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Packing, 2019. [Click here]
Video courtesy of the artist


Alexandra Phillip’s work is currently on show at: Oostzaanstraat 10
1013 WK Amsterdam
30.11.2019 - 4.01.2020

1. Meister, D. (1993). Human Error: Cause, Prediction, and Reduction Edited by John W. Senders and Neville P. Moray, Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications, 1(1), pp.38-38

Practice Reflections:

Alexandra Phillips

~ Human Correction and The Pros of Deviation

In all of us there lurks a willingness to step outside the protocol. ‘Human error’, is defined as the propensity for people to make certain common mistakes; the making of an error is a natural result of being human [1]. It is deviation from intention, expectation or desirability. The definition goes on to state that logically, human actions can fail to achieve their goal in two different ways: the actions can go as planned but the plan can be inadequate. Or, the plan can be satisfactory but the performance can be deficient. The definition contains a sort of comforting disclaimer: A mere failure is not an error if there had been no plan to accomplish something in particular.

But how about when the natural result of being human is the key to accomplish that something in particular? It is a tendency that appears to have all the marks of, ‘wrong-behaviour’ or ‘human error’, but unlike human error, these actions result in a desired outcome. I cannot find an existing term that fits, we could call this force: Human Correction, I suppose? But only if one considers systems of standardisation most commonly associated with commerce to be flawed in some way, which I do.

Human Correction can be seen in many scenarios but it is most traceable on a local level, that is to say, in exchanges that happen everyday between the shopkeeper and the customer, the bank teller and the account holder, the taxi driver and the gas station attendant. Although some of the exchanges that take place in the name of human correction have a deviant component similar to that of human error, the difference is that these deviations create a positive outcome for the small group directly involved in the exchange. The complication is that this positive outcome only serves at the local level and often accounts for a small loss at the higher rungs of the exchange such as the corporation or governing body. It is a recalibration technique that we all possess but only make use of occasionally. I want to take this opportunity to provide some examples I have experienced of human correction at work, perhaps these will bring this concept more clearly into view.

There used to be a store in Union Square called Shoe Mania. It was big with one floor catering to all your boot, sneaker, dress-shoe needs, and then a basement level where the styles that failed to jump off the shelves are being sold at a discounted rate. I am not sure if Shoe Mania was a chain, but the people who worked there wore blue collared shirts with Shoe Mania printed on the breast, and they all wore a sort of ear piece that allowed them to get the shoes requested by New Yorkers and tourists with blisters. It was not a mom and pop store; rent alone at that location must have cost a fortune. So there I was looking around down in the basement, it was summer, I needed some dress shoes for something so naturally, I wanted discounted ones. The funny thing about Shoe Mania is, that upstairs where the shoes were still full price, there was always an attendant ready to fetch the pair of your dreams, the right size and in all the colors, but in the basement all the boxes were haphazardly stacked with very little rhyme or reason. There was only one attendant in the basement and they were poised more as a lookout than an attendant since there was no special storage place from which to fetch the discounted shoes, and the basement was never as crowded as the floor above. 

So there I was, looking for my size in some suitable style. I tried on so many things, all too small or too big, too ugly or not ugly enough. After about an hour of failed pairs, I found something that fit all the criteria. The only problem was, I could not find the box that belonged to those shoes and there was no other pair like them and so no way to know their price. I approached the attendant who had been watching the past hour and no doubt knew the time I had invested in finding the perfect shoe. I explained about the shoes with no box. We began to look in the basement together. He informed me that without the box they would be unable to ring me up at the register. We couldn’t find the box. He suggested we find another box, something reasonably priced and without shoes inside, that we could put my perfect pair in and I could bring them upstairs and make my purchase at the register. This suggestion puts us on the path to a human surety. We could find no shoeless box. What happened next is a shining example of human surety in action. Both kneeling, we continued to look. Then, I asked halfway joking, “If there is no box and no way to know how much they cost, could I just... have them?”

The attendant looked up, considered my proposition, and agreed under the condition that I wear the shoes out. I thanked him and left Shoe Mania new shoes on, old sandals in my bag. In the face of a gap in the system, we came to an understanding or a solution that simplified the exchange for all parties directly involved. Mr. Mania wouldn’t be impressed, which is why I maintain human surety is best appreciated on a small-scale local level.

I have an older friend who takes great pride in the fact that he doesn’t own anything. He lives in a house, drives a car, takes part in all the regular possession-holder activities, but nothing that he drives, lives in etc., is legally held in his name. He has fine credit, is not a criminal or an illegal alien, he explained he simply did not like the notion of having such big ticket items attached to his person. I know about the condition of his credit because some time after denouncing large purchases, he told me that over the years he helped out a few friends when they wanted to attach such big items to their person but could not do so due to financial disarray. He helped by lending them his name to purchase this or that, but only with the condition that he would never have to hear about the purchase again. This is just one example of people doing business amongst each other, getting around the rules of the financial system, it happens all the time, but again, we can’t teach this kind of thing because it comes in so many forms and the whole system would break down if we did.

In the scenarios above, an adherence to the regular protocol would have resulted in complete failure. Human correction as a concept encompasses the capacity we have to approach tasks from all sorts of angles and triumph when it seems internalised rules and regulations bar the way. My examples are singular events and relatively insignificant but I am sure with just this light prompt you have found some cases of your own. The force of human correction is omnipresent. In my opinion, it is us at our best.

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