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Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis – The myth of perfection

Public Parts defends greater society’s move to public displays of personal information in an age of the Internet, social media and blogging.

Digital Journal is publishing excerpts from the book, and in this final excerpt Jarvis explains the potential in opening our data to enable greater value to be gleaned from that info. He writes we should be “encouraging experimentation, rewarding challenges to our accepted wisdom, and designing schools around learning through failure.”

From Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jeff Jarvis. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

Thanks to the practical realities of our industrial economy—the efficiencies of mass production, distribution, marketing, and media—we are saddled with a myth of perfection in modern society. A one-size-fits-all “perfect” product that takes a long time to design and produce is sold to a large market. Its manufacturer cannot have it perceived otherwise. There are no second chances on the assembly line. The distribution chain invests in large quantities of the product and cannot afford for it to be flawed. Mass marketing is spent to convince customers that the product is ideal. So perfection becomes our standard, or at least our presumption: our shared myth.

But perfection is a delusion at best, a lie at worst. It is unattainable. The claim of perfection supports priesthoods with closed orthodoxies who define standards for all in fashion, publishing, education, and entertainment. Perfection inflates expectations and inevitably disappoints (every car eventually breaks). Perfection discourages risk and innovation, openness and invention. Perfection is expensive, and the quest for perfection leads only to failure. After all, nothing and no one is perfect.

By operating in public, warts and all, we no longer hold ourselves to the ideal of perfection. By rejecting perfection as a promise, we are free to make what we do ever better. We are never done, never satisfied, always seeking ways to improve by working in public. “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” said Voltaire: The best is the enemy of the good. The best is also the enemy of the better. Striving for perfection complicates and delays creation. in technology, we call this insidious process “feature creep”— adding one more gewgaw to get one step closer to the ideal before release. The cure is the public beta: Just put it out there to see what it needs.

The tyranny of perfection permeates the rest of society and our lives. In our schools, we teach students there is one and only one right answer to every question. Then we add the questions together in tests and teach to those tests, expecting students to spit back what we feed them. We call that achievement. We should instead be encouraging experimentation, rewarding challenges to our accepted wisdom, and designing schools around learning through failure.

The expectation of perfection hampers government. A few years ago, I spoke about Googley government with five hundred federal webmasters in Washington, D.C. Those geeky civil servants are among our best hopes for innovation in government. But they and their bureaucrat bosses live in dread of mistakes. They know that one misstep can bring the disapproval of their bigger bosses—politicians—and of media and constituents. Public servants need a license to fail so they can try things in public, imperfect and incomplete, and collaborate with us all. The webmasters cheered at the suggestion. But I found few who were optimistic enough to believe that day will come. We still inhabit a culture that wants heads on platters when mistakes are made, especially in politics. Search Google for “politician resigns,” and you’ll find a parade of ignominy.

Now search Google for “CEO apologizes,” and you’ll find a pile of crow bones on the plate with toyota, BP, Citigroup, Chrysler, and even NPR at the table. When Michael Dell returned to Dell and Howard Schultz came back to Starbucks to fix their respective companies, each was open about their problems. Dell had quality, customer service, and reputational issues, which I recounted (and, to some extent, caused) in my blog and last book. He instituted the means to listen to customers’ complaints and ideas and act on them. Starbucks, Schultz believed, had watered down its experience. He went so far as to close stores while baristas were retaught how to make a cup of coffee.

Groupon CEO andrew Mason at first defended controversial 2011 Super Bowl commercials that seemed to make fun of suffering Tibetans and dying whales until it became clear that the public didn’t appreciate the jokes. He apologized: “We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads.” Those CEOs trusted their customers. They learned that responsiveness beats defensiveness. Confession is as good for the PR strategy as it is for the soul. “We believe that disclosure of oneself to others is a moral good in itself,” Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man.

Our myth of perfection, I suspect, also affects our personal lives: our romances and marriages and our relationships as parents and children. How many wives are caught trying to fix their husbands’ failings—and failing? When should we push our children to succeed, and when are we holding them up to some false and unattainable standard?

Granted, the problem with my attack on perfection is that it could lead to lower standards, to settling too soon, to the scourge of being just good enough. but I believe publicness and pride will save us from that mediocre fate. Even if imperfect, no one wants to seem shoddy in public.

Read the first excerpt of Public Parts about the value of allowing companies such as Google to mine our public data

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