By Josh Quittner
October 21, 2010

At the annual Pop!Tech convention, failure is everywhere. That’s a good thing.

The Rube Goldberg-like contraption that was supposed to launch the Pop!Tech 2010 failed this morning. A robot took the stage and attempted to start a chain of amusing events—a ball rolling down a track, stacks of books and chairs tumbling domino style, bi-planes flying, culminating with a flood of red balloons cascading down on the 500 people assembled. But, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work.

Stage hands threw things and even came on stage to manually get the domino effect back on track. It was awkward. Finally, after much intervention, the balloons came pouring down. Everyone applauded.

At any other conference, it would have been a disaster.

Not here. It was the perfect way to launch a conference celebrating failure.

In fact, failure was anticipated as a possible and not unwelcome outcome. Andrew Zolli, the curator and emcee off the TED-like conference, which occurs annually in Camden, Maine, said that when they were rehearsing the opening sequence, people fretted over whether the contraption would work. If it did, it would be the awesomest opener ever, the ever-animated Zolli pointed out.

“And if it fails, it will be a manifestation of the theme of the conference. There is no way we can lose,” he said, after the theme manifested itself, this morning.

The four-day conference, “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs,” began with an amusing and moving talk by Dan Ariely, author of the bestselling book, “Predictably Irrational:The hidden forces that shape our decisions.” Ariely, who suffered burns over 70 percent of his body as a child, talked about social adaptation.

The frog boiling myth

His thesis was that adaptation doesn’t always work the way we think. He started by debunking the myth of the the frog. We’ve all heard that one: Put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and he’ll stay, satisfied. Raise the temperature very slightly, over a period of time, and he still won’t move—even when the water gets fatally hot.

“Turns out this is wrong. The frog doesn’t stay there,” Ariely said. In fact, the frog hops out as soon as the water gets uncomfortable. “But I’m willing to bet if it were a committee of frogs, they’d stay there.” Ariely is a professor at Duke University, but could just as easily work at any big company.

Adaptation isn’t easily predictable. The human relationship to pain, for instance, and how we adapt to it, is a case in point. Ariely became interested in researching pain as an adult, after he noticed that he had begun refusing anesthetics during dental work. He and an associate experimented on Israeli soldiers (they were asked to plunge one arm, then another, in pots of hot water) and recorded how long the individuals lasted. They made a discovery: People who’d had traumatic injuries in the past could withstand pain far longer than their peers.

The hypothesis: For people like Ariely, “pain has been associated with getting better. Operations, treatments all those things are very painful—but they’re connected to getting better.” So the interpretation of pain changes because of one’s experience.

Adaptation then, isn’t something that’s easy to predict. No idea what this has to do with failure, but it was fascinating. Also, Ariely would have made a lousy frog

Why you don’t know you’re wrong

Ditto Kathryn Schulz, author of the recent book, “Being wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.” She refers to her self as a leading “wrongologist” and her basic message is, humans are incredibly fallible and error prone. The problem is, we exacerbate our wrongness by refusing to acknowledge it.

“In the abstract, we’re really great at accepting the concept that we fail at things,” she said. “In the concrete, we’re terrible at it.”

She used a variety of ways to show that humans simply don’t perceive things correctly, starting with a standard optical illusion. She used one that seemed to show that one square on a grid was darker than another. But you can pick any optical illusion you like and reach the same point: Humans see things that are incorrect. We have faulty perceptions and even faultier recollections.

The solution, she said, is to externalize problem solving. “The wider you cast the net—the more people you can recruit to help you see if you’re wrong—the better off you are. This is why open source is great,” she said, referring to the system that gave rise to Linux, Mozilla and other gems of the tech world.

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