In the early 1990s, it was popular to look at new forms of information technology—particularly the Internet—and envision a utopian future.
Look at the future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The USS Enterprise's sophisticated holodeck—an immersive, holographic, virtual reality environment—is used solely for educational purposes and for G-rated relaxation. Of course, the last two decades of experience with the Internet have made this a laughable proposition. Were such a device to exist, you can bet that Wesley Crusher would spend his formative years sneaking off to the holodeck to look at 3-d pornography. Likewise, the ship's computer is used only for technical and educational functions, not for mass-mailing pictures of cats, as we do today. Um, that is, people other than me, of course.
Though the future of information technology isn't entirely dystopian—few can doubt the impact of the Internet on our day-to-day communications—modern information technologies can reinforce poor communication habits.
This should, of course, come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading this blog in the past few months, particularly my emphasis on relying on PowerPoint as a communications tool. But bullet-point statements, a reliance on pictures instead of words, and an emphasis on cosmetic issues aren't the only barriers to effective communication. A more insidious issue is a reliance on the simple "copy-paste" features of most computer systems.
Admit it, you've probably done it.
It's a growing problem, not just in bureaucracies, but in the educational system as well—where students can easily "write" a paper in a few minutes (albeit with facepalmingly-hilarious results when they're finally caught). It can be used properly in certain contexts—certainly we've all done it—but it can have its abuses, as well.
A few all-too-common examples.
Army headquarters at the battalion and higher levels distribute operations orders, or "OPORDS", for tactical missions. Tracing their lineage back to the short, five-paragraph orders written by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 17th Century, they have grown into a massive beast. In modern, "steady-state" operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even in home station, organizations disseminate information through a daily or weekly "fragmentary order". The FRAGO, as it's known, might contain anything from tactical directives to step-by-step instructions for ordering a burger at the local Burger King . (In a curious twist of doctrine, one might even find multiple operations orders embedded within the weekly FRAGO.)
Passed from headquarters to headquarters—from a division to a brigade to a battalion—it's subject to modification, certainly, but much relevant information is simply copied and pasted as it travels through the chain of command. In fact, FRAGOs often contain so much information (when compiled on a weekly basis, a brigade FRAGO can be hundreds of pages long) that overworked staffs must frantically copy-and-paste information in order to distribute the FRAGO to lower echelons before the information becomes obsolete.
In the rush, staffs often have little time to apply a critical eye to the FRAGO. Today, modern militaries produce and disseminate so much information that—in this officer's mind—many simply give up on trying to consume and comprehend it all.
While relying on copy/paste to transmit information is understandable—albeit regrettable—many more use modern technology to arbitrarily copy and paste information from PowerPoint slides or memoranda. It's relatively simple for a user to find a PowerPoint presentation or Word document with information generally related to their line of work. With judicious Copy/Paste and a few tweaks to a slide's background or a memo's heading, a user can often pass off such documents as his or her own work.
True comprehension of material, however, doesn't always follow.
I was once in charge of compiling submissions for a comprehensive battalion "standard operating procedures"—the book on how an organization does business. After receiving chapters on logistics, air mission planning, communications, administration and maintenance from the appropriate specialty officers, it became painfully obvious that many simply copied and pasted text lifted from other organizations.
How could I tell for certain? Well, when I asked for revisions, many seemed puzzled that they made such egregious mistakes in their "work".
How egregious? How about writing about the wrong types of helicopters? (There were several mentions of OH-58D helicopters, where "Find and replace" failed to properly change the reference to UH-60).
So what say ye? What's the worst use of copy/paste you've run across?