#2. Sleight Of Hand (Part I)

Preface: (I’m breaking this into parts because this is the –meat- of what I want to get across. It will question pretty much –every- aspect of how you’ve been protesting so it’s just not possible to cram into 800 words. Part I is called “Ways And Means”)

OK, so you’ve decided to write. What to write? You’d do worse than to start with this observation: The Port tends to achieve its goals using methods that most people do not notice, even while they are in the middle of it. This is –exactly- like a magician who invites members of the audience on stage to help with their trick, or at a minimum, to examine the stage to convince everyone that there are no hidden wires. It helps the magician establish credibility with a skeptical audience. I’m going to use the recent SAMP Community Meeting as an example to demonstrate the points I want to raise.

At this meeting, the Port did several things that were very much to its advantage (and to the community’s detriment) that it –always- does when dealing with communities. Most residents do not notice for various reasons, but you must understand that these are –intentional-. They are, like the magician, part of the act. Or rather, they help ensure that the Port will ‘win’ this interaction. OK, on with the show…

1. Bring crappy equipment. This makes it easy to make materials hard to read and limits the flexibility of presentations you can run (eg. an under-powered computer might not be able to run animations. Great! Then limit the presentations to less informative Powerpoints.) Bonus: you may even get lucky and have real failures.

2. Leave no evidence.
Related to #1, do not record these meetings (or in fact even the Port Rep. presentations.) The more the community is forced to rely on its memory, the less useful the meeting is. Conversely, if one can see everything the Port says over time? The far greater likelihood that they will be caught in an important lie.

3. Provide no version control. Related to #2 (see how this works? 😀 )
/****NB: If you have looked at any changes made to the various new terminal proposals, at first glance they all look the same, but after a few seconds, you’ll realise that there have been a SHIT TON of teeny, tiny changes since the original proposals were put up. Now: back at the architect’s (or engineer’s) shop, they METICULOUSLY track each and every one of these changes and when they generate a new drawing, they give it a unique Version Number so that when they look back at different versions of the same project they can know exactly which version they were talking about, which changes it contained and most importantly –when- it was active. ****/

The Port simply shows you the most recent drawings at presentations. They don’t give you a Version Number. And even worse, they do not publish which version yer looking at on their site. And even –WORSTER- when a new version is printed, they simply put the most recent one on their site.

Why is this bad? Because it makes it impossible for –you- the public to know what, when, who of even –if- something was changed.

Why should you care? Well, you might be at a meeting and notice a feature abc is messed up. Then you go to a second meeting and notice that abc is now corrected, but now feature ‘def’ is completely screwed up. You complain again. This time an angry project manager says “Lady, when we fixed ‘abc’ we had to move ‘def’ otherwise it would have been in the way of ‘xyz’. Couldn’t be helped. And because you can’t go back and see the original version (it’s been replaced by the ‘new and improved version’, remember?) you have no way to prove that he’s lying out of both sides of his mouth.

#4 Archiving
The Port should put EVERY VERSION of EVERY IMPORTANT DOCUMENT on their various community web sites (including presentations.) WRT the SAMP, the public should be able to see all revisions as they work through them. They already have the ability to do this (they do this very thing for their internal engineering and development teams) and in fact promised to do so at the May version of this talk I saw along with business leaders. Traci Buxton, Michael Matthias and Susan Cezar were at this meeting. What you don’t believe me? See Technique #1 above.

#5. Search
For ‘Technology’, a web site might not have a decent Search function. You may be 100% sure that the information you want is in a building or on a web site. But if the place isn’t open or if the Search function isn’t working properly, it may as well not exist. In these cases, you’re and there is nothing to be done about it.

But if you’re listening to a Presenter, they also have powerful tools to deny you answers.
a. For example, if the Presenter will be asked a tough question and say, “I don’t have that information with me…” For most polite people, this is essentially a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free Card’ because most of us can remember being in school and being at the blackboard and being asked a question they don’t have the answer to. So it’s just natural to want to give them a break. Even if you have STRONG doubts as to their honesty on this? The rest of the audience can easily turn on you for being ‘inhumane’. They may not have the background that you do. So –you- come off as the asshole. But if that technique doesn’t work? The Presenter may fall back on some other tried-and-true techniques.

b. Saying, “Sorry, I’ve run out of time.”

c. And as a last resort: Lying. Do not underrate lying. A skilled Presenter can ‘improvise’ on the spot using some bit of info that he’s sure you can’t properly verify—at least until he’s left town. And as with a), most people are even –more- squeamish about calling people a ‘liar’ in public, so you can really, Really, REALLY come off like an asshole if you attempt this. The Presenter knows this. It is his hold card. This puts the onus on you to be bold.

*Ed. Note: Actually, the –real- last resort is to fake a sudden, uncontrollable illness or other emergency. I have seen this happen and the shamelessness with which it was executed made me doubt the evidence of my own eyes. Depending on your POV, this is either the lowest of the low –or- a true genius move.

#6. Obfuscation
The Port benefits from making things unclear, inconvenient or not useful. Most of the public -totally- undervalues how terrible this is.
a. In terms of Technology, the Port can have a crappy web site as we’ve seen. But they can also go cheap on items that –look- nice but are actually uninformative for the user. In the broadest context, one could say the whole structure of the SAMP Meetings is like that. The Schedule is unclear. The meetings are not scheduled to maximize turnout. The Agendas are unclear. The Posters, handouts are impressive: nice looking and filled with lots of information. But is it the information you –need- to see in order to understand the impacts to your neighbourhood? Who decided what you ought to see? (Expert Tip: Great organizations have meetings –before- the meetings and ASK what users will want to see on the materials.) They can also do other things like overwhelm the public with information. But that’s for my Grad School course. 😀

b. In terms of human stuff, the Port will always provide a SQUAD of –very- nice people. And if you poll most people with the question: “What matters most at a Presentation: technology or people.” Most people will answer, “People! Yeah!” Because people are stupid. in fact, most people totally IGNORE all the ‘tech’ and just wait for the Presenter. They think that the Presenter -is- the show. WRONG!

What you actually –want- is for the presentation to be 90% about the documents, ie. to have the BEST websites, animations, powerpoints and handouts. You want them to spend like NINETY PERCENT (90%) of their effort on this pre-event publishing and only ten percent on their ‘talk’. The gold standard is for them to make all their documents sooooo easy to use and self-explanatory that you could have a couple of sixth-graders act as your guides and presenters.

/*NB: A great presentation is like an iPhone–it gives you a ton of complex power, but requires almost no human to explain it to you.*/

SUPER IMPORTANT: Now why are the ‘People’ (ie. their guides and presenters) the least important part of the presentation? BECAUSE THEY ARE THE MAGICIANS! Get it? THE PEOPLE ARE THE DISTRACTION! The Port People’s job is to waste your time in as pleasant a fashion as possible so that you do not study the -real- info (which is all in the documents) and then go home not realizing how little you actually learned at the meeting! If there is nothing else you take away from this ‘rant’ this is IT!!!!

/*NB: Most human beings respond to charm. If the Presenters are in –any- way nice and likeable and at least –appear-as though they are trying to be helpful, the audience does NOT want to beat up on them too much. A Presenter can be remarkably incompetent and yet escape from most audiences’ clutches so long as they appear well-meaning. Again: most of us do –not- want to come off as abusive. (Well, at least not in Seattle.)*/

SUMMARY: I wrote this to get you to think about your interactions with The Port (or FAA or any other part of the puzzle.) You want to start noticing ways that these organizations are manipulating you to limit your effectiveness. After reading this you may have questions such as: “How can I get –better- at this?” ie. “How can I get the information I need and not get taken to the cleaners so easily.” Well, if you already have the vague feeling that you –are- getting “taken to the cleaners” the above example will help. Another is by taking an inventory after every interaction. For example, after you left the meeting, you might have asked yourself, “Are there any questions I -wish- had been asked?” Just making a list of things you missed will help for next time. Almost all of us have those feelings—ways we could have improved on a letter the moment it dropped into the Post Box! 😀

Now some of you might also be thinking, “This is all too paranoid for –me-. They can’t –possibly- waste so much time and effort just to screw with us. Or perhaps you’re not convinced that just having better information–websites, handouts, search, etc. are -really- that important. And the notion that the -meeting- itself is all a ‘magic show’ might seem far fetched.

We’ll get into that next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *