Friday, January 30, 2009

The Train Wreck in Outer Space

Reader Michael Thomas sent a link to this YouTube video, "Barriers to Innovation and Inclusion," which skewers NASA's bureaucracy in a Law and Order send-up that also makes a serious point about proceduralism and the ways that "optimal solutions" can lose out to the "technical feasible." Those interested in information design will appreciate the fact that at one point in the video real labyrinthine NASA project plan flowchart serves as the backdrop to a scene.

Thomas pointed out that the video was actually cited in this entry on one of NASA's official blogs. The rhetoric of the introduction by Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale is particularly interesting, in the way that he situates himself as a speaker as an agent of reform:

I've got a video that you need to watch, but first I need to explain why you need to watch it and what lesson I hope you will take away.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said that NASA - and specifically the Space Shuttle Program - stifled dissenting opinions which might have prevented the accident. Particularly the action was pointed toward the Mission Management Team. As the new Deputy Program Manager, I was assigned the task of restructuring the MMT and providing means for listening to dissent. Somewhere along the way I acquired the informal title of 'culture change leader'. I took this to heart and changing the culture to be more welcoming to alternate or dissenting opinions was a task that took a lot of my time and attention.

The build-up continues for several paragraphs until the writer gets to the following viewing instructions: "So now, watch the video, then come back and lets talk about what I think we really need to do about it." A link appears and then there is more second-person direct address to the reader and instructions for viewing.

Are you done with it? Maybe you should go back and watch it a couple of times. I did.

I feel like the early civil right pioneers must feel; the overt bad behavior is gone underground. People say the right things in public discussion of how they should act, then behave in the bad old ways in small or private settings.

In the Virtualpolitik book I've written about how nonfiction online videos on YouTube perform whistle-blowing functions, but it is interesting to observe how this fictional scenario is designed to be persuasive and to dramatize private power plays for public viewing.

On NASA Watch, a blogger suggested that the video should run on NASA TV, where the delivery of lines isn't much better than the wooden acting on "Barriers. In the satiric video, the young female engineer meets with the characters of "Supervisor," "Bureau Chief," "Project Office, and "Director" who respond with stilted dialogue that emphasizes the scripted quality of collegial interactions. On Transterrestrial Musings the reaction of NASA officials to the video is compared to Claude Rains saying he was "shocked shocked" to discover gambling in Casablanca.

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