Everyone is the hero of their own gripping adventure story, even in the workplace. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that the human need to control one’s narrative doesn’t justify squandering resources on ineffective situational awareness and control tools.
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that my family only just got around to watching 2010 live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato this week. My wife and I are products of the ’70s as well as nerds, and we fondly recall both the original 1973 anime and the anglicised version of it that was brought over to the USA in 1979 under the name Star Blazers. The latter was (if I remember correctly) one of the first translated anime that featured a central plot arc – the characters and the story changed over the course of the season, and you needed to watch the show in proper order in order to keep up. We take that for granted in modern television storytelling, but it was quite a thing when it first aired.
The live action movie came out in Japan in 2010, and didn’t make it over here until April of 2014. We’d wanted to see it since the spring, but could never quite work it into our schedules. My brother-in-law came to our rescue over Thanksgiving dinner by casually mentioning that he’d recently picked up the Blu-Ray version. Yeah, brother-in-law! Secure the beer! Pop the corn! Mute the mobiles! Time to watch a sunken World War II battleship rise as a… space battleship… because space battleship!
As science fiction moves go, it’s everything that you’d expect it to be. As far as we could tell, director Takashi Yamazaki stayed faithful to the original story. There were space fighter battles, romance, aliens, drama, a huge ‘wave motion’ canon, and so on, all delivered with the proper balance of both reverence and fond mirth for the ’70s version. Put it in your Netflix queue and give it a watch this weekend… and when you do, I’d like you to consider one fateful, inexplicable conundrum: why does the bridge of a giant space battleship need glass windows?
I don’t mean to spoil the movie for you; that question doesn’t actually matter to the story. It’s an anomaly that stood out to me every time the protagonists appeared on the bridge set. When the camera shifts to the bridge crew during the (many!) fighting scenes, you see the Captain’s Chair in the back centre of the set, surrounded by five crew consoles in the foreground. Whenever the view reverses to show us in the audience what the characters are supposed to be seeing, we look down from the Captain’s Chair towards the bow of the ship… and take in about one-third crew consoles, one-third giant LCD displays …and one-third giant glass windows.
I’m not trying to poke holes in a fine summer sci-fi flick. I understand why the set designer chose to build the bridge set that way. In order to help us in the audience understand what was happening in the story, the director made use of a sort of visual shorthand. When the titular space battleship approaches a planet, we viewers see a CGI planet appear through the fake bridge windows. When the action needs to switch from the human fighter pilots back to the command deck, the virtual camera pans from the actor in the ‘fighter plane’ cockpit over to the space battleship, up the hull to the to the bridge and on in through the windows to focus on the actors fretting over their stations.
It makes sense from a storytelling perspective; from an actual hard sci-fi perspective, it’s ludicrous:
- As author Dave Gerrold pointed out in his 1990 novel Voyage of the Star Wolf, battles fought between ships in space would actually be far more like submarine duels than 18th Century ships-of-the-line blasting one another with broadside cannonades.
- Glass windows represent a dangerous weakness in the structural integrity of a bridge, and serve no practical purpose. A solid, armoured wall makes much more sense than a metal wall that’s broken up by fragile glass and leaky seams. The Yamato already has cameras and LCD monitors; why not protect the crew and skip the windows entirely?
- Further, real fighting ships stopped putting a warship’s ‘bridge’ atop the superstructure decades ago; a modern ship keeps its bridge hidden deep inside the vessel, protected by armour. You’d think that ship designers in 2199 would adjust accordingly.
Even knowing all that, the set designers kept the giant glass windows in the design because that’s what we expect to see. Space Battleship Yamato isn’t a documentary; it’s a drama. In any good adventure story, the writers regularly reuse tropes and cultural artefacts that make sense for the story that they’re trying to tell. Realism gets in the way of telling the story. That’s why SBY treats us to several dramatic scenes where the valiant helmsman ‘flies’ the 71,659-tonne warship as if it were a terrestrial fighter plane – including ‘rolling’ it around its axis to evade enemy rockets. It’s why the space fighters manoeuvre in vacuum as if they were affected by aerodynamics. The story may be set in space, but it’s really just an interpretation of older war stories that we’ve seen before.
I have no problem seeing ‘space fighters’ perform barrel rolls. It looks cool. The only part of this story borrowing process that truly irks me is how it indirectly affects business culture.
I apologize if that transition was a bit jarring. Ahem.
We enjoy new stories that are really just thinly-veiled variations of stories that we already know; that’s why so many ‘space battle’ stories resemble Napoleonic-era capital ship fights straight out of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books. We generally don’t want endless exposition or a physics lessons; we want to see a hero defeat a villain and get the girl/guy/green-painted alien. A satisfying story focuses on the hero, who usually needs to be in a position of significance to the main plot – like a captain, or fighter pilot – and the drama then revolves around how the hero saves the day.
Here’s the thing: when you’re trying to tell a grand drama like SBR in a television or cinema, there simply isn’t enough time to tell a realistic story. The actual battleship Yamato sailed with a compliment of between 2,500 and 2,800 crewmen. The fictional version of the Yamato in Star Blazers knocked that down to 114 crewmen. Even that was too many people to show to the viewer, so the writers had to focus on a half-dozen primary characters and a dozen named secondary characters. We got to know all about the noble ship’s captain and the commander of the space fighter squadron, but we never delved into the private drama of Able Seaman Third Class Smith who kept the commodes running. Yes, the captain is critical to the smooth operation of the warship – but so is Seaman Smith. In a real warship, both sailors play essential parts; unfortunately, budget and audience patience limits prevent the screenwriter from exploring the rich inner life of the seaman who spent the Battle of Mars taking a spanner to a leaky space toilet.
This carries over into reality. People imagine themselves to be the great hero of their own epic drama. They’ve spent all of their lives consuming adventure stories, and can’t help but perceive their personal universe in adventure story terms.
This tendency becomes much worse the further up the corporate ladder you ascend. The business press feeds the delusion, by describing chief executives and start-up owners as ‘steering’ their companies as if they were actually driving a ship or flying a plane, When economic conditions are challenging, for example, writers use the language of piloting a ship through a storm at sea. The analogy works for readers because we recognize the tropes and the language. It isn’t, however, real.
I may well be wrong, but I’m 99 per cent certain that Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM, does not have a joystick built into her desk that allows her to manually manoeuver Big Blue’s headquarters in four dimensions like a spaceship. I’m equally sure that Wal-Mart’s Rosiland Brewer has never uttered the phrase ‘Scramble all our space fighters!’ in a board meeting. Real businesses don’t operate anything like a classic adventure story, no matter how much we might like them to. Real CEOs craft strategic policy, approve operational decisions, hire and fire key subordinates… but they don’t defeat their rivals in the marketplace by sneaking into the enemy’s HQ with a an energy sword and an elite team of plucky underdogs to have a one-on-one duel with their opposite number.
So, if we can accept that real-world business has pretty much noting in common with grand space opera, why do we keep pretending that it does? Why do we focus on CEOs and COOs as if they were heroes and villains? We do it because story elements are something that we understand and identify with on an unconscious level. It’s also much more attractive than everyday existance. Real business is complicated, messy, and often frightfully boring. Corporate struggles are fought using poorly-edited PowerPoint slides, not lightsabres. No matter how many new features Microsoft brings to PowerPoint, it’ll never be as viscerally stimulating a tool as a glowing Hero’s Blade.
Further, the heroes and villains of big business are usually neither; yes, there are some admirable folks and there are also some truly reprehensible scoundrels in the business world, but they’re rarely as exciting as cinematic characters are portrayed. Real people aren’t screen-optimized caricatures. They yearn to be, though; every person considers him- or herself to be the main character of their own biopic. They want to be larger than life. They hunger to be loved, feared, coveted, and respected. They want to sort of control over their lives and their fortunes that the overwhelming majority of us simply cannot ever have. They want to grab the joystick that controls their career so that they can barrel roll just in the nick of time. It’s human nature to want to be a hero.
That’s why there’s such a ridiculous demand in business to develop and deploy ‘consoles’ for our executives. If you’ve worked in IT leadership over the last ten years, you’ve probably come across this: it might arrive under vague buzzwords like ‘big data’, or business intelligence’, or ‘global monitoring’, but it’s all the same thing in the end. A Big Boss wants IT to build him or her a fighter pilot’s cockpit from which to ‘fly’ the company – they imagine having a dashboard of real-time indicators, displayed as gauges and warning annunciators. They want computers to distil down trillions of data elements into a few comprehensive visual indicators on their desk so that they can make swift, decisive changes to the company’s metaphorical direction in order to pounce on new opportunities or to evade looming disasters. They want to zig and zag their global mega-corp from their desk, like they were captain of the brave Space Battleship Yamato.
It doesn’t happen. It can’t happen. Sorry to say it so bluntly, but it must be said.
Yes, you can build a console that summarizes some information about some aspect of your operation that allows you to make some better operational decisions. Call centres tend to do this well by monitoring how many operators are available versus how many customers are currently in their queues. Sysadmins likewise measure the temperature and humidity inside their data centres to know when it’s time to adjust their cooling or to failover their data services to an undamaged location. Those examples represent very focused, very practical applications of data analysis – they look at a very small number of known elements to support very simple decision-making activities. Those examples work because their scope is narrow, and because the people using the data understand exactly what a change in the normal values probably represents.
Contrast that with the perspective that a CEO has within a large corporation. While there certainly are data feeds available for the Top Guy/Gal to monitor, they’re almost always useless when it comes to executive decision-making. Stock prices rise and fall due to irrational factors well outside the scope of what a company can control. Consumer demand changes fitfully, based on factors that can only explained in retrospect. The strategic direction of a megacorp is set and controlled over notional maps and vague estimates, in the same fashion that medieval warlords would use to pour over vellum maps of their fielded armies. There aren’t any real-time, accurate indicators that a CEO can monitor like a hawk in order to fine-tune the functioning of their company. A company isn’t an airplane, ship, train, spacecraft, or racecar. It’s a sprawling, amorphous, confused, frequently inefficient, often contradictory, and always disconnected mass of well-meaning people. Lots and lots of people, most of whom operate so many echelons below the executive boardroom tier that the CEO has nearly zero control over them.
I understand and empathize with executives’ yearning for control. I do. The CEO is supposed to be the hero of the company’s grand adventure, and a hero can’t save the day unless he or she takes some decisive and dramatic action to change something. It’s emasculating and depressing to accept that a CEO has far less power to control his or her fate than people think they have, and that their success is dependent more on random chance than on shrewd decision-making.
The CEO doesn’t need a control console anymore than a space battleship needs glass windows. These are things hat we think we ought to have, because they make sense to us by way of the stories that we’ve internalized and have identified with during our formative years. We can’t imagine living our personal version of a Grand Adventure Story without such controls. Unfortunately, they’re both terrible ideas in pragmatic, everyday life. We’re not living in a space opera; we’re living in a banal, confusing world that’s populated entirely by self-appointed protagonists.
Giving an executive an abstracted representation of current affairs is, at best, a waste of their time. At worst, it gives the critical decision-maker a false understanding of current conditions, thereby inspiring them to change plans based on false perceptions. That’s unhealthy for the executive, and for the company, and often for its customers. Please accept that it’s a terrible thing to put the illusion of situational awareness in front of a person who wields the power to wreck the company.
I’m not saying that I want SBY re-shot to make it gritty and realistic. If I want to see realistic space battles, I’ll re-watch Das Boot. Conversely, I do want everyone (executives especially!) to be grounded and pragmatic when I go to work. As fun as it would be to run around the office wearing a cape and brandishing a ray gun, those costume elements won’t do anything to help us sell widgets or to satisfy angry customers. If we’re going to be any good at our pedestrian vocations, we have to accept that our lives are not dramatic adventure stories, and therefore can’t be twisted to resemble one without making things unnecessarily and tragically worse.
 Because that would be too awesome for this world if it were true.
 See previous footnote, re: too awesome.
 If anyone is interested in actually trying that, I will invest in your company just to see that happen, because it’d be freaking amazing.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.