Revealing Errors

How to Cite

Hill, B. M. (2007). Revealing Errors. M/C Journal, 10(5).
Vol. 10 No. 5 (2007): 'error'
Published 2007-10-01


In The World Is Not a Desktop, Marc Weisner, the principal scientist and manager of the computer science laboratory at Xerox PARC, stated that, “a good tool is an invisible tool.” Weisner cited eyeglasses as an ideal technology because with spectacles, he argued, “you look at the world, not the eyeglasses.” Although Weisner’s work at PARC played an important role in the creation of the field of “ubiquitous computing”, his ideal is widespread in many areas of technology design. Through repetition, and by design, technologies blend into our lives. While technologies, and communications technologies in particular, have a powerful mediating impact, many of the most pervasive effects are taken for granted by most users. When technology works smoothly, its nature and effects are invisible. But technologies do not always work smoothly. A tiny fracture or a smudge on a lens renders glasses quite visible to the wearer.

The Microsoft Windows “Blue Screen of Death” on subway in Seoul (Photo credit Wikimedia Commons).

Anyone who has seen a famous “Blue Screen of Death”—the iconic signal of a Microsoft Windows crash—on a public screen or terminal knows how errors can thrust the technical details of previously invisible systems into view. Nobody knows that their ATM runs Windows until the system crashes. Of course, the operating system chosen for a sign or bank machine has important implications for its users. Windows, or an alternative operating system, creates affordances and imposes limitations. Faced with a crashed ATM, a consumer might ask herself if, with its rampant viruses and security holes, she should really trust an ATM running Windows?

Technologies make previously impossible actions possible and many actions easier. In the process, they frame and constrain possible actions. They mediate. Communication technologies allow users to communicate in new ways but constrain communication in the process. In a very fundamental way, communication technologies define what their users can say, to whom they say it, and how they can say it—and what, to whom, and how they cannot.

Humanities scholars understand the power, importance, and limitations of technology and technological mediation. Weisner hypothesised that, “to understand invisibility the humanities and social sciences are especially valuable, because they specialise in exposing the otherwise invisible.” However, technology activists, like those at the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), understand this power of technology as well. Largely constituted by technical members, both organisations, like humanists studying technology, have struggled to communicate their messages to a less-technical public. Before one can argue for the importance of individual control over who owns technology, as both FSF and EFF do, an audience must first appreciate the power and effect that their technology and its designers have. To understand the power that technology has on its users, users must first see the technology in question. Most users do not.

Errors are under-appreciated and under-utilised in their ability to reveal technology around us. By painting a picture of how certain technologies facilitate certain mistakes, one can better show how technology mediates. By revealing errors, scholars and activists can reveal previously invisible technologies and their effects more generally. Errors can reveal technology—and its power and can do so in ways that users of technologies confront daily and understand intimately.

The Misprinted Word

Catalysed by Elizabeth Eisenstein, the last 35 years of print history scholarship provides both a richly described example of technological change and an analysis of its effects. Unemphasised in discussions of the revolutionary social, economic, and political impact of printing technologies is the fact that, especially in the early days of a major technological change, the artifacts of print are often quite similar to those produced by a new printing technology’s predecessors. From a reader’s purely material perspective, books are books; the press that created the book is invisible or irrelevant. Yet, while the specifics of print technologies are often hidden, they are often exposed by errors.

While the shift from a scribal to print culture revolutionised culture, politics, and economics in early modern Europe, it was near-invisible to early readers (Eisenstein). Early printed books were the same books printed in the same way; the early press was conceived as a “mechanical scriptorium.” Shown below, Gutenberg’s black-letter Gothic typeface closely reproduced a scribal hand. Of course, handwriting and type were easily distinguishable; errors and irregularities were inherent in relatively unsteady human hands.

Side-by-side comparisons of the hand-copied Malmesbury Bible (left) and the black letter typeface in the Gutenberg Bible (right) (Photo credits Wikimedia Commons & Wikimedia Commons).

Printing, of course, introduced its own errors. As pages were produced en masse from a single block of type, so were mistakes. While a scribe would re-read and correct errors as they transcribed a second copy, no printing press would. More revealingly, print opened the door to whole new categories of errors. For example, printers setting type might confuse an inverted n with a u—and many did. Of course, no scribe made this mistake. An inverted u is only confused with an n due to the technological possibility of letter flipping in movable type. As print moved from Monotype and Linotype machines, to computerised typesetting, and eventually to desktop publishing, an accidentally flipped u retreated back into the realm of impossibility (Mergenthaler, Swank).

Most readers do not know how their books are printed. The output of letterpresses, Monotypes, and laser printers are carefully designed to produce near-uniform output. To the degree that they succeed, the technologies themselves, and the specific nature of the mediation, becomes invisible to readers. But each technology is revealed in errors like the upside-down u, the output of a mispoured slug of Monotype, or streaks of toner from a laser printer.

Changes in printing technologies after the press have also had profound effects. The creation of hot-metal Monotype and Linotype, for example, affected decisions to print and reprint and changed how and when it is done. New mass printing technologies allowed for the printing of works that, for economic reasons, would not have been published before. While personal computers, desktop publishing software, and laser printers make publishing accessible in new ways, it also places real limits on what can be printed. Print runs of a single copy—unheard of before the invention of the type-writer—are commonplace. But computers, like Linotypes, render certain formatting and presentation difficult and impossible.

Errors provide a space where the particulars of printing make technologies visible in their products. An inverted u exposes a human typesetter, a letterpress, and a hasty error in judgment. Encoding errors and botched smart quotation marks—a ? in place of a —are only possible with a computer. Streaks of toner are only produced by malfunctioning laser printers. Dust can reveal the photocopied provenance of a document.

Few readers reflect on the power or importance of the particulars of the technologies that produced their books. In part, this is because the technologies are so hidden behind their products. Through errors, these technologies and the power they have on the “what” and “how” of printing are exposed. For scholars and activists attempting to expose exactly this, errors are an under-exploited opportunity.

Typing Mistyping

While errors have a profound effect on media consumption, their effect is equally important, and perhaps more strongly felt, when they occur during media creation. Like all mediating technologies, input technologies make it easier or more difficult to create certain messages. It is, for example, much easier to write a letter with a keyboard than it is to type a picture. It is much more difficult to write in languages with frequent use of accents on an English language keyboard than it is on a European keyboard. But while input systems like keyboards have a powerful effect on the nature of the messages they produce, they are invisible to recipients of messages. Except when the messages contains errors.

Typists are much more likely to confuse letters in close proximity on a keyboard than people writing by hand or setting type. As keyboard layouts switch between countries and languages, new errors appear. The following is from a personal email:

hez, if there’s not a subversion server handz, can i at least have the root password for one of our machines? I read through the instructions for setting one up and i think i could do it. [emphasis added]

The email was quickly typed and, in two places, confuses the character y with z. Separated by five characters on QWERTY keyboards, these two letters are not easily mistaken or mistyped. However, their positions are swapped on German and English keyboards. In fact, the author was an American typing in a Viennese Internet cafe. The source of his repeated error was his false expectations—his familiarity with one keyboard layout in the context of another. The error revealed the context, both keyboard layouts, and his dependence on a particular keyboard. With the error, the keyboard, previously invisible, was exposed as an inter-mediator with its own particularities and effects.

This effect does not change in mobile devices where new input methods have introduced powerful new ways of communicating. SMS messages on mobile phones are constrained in length to 160 characters. The result has been new styles of communication using SMS that some have gone so far as to call a new language or dialect called TXTSPK (Thurlow). Yet while they are obvious to social scientists, the profound effects of text message technologies on communication is unfelt by most users who simply see the messages themselves. More visible is the fact that input from a phone keypad has opened the door to errors which reveal input technology and its effects.

In the standard method of SMS input, users press or hold buttons to cycle through the letters associated with numbers on a numeric keyboard (e.g., 2 represents A, B, and C; to produce a single C, a user presses 2 three times). This system makes it easy to confuse characters based on a shared association with a single number. Tegic’s popular T9 software allows users to type in words by pressing the number associated with each letter of each word in quick succession. T9 uses a database to pick the most likely word that maps to that sequence of numbers. While the system allows for quick input of words and phrases on a phone keypad, it also allows for the creation of new types of errors. A user trying to type me might accidentally write of because both words are mapped to the combination of 6 and 3 and because of is a more common word in English. T9 might confuse snow and pony while no human, and no other input method, would.

Users composing SMS’s are constrained by its technology and its design. The fact that text messages must be short and the difficult nature of phone-based input methods has led to unique and highly constrained forms of communication like TXTSPK (Sutherland). Yet, while the influence of these input technologies is profound, users are rarely aware of it. Errors provide a situation where the particularities of a technology become visible and an opportunity for users to connect with scholars exposing the effect of technology and activists arguing for increased user control.

Google News Denuded

As technologies become more complex, they often become more mysterious to their users. While not invisible, users know little about the way that complex technologies work both because they become accustomed to them and because the technological specifics are hidden inside companies, behind web interfaces, within compiled software, and in “black boxes” (Latour). Errors can help reveal these technologies and expose their nature and effects.

One such system, Google’s News, aggregates news stories and is designed to make it easy to read multiple stories on the same topic. The system works with “topic clusters” that attempt to group articles covering the same news event. The more items in a news cluster (especially from popular sources) and the closer together they appear in time, the higher confidence Google’s algorithms have in the “importance” of a story and the higher the likelihood that the cluster of stories will be listed on the Google News page. While the decision to include or remove individual sources is made by humans, the act of clustering is left to Google’s software.

Because computers cannot “understand” the text of the articles being aggregated, clustering happens less intelligently. We know that clustering is primarily based on comparison of shared text and keywords—especially proper nouns. This process is aided by the widespread use of wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters which provide article text used, at least in part, by large numbers of news sources. Google has been reticent to divulge the implementation details of its clustering engine but users have been able to deduce the description above, and much more, by watching how Google News works and, more importantly, how it fails.

For example, we know that Google News looks for shared text and keywords because text that deviates heavily from other articles is not “clustered” appropriately—even if it is extremely similar semantically. In this vein, blogger Philipp Lenssen gives advice to news sites who want to stand out in Google News:

Of course, stories don’t have to be exactly the same to be matched—but if they are too different, they’ll also not appear in the same group. If you want to stand out in Google News search results, make your article be original, or else you’ll be collapsed into a cluster where you may or may not appear on the first results page.

While a human editor has no trouble understanding that an article using different terms (and different, but equally appropriate, proper nouns) is discussing the same issue, the software behind Google News is more fragile. As a result, Google News fails to connect linked stories that no human editor would miss.

A section of a screenshot of Google News clustering aggregation showcasing what appears to be an error.

But just as importantly, Google News can connect stories that most human editors will not. Google News’s clustering of two stories by Al Jazeera on how “Iran offers to share nuclear technology,” and by the Guardian on how “Iran threatens to hide nuclear program,” seem at first glance to be a mistake. Hiding and sharing are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive.

But while it is true that most human editors would not cluster these stories, it is less clear that it is, in fact, an error. Investigation shows that the two articles are about the release of a single statement by the government of Iran on the same day. The spin is significant enough, and significantly different, that it could be argued that the aggregation of those stories was incorrect—or not.

The error reveals details about the way that Google News works and about its limitations. It reminds readers of Google News of the technological nature of their news’ meditation and gives them a taste of the type of selection—and mis-selection—that goes on out of view. Users of Google News might be prompted to compare the system to other, more human methods. Ultimately it can remind them of the power that Google News (and humans in similar roles) have over our understanding of news and the world around us. These are all familiar arguments to social scientists of technology and echo the arguments of technology activists. By focusing on similar errors, both groups can connect to users less used to thinking in these terms.


Reflecting on the role of the humanities in a world of increasingly invisible technology for the blog, “Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory,” Duke English professor Cathy Davidson writes:

When technology is accepted, when it becomes invisible, [humanists] really need to be paying attention. This is one reason why the humanities are more important than ever. Analysis—qualitative, deep, interpretive analysis—of social relations, social conditions, in a historical and philosophical perspective is what we do so well. The more technology is part of our lives, the less we think about it, the more we need rigorous humanistic thinking that reminds us that our behaviours are not natural but social, cultural, economic, and with consequences for us all.

Davidson concisely points out the strength and importance of the humanities in evaluating technology. She is correct; users of technologies do not frequently analyse the social relations, conditions, and effects of the technology they use. Activists at the EFF and FSF argue that this lack of critical perspective leads to exploitation of users (Stallman). But users, and the technology they use, are only susceptible to this type of analysis when they understand the applicability of these analyses to their technologies. Davidson leaves open the more fundamental question: How will humanists first reveal technology so that they can reveal its effects?

Scholars and activists must do more than contextualise and describe technology. They must first render invisible technologies visible. As the revealing nature of errors in printing systems, input systems, and “black box” software systems like Google News show, errors represent a point where invisible technology is already visible to users. As such, these errors, and countless others like them, can be treated as the tip of an iceberg. They represent an important opportunity for humanists and activists to further expose technologies and the beginning of a process that aims to reveal much more.

Author Biography

Benjamin Mako Hill