calling all failures

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Michael Jordan

So, will you come out and play? Will you share your story of failure? This isn’t for mocking or moping, but rather for mapping ways to avoid similar pitfalls. If you are willing, I would ask that you visit this page [form has been removed] where you can share your failure story. I suppose if no one shares, I’ll have to publicly announce that this idea was a failure which is sadly self-referential. Help me avoid this fate by telling your cautionary tale now!

p.s. If you think I’ve misrepresented anything above or would like to argue a particular point – or if you think this is a ridiculous idea and would like to explain – please don’t hesitate to use the comment section below.

p.p.s Note: Shortly after this post was published, several people wrote to tell me what a great idea this was – none of whom had a story of their own to tell. It’s been nearly a year and no failures (except my own) have materialized. So, with ironic humor (wink), I admit defeat.