Reflections on “Organized Thoughtlessness”

“Representatives of the outside are on the inside. Traitors in our midst.”

“Whistleblowing…is another tactic for spreading disunity and creating conflict.”

—Former  President, General Motors (GM)

“The preferred solution: total control of the internal environment to combat threat from the external environment. Most threatening of all…is the thought that the proprietary organization isn’t really private.”


How can privacy be expected when one’s job is to provide a service to people—who most of the times are paying for the service? Who are expecting quality, reliability, and even safety in return for their hard-earned money?

We’ve seen it in DC. We’ve seen it in Flint. And although many of us may not have seen it—it happened with B. F. Goodrich. A “subordinate” was fired after reporting to the FBI that the brake intended for the air force was not accompanied with appropriate test results, while his supervisors were promoted. It appears the organizational paranoia has no consideration for the fact that often time whistleblowers’ first action is to keep the matter private, likely to avoid disunity or conflict.

Fred Alford explores the concept of feudalism in an organization as being the perception of the whistleblower looking from the bottom up. In case you can’t entirely remember your time learning about medieval Europe—feudalism was a social system that is essentially based on hierarchy of power in which a lower class provide services for the class above its own in return for a service.

Alford says that feudalism is marked by power being a private possession. One is not expected to work for or represent the organization as a whole, but rather a workers’ decisions are often times made solely on a private relationship with the boss compromised by the power dynamic, despite one’s own moral compass. These private relationships allow for those “up top” to claim that they knew nothing about a given incident, once the whistleblower goes public.


untitled unmastered.

“The whole idea of corrosion control is more of an art than a science”

— Lloyd Stowe, P.E., Chief of Plant Operations, Washington Aqueduct


What does it mean when a professional engineer and chief of plant operations attributes controlling a scientific phenomenon (i.e., corrosion) to being outside the realm of science? Perhaps he means that even when one thinks he/she knows all there is to know about corrosion, there are so many contributing factors that it is likely some things can be overlooked. Perhaps he means corrosion control goes beyond what is rational or scientific, as others attribute to something that is an “art.” Perhaps it is a matter of perspective – a scientist in 2018 may indeed view corrosion control as a science, as research advances and having been able to learn from the past mistakes. In this case, learning from mistakes often comes at the cost of a threat to public welfare.

I can only hope that Stowe made this statement as a way to reassure the public that while the team at the Washington Aqueduct did the best they can to make a decision that would minimize one issue, there were unintended consequences they were unable to avoid because corrosion control is so massive. On the other hand, as someone who has concern for the victims of the DC Lead Crisis, it is hard to not see this as an excuse. I cannot help but to translate this as “corrosion control is an art, and I am not an artist.”

I see this as a lesson to be learned about how vital it is to be open and truthful with clarity – not to use language that can be vague or abstract. To not allow for misinterpretation, as a means to value one’s social contract as an engineer.

Source: Google

The “Googling the Error” section of the “Arc of Life Learning” chapter in Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning resonated with me the most this week. Possibly because these days I am Allen and he is me. I was not always this way. When I arrived at Virginia Tech as a graduate student in June 2017, my fellow lab mates suggested I learn the program R as this allows for graphing data in the format my advisor prefers. Apparently Excel graphs are deemed a bit unprofessional in the world I only recently became a part of—who knew? I saw that there was book available to teach all there was to know about R, thus I asked if this was the best way to learn the program. I was a new graduate student eager to learn things the “right way”. In summary I was told “No. Just google anything you need to know.” They were not wrong. Even after taking a class in my department which essentially teaches R in the context of environmental sampling and monitoring—still not wrong. I would absolutely argue that the class was helpful for two of the reasons Robert Talbert lists in “Four things lecture is good for”: modeling thought processes and giving context. However, now that I am beyond the class and actually to the point where I have my own data to work with, it is nearly impossible and time-consuming to search through the course material for the specific file which contained a specific example of how to change the range on the y-axis. I try, I really do—primarily because I want to actually make use of what I learned and the work I put into the semester, but my priority is producing results not holding on to principle.

In the same section of A New Culture of Learning, a passage caused me to reflect on my understanding of what we discussed last week: “by ‘googling’ the error, he was able to tap into—and learn from—large, diverse networks of programming and hobbyists who all faced similar issues.” Networked learning. But the thing is, I often overlook the people in the process that comprise this network. Often, Google is viewed as this omnipotent being that has all the answers. Too many times I’ve seen people cite Google Images (not even going to talk about Wikipedia). In reality, Google is simply a search engine that directs us to questions and answers provided by real people. When I “google the error,” I unfortunately don’t make any attempts to be a part of the conversation. I get my answer and I get out. Really, I should be more grateful to all the people who were helpful enough to take the time to answer questions for people like me and of course, the brave answer-seekers.

Networked Learning and Inclusion

The third suggestion presented by Doug Belshaw in “Working Openly on the Web” is to ensure data is readable by both humans and machines. This statement reminded me of a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago. The workshop attendees were advised to make sure any file we upload is also readable by machines. However, this was addressed in the context of how graduate teaching assistants may further accommodate students with disabilities.

Seth Godin argues that blogging is a means to force oneself to become part of the conversation.

Reflecting on all of these points, I have come to conclude that making data readable by machines does not just allow for “network effects”, as suggested by Doug Belshaw, and blogging is not just a platform to participate in the conversation if one so chooses. Rather the idea of “networked learning” allows for any- and every- one to be an active participant in one’s education. It includes those students whose learning needs may otherwise be overlooked by traditional pedagogy.

I was most inspired by Michael Welsh’s presentation of a “scaffolded” final project that makes the process “worth it” for each individual student. I have been in a few classes, both graduate and undergraduate, that have included checkpoints by which my instructors could give feedback for the next phase and the final submission. I’ve found this helpful due to the instructor feedback and that this does not allow for leaving a final project until the last moment. I’ve even experienced not submitting one deadline to my expectations, and it was reassuring to know that I would be able to recover as I progressed.

I am interested to learn ways to incorporate networked learning, “scaffolded” assignments, and ultimately inclusion in my own teaching practices.