Cory Doctorow on Understanding Technology Failure

Here’s an interesting series of thoughts by author and openness advocate Cory Doctorow on helping people both use technology but also understand their failures (and timely as this was published in the fediverse)

Also sharing for @jan because of Doctorow’s tales of failed laptop he lands on and celebrates his Framework Laptop (see what I will do to draw my colleagues into discussion here?)

But also for thought, what does this way of thinking imply/suggest not only for hardware but open education?

Classy move, @cogdog, loved reading this thread! :innocent:

My favorite bits:

It’s hard to learn about failure without experiencing it, so those of us who have lived through failures have a duty to help the people we care about understand those calamities without living through them themselves. (source)

That’s why, for two decades, I’ve always bought my hardware with an eye to how it fails every bit as much as how it works. Back when I was a Mac user - and supporting hundreds of other Mac users - I bought two Powerbooks at a time. // I knew from hard experience that Applecare service depots were completely unpredictable and that once you mailed off your computer for service, it might disappear into the organization’s bowels for weeks or even (in one memorable case), months. (source)
I knew that I would eventually break my laptop, and so I kept a second one in sync with it through regular system-to-system transfers. When my primary system died, I’d wipe it (if I could!) and return it to Apple and switch to the backup and hope the main system came back to me before I broke the backup system. (source)

IBM sold the business to Lenovo and it started to go downhill. Keyboard replacements got harder, the hardware itself became far less reliable, and they started to move proprietary blobs onto their motherboards that made installing Ubuntu into a major technical challenge. (source)

The Framework works beautifully, but it fails even better. Not long after I got my Framework, I had a hip replacement; as if in sympathy, my Framework’s hinges also needed replacing (a hazard of buying the first batch of a new system is that you get to help the manufacturer spot problems in their parts). // My Framework “failed” - it needed a new hinge - but it failed so well. (source)

Framework shipped me a new part, and I swapped my computer’s hinges, *one day* after my hip replacement. I couldn’t sit up more than 40 degrees, I was high af on painkillers, and I managed the swap in under 15 minutes. That’s graceful failure. // Hinge Replacement Guide - Framework Guides // After a few weeks’ use, I was convinced. I published my review, calling the Framework “the most exciting laptop I’ve ever used.” (source)

I got back to my hotel in London at 11:30, and my display was waiting for me at the front desk. I staggered bleary-eyed to my room, sat down at the desk, and, in about fifteen minutes flat, I swapped out the old screen and put in the new one. // Display Replacement Guide - Framework Guides // *That is a fucking astoundingly graceful failure mode*. (source)

Entropy is an unavoidable fact of life. “Just don’t drop your laptop” is great advice, but it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re racing from one commitment to the next without a spare moment in between. // Framework has designed a small, powerful, lightweight machine - it works well. But they’ve also designs a computer that, when you drop it, you can fix yourself. That attention to graceful failure saved my ass. (source)

Framework’s computers aren’t just the most exciting laptops I’ve ever used - they’re the most exciting laptops I’ve ever broken. (source)

Can’t wait for these awesome machines to be available in Slovakia (they’re already shipping to Austria, which is under 5 kilometers away from where I am now):

Thanks Jan- I know you are interested in the hardware, but would like to know more about your thoughts on Doctorow’s position on failure beyond the machines, or at least FOSSE platforms and open content.

One area I spend a lot time thinking about is access / longevity / preservation of resources – links get broken all the time, things disappear from the web,… Any electronic resource will start rotting the moment it’s published.

Hyperlinks refer to the resources using location – a real-world equivalent would be “go to the Moose Jaw public library, find the third shelf on the left and pick up the thick blue book.” This poses a problem, though. If the Moose Jaw public library is ever on fire, runs out of funds, or a new librarian is hired who decides to reorganize the shelves in a more friendly way, the reference to the blue book on the third shelf no longer works.

What are we doing to protect against that?

Few people give this any thought at all. They live in the moment, assume they will be around forever and will never run out of funds. Which is nonsense.

Smart people actually plan for the inevitable failure. So they make sure their project is properly resourced, the domain is prepaid for many years in advance, thoughtfully design URLs that don’t change. They even save their “dependencies”, such as quoted articles, in the Internet Archive. Good librarian thinking.

But that isn’t enough.

When we have these properly planned, big systems, their failure is so much worse. The disappearance of the Internet Archive would be a disaster akin to the fire in the Library of Alexandria.

Is such as event likely? Not very. Is it possible? Definitely yes. They happen to websites all the time.

The Internet Archive sits in a rock solid building – however, it is in San Francisco, infamous for its proximity to the San Andreas Fault. Sure, they have a backup location – in Egypt (which is not exactly known for political stability). Now, the likelihood of the Internet Archive and well-run OER repositories may be very, very low but even with the best of planning and management none of us will be around here forever.

(Side note: I was going to include links to my favorite websites with project postmortems – and both are now gone from the internet. Talk about irony.)

This failure mode (resources disappearing) can be addressed by decentralization, and the Internet Archive has been leading the way in rallying the community.

What are some other failure risks in open education? How are we addressing them through technology, policies, practices, or other means?

Beyond the hardware, I offer a failure to sustain the costs of infrastructure support as a potential reason for open education failure. Volunteer led Peoples-uni offered free open online courses and low cost or free master’s level courses all with CC licences, using OER and Moodle, aimed at LMIC capacity building. Failure to find adequate funds for even the low infrastructure costs to allow the programme to continue after 15 years, led to closure (long story!).

Looks like you may have a bit of a backstory there, @Dickh… Care to share more?

Do you see transferrable lessons for others in open education? Are there guardrails that could make this failure less likely during the planning of the project or during execution?

And wow, 15 years is quite something for an online project! That’s more than most marriages survive (and those are expected to last for life), so thumbs up on keeping that project up for so long. :+1: It’s a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

1 Like

Thank you @jan for your nice words. Basically, an attempt to collaborate with a larger organisation and share infrastructure led to a takeover! I have just signed off on the proofs of a paper in Open Praxis which gives more detail about the programme itself, and a lot is on the website.

In terms general lessons, I think that having a forum such as this to share experiences and advice would have been very helpful at the time. As you indicate in your question, thinking ahead when setting up a programme and seeking advice during it is essential. How to obtain accreditation for open education provided from outside the formal higher education sector needs further exploration for anyone thinking of doing this.


Hi @Dickh

The people’s uni was an idea ahead of its time and what you and your team achieved was phenomenal.

Of interest - what CC license did you apply to the original course materials? Was it a copyleft option like CC-BY-SA? With the take over, as holders of the original copyright you could have assigned or re-licensed the material for the new owner - even if that required an all rights reserved license.

A CC license cannot be revoked - which again emphasizes the need for OERs to be distributed widely across the web on multiple repositories to avoid future risks of future enclosure. Not saying that this happened here, but we’ve seen many examples of enclosure of projects that started with open licenses that become enclosed or very hard to access.

1 Like

Ah, LOCKSS (lots of copies keep stuff safe). Yes please!

“a potential reason for open education failure” - Dick, I think it might be useful to unpack the parts and pieces for this failure. Were you trying to fund an organization that provided free degrees and used free OER materials? The parts to the enterprise seem to me to have included: an organization and its attendant salaries , OER materials, the hardware and software to create, store, and use the OER materials. What parts am I missing.

Most education everywhere is paid for by governments. I’ve found it very difficult to explain what OER is to legislators and utterly impossible to explain that amorphous thing called ‘open education’ to pretty much anybody. I think we’ll have much better success in looking for funding for OER instead of Open Education.

Thank you @Mackiwg for your accolade - it means a lot. Thanks also to you for your advice in the early days. The early modules used CC-BY-SA 2.0, and revisions or later additions used the updated 4.0 version. We did not think to assign or re-licence. I suspect that the group who took over the programme have enclosed the modules as their own, as has another group with whom we shared. Two other groups have also used the modules, but under the CC conditions. As per comments from your and @jan about LOCKSS, we have kept copies of all the modules and I have recently uploaded a number of the Open Online Courses to Our website lists all the courses and offers access to anyone who asks. We have also published all the software to support the programme on GitHub.

@danmcguire you ask for some more detail. As we were a volunteer organisation, tutors were not a cost, nor were the OER, the Moodle platform or the software (developed by a volunteer). We needed IT support which would be secure so paid for, and server costs. We also had a paid part-time coordinator. Open Online Courses were free, but master’s modules were charged at GBP40 and then 50 each - although we had a bursary scheme to waive or reduce the fees for those who made a case. We also had to pay the universities who accredited the course and provided degrees and diplomas.

I can’t agree that we should leave education to governments, or even universities where the competitive business model pervades. I think that much that has been posted on the various threads here on OEG Global Connect indicate the tremendous potential for opening up education - I think we still need work to develop the educational context into which these initiatives can feed, and the business model! OERu offers one great example.

Here at the OERu we have also struggled with the competitiveness of universities.

In the early days, @paulstacey assisted the network in developing the OERu open business model (see our Open Business model brochure and the Open business model canvas).

The impact of COVID has many organizations struggling financially which has eroded our membership base. We are focused on building back better, and that has us rethinking and strategizing about our approach for the next decade. We are exploring ways in which partners can generate real returns on investment from adopting OER-enabled online courses locally where the savings exceed the nominal cost of membership. I think platform cooperativism is a vehicle that has substantial benefits for smaller institutions - i.e.share open infrastructure to run selected OER-enable courses.

On a positive note, we now have the UNESCO OER recommendation that member states have adopted which we didn’t have when we started. The recommendation is a convention which means Governments are required to report back on the implementation of the UNESCO OER Recommendation to the general conference. Action area 4 focuses on nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER. So perhaps we will see more investment from government in OER.

Lots to think about.

Good to touch base again in this conversation. Thanks @Dickh

FYI there is a free (as in free) book talk webinar tomorrow with Cory Doctorow and his Chokepoint Capitalism coauthor, Rebecca Giblin



1 Like