Remember the iPod shuffle? The basic edition of the first generation of the digital music player was designed to carry up to 240 songs and play them in random order — each time you turned it on, it would “shuffle” the collection, so you wouldn’t know what would play next. While some might think of this as a disadvantage (after all, many of us like the sense of an orderly playlist that you can control), the company turned this into a quirky feature: “life is random!” went the ad, proclaiming randomness as something special — and something essential.
It is a point that often comes up in software design — is something a bug or a feature? In fact, the magazine Wired recently discussed the source of this idea and its frequent misuse to the point of becoming an apology for shoddy work. But (as even Wired acknowledges), there is some value to considering whether a bug could be turned into a feature. When does a “quirk” cease to be bothersome and become instead, a valuable characteristic? When does an apparent defect end up becoming a source of value? A skilled carpenter will work around the nuances of the grain, in a piece of wood, in such a way that it becomes an intrinsic part of the design of whatever it is he is making. Tailors add embroidery and lace to ordinary seams and turn them into highlights.
To turn a possible disadvantage into an advantage calls for a shift in perspective. It means looking at something with an analytical eye, trying to understand elements of it that are unchangeable and seeing how you can work with them, instead of wasting time trying to change or rectify them. It means, going beyond the tired cliché of “what cannot be cured must be endured”. Of course, to begin with, one must see whether indeed it is a simple error that can be fixed. For instance, is what appears to be a blemish on the wood simply something that is external to it, which can be cleaned up, or is it part of the wood’s natural colouring? The first instance represents something that can possibly be cleaned up, while the second can be seen as adding to the natural beauty of the material.
There is a lesson in here somewhere for the way we live our lives and think about ourselves and the things we do. What, in fact, is a “flaw”? What can be considered an error that can be fixed? And what is just an element or an aspect of something? Can recognising and understanding the so-called flaw open up a new way of looking at the task or the product? Does it lead us into a different space of discovery or action? Sportspersons who understand their bodies well also know how to not only adjust for (what might be considered) physical shortcomings but use those very characteristics in strategic ways. This is also the kind of thinking that has motivated the disability movement, where an individual’s perceived weakness (or impairment) is instead framed as a special ability.
Even when the “bug” is not something intrinsic to the material but has emerged as an element in the product or outcome, it is possible to recast it as a feature — much like the randomness that became a special feature of the iPod Shuffle.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. firstname.lastname@example.org