david lindsley FIET; Hon Fellow, Kingston  University

… communicating engineering

What happens when idiots take over

Ug woke up feeling pretty chipper. He had slept well on a full belly and now the first rays of the sun had peeped in through the entrance to his cave and he could already feel its warmth on his skin. He yawned, scratched himself and stretched before clambering to his big hairy feet and going to the cave mouth. Outside, some of the tribe’s women were already lighting fires to cook what was left of the mammoth they had trapped the day before. A fair bit of it had been consumed round their fire at dusk, but there was plenty enough to make up a few sandwiches for them to take on the day’s hunt.

Life for the cave men was a pretty well-established routine of hunting, eating, sleeping and so on. The women would stay home, of course, guarding the infants, washing the clothes and sweeping out the caves. But today Ug, unusually, had something else up his tiger skins; he actually had a hobby. He had taken to spending some time each day chipping away at a large stone he had laboriously rolled up from the river bank below their settlement a few days earlier.

These activities attracted considerable interest from the other members of the tribe, not least of all Rumph, the son of the tribal elder, who had looked on disdainfully at Ug’s work. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked on one occasion. (Well, actually it would have sounded something like this: “Hoomph, grom tup blom …’ but I’ll make it easier for you by writing it in English, not Caveish.)

Ug shrugged his shoulders as he laboured away at the stone. He had never really liked Rumph and tolerated his visiting his workplace only because of Rumph’s standing with the tribal elder. ‘I’m making this stone into an interesting shape,’ he replied. In truth, there was more to his objective than creating a new art-form; he actually thought the stone could serve a useful purpose.

Rumph looked on for a while longer then, realizing he wouldn’t get any more information from Ug, he wandered off to tell his father what was going on.

Rumph had been the apple of his mother’s eye and although his father had not really liked it, she had let her son do pretty much whatever he liked. There were some exceptions: she never allowed him to go out hunting with the other lads, and as for drinking (the tribe had recently discovered how to distil alcohol from fermenting fruit) well, that was disgraceful and not at all appropriate for her lovely boy. Neither was he allowed to have girl-friends. As buxom and appealing they might be, Rumph’s mother saw them all as greedy and scheming. No, sex was definitely out of any question.

As a result, Rumph felt pretty lonely and isolated. He envied the other lads with their carefree ways, their easy laughter, and their vigorous sexual exploits. So when Ug brought something more to their settlement – a hobby, of all things – Rumph saw things slipping even further from his grasp.

Although he was a year older than Ug, he was nowhere near as clever or popular as his brother. He had tried to do things on his own but they were never too successful. His own attempt at taking up a hobby had been pathetic; he had dragged some small flat stones from the river and scratched marks on them. To his eyes, they were pretty good drawings of people, woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and so on, but when he excitedly showed them to others they gave puzzled frowns and said they looked like nothing more than lines and circles.

But the same cave-dwellers seemed to admire Ug’s work. This worried him and he decided that Ug had to be stopped.

So when he told Buff-buff, their father, about Ug’s exploits he stressed all the negative things about it. ‘It’s huge, Papa!’ he said, with a worried shake of his head. ‘He’s taking a huge risk. The stone is very hard – rock hard, in fact – and the tools he’s using are very sharp. He could smash his knuckles or seriously cut himself.’

He smirked inwardly at that last bit. In reality he cared little for his brother, and now his actions were motivated entirely by bitter jealousy.

‘What’s more,’ he added, ‘it’ll topple over one day and, believe me, people will be crushed under its weight.’

‘Really?’ the old man asked.

‘Oh yes, Papa, and then everybody will blame you. They’ll say you should have stopped Ug before it was too late.’

Buff-buff scowled. It was true. Lately he had noticed that whenever anything bad happened, his people grumbled and muttered in the darker corners of the settlement and turned their backs on him. He was getting old, and he felt power slipping away from him.

‘What do you suggest?’ he asked.

‘Well, Papa,’ Rumph said with a sly look in his eye. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. If anything goes wrong you will need to show that you’d thought about the risks beforehand.’

Buff-buff was amazed. He had always thought that Rumph was a stolid, unimaginative lad, without any of Ug’s flair and sparkle – and now he had come up with a really clever idea.

But then he thought about it and saw a snag. ‘How will I convince them?’ he asked. ‘ Anybody can say that they’d thought things through.’

‘Easy!’ Rumph said. ‘You’ll be able to show everybody that you had had it all written down.’

‘Written?’ Buff-buff exclaimed. ‘What’s that?’

‘Well Papa,’ Rumph said, ‘you know those marks I’ve been making on those flat stones?’

Buff-buff growled. He had indeed seen them and like everybody else he had failed to appreciate what had excited Rumph so much.

‘Look at this one,’ Rumph said, dragging a stone out from under his leopard-skin pants. ‘See this set of wavy lines?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘That represents water.’

‘It does?’

‘And this round shape with the short straight lines coming out of it? That’s the sun.’

‘Aha!’ Buff-buff shouted. ‘I do see it. And that there – that’s round shape on that straight line, with two bent lines under it – that’s a man?’

‘Exactly, Papa!’ Rumph gloated. He could see that the old man was hooked.

‘And that other man-shape beside it?’ Buff-buff asked, pointing at the stone. ‘It’s the same, except it’s got two circles under the head. What’s that?’

‘Rumph winked at his father and gave him a conspiratorial nudge. ‘A woman, Papa!’

‘Oh I see,’ Buff-buff nodded, his eyes widening and his shoulders lifting in a knowing gesture. ‘Yes, I do see.’ He made a mental note to take that particular stone back to his cave where he would hide it from his wife.

‘I can put these together and tell a story,’ Rumph said. ‘Or a formal statement.’

‘A formal statement?’ Buff-buff asked. ‘What’s that?’ Often he had found himself being very puzzled by the way that Rumph said things.

‘I’ll show you,’ Rumph said.

He laid several stones down on the sand. He had spent hours scratching various shapes on them and now he pointed to them one by one.

‘Look!’ he said. ‘This says “Big stone standing on end falls. Big stone falling on people kills them” – can you see that?’

Buff-buff considered the stones for a moment, letting the thoughts get sorted out in his head. Eventually he gave a huge smile as he exclaimed: ‘Yes! I do see! I really do. We can put this together before anything happens – what did you call it? A formal statement?’

’Yes, Papa. But I’ve thought of a better name for it.’

‘You have?’

‘Yes. Think about it. What are we going to show the others that we’ve considered?’

The old man frowned. This was getting deep. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I suppose we’re showing them that we’ve thought about the risks.’

‘Exactly!’ Rumph yelled. ‘You’ve got it, Papa!’

‘I have?’ the old man asked, unwilling to admit that he had little real understanding of what was going on.

‘Yes, Papa!’ Rumph said. ‘And we’re not just considering the risks, are we?’

‘We’re not?’

‘No Papa. We are assessing them.’

Buff-buff scowled, trying to look like he was on top of things. ‘I suppose we are.’

‘Yes,’ Rumph said triumphantly, ‘so I’ve called it a Risk Assessment.’

Buff-buff nodded sagely. ‘That’s very good …’

‘And that’s not all, Papa,’ Rumph interrupted quickly, unwilling to let the advantage slip away from him while he was on a roll. ‘There’s lots more …’

And suddenly Ug’s quiet little world was turned upside down. First, Buff-buff made him study the strange art of writing under his brother’s instruction. Then, before he could do anything more with his hobby, he found himself having to provide Buff-buff with great piles of flat stones on which he had to laboriously scratch Risk Assessments. Then, he had to produce a Method Statement (showing how he intended to carve the thing he was creating) and even an Environmental Impact Assessment to show how his work would affect their settlement, the river flowing in the valley far below, and the flowers and animals in the area.

Now, poor old Ug found himself endlessly scratching on flat stones instead of chipping rocks into shape. The huge rock he had planned to carve into something useful – a way of moving large loads easily – stood sadly in a corner and was never completed. Eventually, in total frustration, he threw all the stones away in despair and stalked off into the countryside, never to return.

* * * *

That’s what happens when you take control of something from people who know how to do it properly and hand it over to those who don’t, and who have to cover their butts with reams of paper. And that’s how the discovery of the wheel was delayed for hundreds of years and how the Health and Safety industry started.

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