Memos, Efficiency, & Human Decency: The Battle of Two Ethics

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

As someone who grades memos in technical communication classes, I often find myself asking: Is the grammar correct? Is the information accessible? Is it organized and readable? If I answer yes to these questions, I could say that the memo is not only effectively written but also follows what technical communication scholar Stephen Katz would describe as the “ethic of expediency.” But can a memo be ethical in how efficiently it conveys information but unethical in how it impacts human lives? Is it important for information – and technology – to be both efficient and decent?

I can’t help but think of Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space when Bill Lumbergh (played to perfection by Gary Cole) leans into Peter Gibbons’ cubicle to chastise him about forgetting to follow the new company policy of putting a cover letter on a TPS report. “Did you see the memo about this?” Lumberg asks in a cringey, monotone drawl. He blatantly disregards Peter’s apology and reasonable plan to fix the error, instead telling Peter that he’ll send him the memo again – even though Peter has it right in front of him. 

As a dark comedy, Office Space makes us laugh with its relatability and only slightly exaggerated representation of a stifling work environment where efficiency is valued over human decency. History brings us some much darker examples, sans the comedy. 

In the technical communication discipline, “ethics” was originally linked to accuracy and clarity in communication, and topics like bias and values weren’t part of the discussion. The writer of technical documents was – and often still is – seen as the “mere scribe” of technical information (this is how Robert Johnson describes it in his article “Complicating Technology”). This has fortunately been changing, and part of that shift is thanks to Katz’s groundbreaking essay “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” Katz challenged how ethics were viewed in technical communication by analyzing a Nazi memo in which the author, Just, hopes to persuade his boss to make technical improvements on a fleet of vehicles. It’s a well-organized and well-written memo, one that Katz describes as “almost perfect” in terms of a written document.

In the memo, Just’s first recommendation is to reduce the size of the “special vehicles” used to transport and process Jews during the Holocaust. Previously the number of “pieces” loaded in the van had to be reduced, but Just argues for reducing the load space of the vans for better stability and load capacity. “If the load space is reduced,” he writes, “and the vehicle is packed solid, the operating time can be considerably shortened.” The van manufacturers expressed concern that shortening the rear of the van would throw off the balance of the vehicle and overload the front axle. However, Just is confident this won’t happen: 

In fact, the balance is automatically restored, because the merchandise aboard displays during the operation the natural tendency to rush to the rear doors, and is mainly found lying there at the end of the operation.

See, Just informs his audience, no problem at all. His technical suggestions will improve expediency, make the workplace run more smoothly, and keep the boss happy. He’s just a technical writer doing his job and doing it well. 

The very big problem for humanity is that this is a memo about making it easier to commit genocide. Katz uses this memo to argue forcefully that we can no longer treat language, and especially technical communication, as separate from ethics, from society, and from people. The same goes for technology itself. Katz recognizes the extreme evil of the Nazi regime and his particularly loaded example, but he is firm in his warning that anytime we gauge science and technology solely on efficiency and output, we flirt with the same standard of devaluing human life that defined the Holocaust. 

It’s important to remember that both technology and how we write about that technology cannot be disentangled from humanity. Even a TPS report is essentially about human life and how it is lived. It’s a tricky road, though, when something can be right and wrong at the same time. So what is a broad guideline we can use to guide our choices, and is there ever a time to choose efficiency over decency? For me, I’ll side with Joseph Rotblat in his 1995 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”

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