Human Nature and Technical Communication

As some of you might have noticed, I’m a bit of a science fiction fan. Star Trek, of course, rates high among my favorites. However, the more I read about and observe human history, the more I’m painfully aware that we’re a long way from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a better, kinder human race–and even the Starship Enterprise carried phasers and photon torpedoes. So while I do what I can to operate with Star Trek-type idealism, I know all too well that the darker side of human nature can bring me “down to Earth” in a hurry. Coping with humanity’s failings keeps me employed as I work on this century’s space efforts.

Accidents and Errors

Human beings are imperfect beings, limited as we are by our senses, which limited bandwidth, specific response rates, and a vulnerability to confusion or misinterpretation.

What this means for technical communicators working in high technology is that we have a duty and responsibility to make procedures, cautions, warnings, and emergency communications as clear and error free as possible. We have the opportunity to write and edit plans that enable scientific and engineering organizations operate with prudence and safety. In the space industry, this can include things like contamination control plans, environmental protection protocols (on and off Earth), and operating instructions.

Stubbornness and Malice

For people who inadvertently or purposely refuse to follow directions, launch vehicles, spacecraft, and their related ground hardware include a variety of bells and whistles (lights, sirens, danger signs, status indicators, lockout mechanisms, etc.) to keep human beings from doing inadvertent harm to themselves as well as others. Technical communicators might have a hand in writing or reviewing signage that provide cautions and warnings. We definitely have a role in writing and editing safety training classes, which cover everything from what the various cautions and warnings look like and mean to what sort of personal protective equipment (PPE) is appropriate for different hazardous situations.

Unfortunately, there are also people who actively attempt to damage hardware, software, or the people using it. That is why NASA and its related contractors create and implement security and access control plans. If tech writers are not writing these plans, they are at least included in the editing loop. Some of these plans are treated as classified by government agencies or propriety by private industry so the plans do not get into unfriendly hands…or, if they do, the people leaking them face consequences. I’ve also seen “INFOSEC” (information security) or physical security plans refer to classified, secret, or top secret procedures that not included in the text. If these plans get leaked, any bad actors will (most likely) still not know all of the means at the disposal of the government to keep them from doing too much harm.

Bottom line: while we can keep on working toward and hoping for a better future, our communications must, realistically, address the limitations of human nature, both accidental and purposeful.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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