Johnson, Big Dead Place 177-192
Chapter nine of Nicholas Johnson’s Big Dead Place presents a critical view of bureaucracy and reveals how an overabundance of bureaucratic practices disregards the importance of the human existence. One way that Johnson ridicules Antarctica bureaucracy is to highlight management’s tendency to overreact to the wrong events. Johnson describes an email fiasco saying
N, who read this email and the deleted it received a call within minutes from her supervisor E. E … had received a call from the Station Manager saying that N did not read the safety email. N like everyone else uses Microsoft Outlook … which can allow a user to view a message in frame without actually opening it, had been flagged by the Safety Girl, who alerted the station manager, who alerted N’s supervisor, who assured N this was a very serious issue (178).
This passage reveals the almost impenetrable depth of the Antarctica bureaucracy. There is no direct contact between each person. Instead, they pass each other off from one person to the next. The emphasis placed on the e-mail further suggests that this is a world devoid of personal contact. The message has no emotional context, which would stress the true necessity for N to pay attention to the e-mail. It is somewhat humorous that they choose to classify reading an email as a “very serious issue” when it has absolutely no potential to actually protect anyone from danger.
This overzealous response to something as inconsequential as a supposedly unread email contrasts with the bureaucrats’ horrifying lack of emphasis on a true health hazard: “the Safety Girl had written exactly no emails about asbestos while her regular reports about slippery ice and safety glasses and injury records and safety statistics continue unabated. Safety Girl’s contribution … was this: a safety video about asbestos is now available for our weekly safety meetings” ( 179). This passage reveals the disturbing elements of bureaucracy. The head of the bureaucratic machine is only concerned with the elements of safety that are considered a part of regular protocol. Furthermore, any attempts to address elements that fall outside the range of usual elements are quickly addressed without any thought to whether or not the response is actually helpful. The video on asbestos is not helpful because it does nothing to save or compensate those who have already been exposed. Johnson’s description of these mishandled priorities emphasizes the true inefficiency and deficiency that exists within bureaucracy.
Johnson also criticizes bureaucracy by emphasizing how it diminishes the importance of the human existence. One small detail that supports this idea is the way Johnson identifies his characters. While Johnson admits that he changed some names to protect identities, their names may also highlight one of the most devastating problems with bureaucracy. While names like “Safety Girl,” “N,” and “E” help us to establish one character from another, it does not help us to get an idea of their personalities or feelings. The reductions of their names make them seem like drones in a machine rather than humans. Disregard for the human condition is reiterated when we discover that “Safety Guy wanted a number of reports redone because they had not properly assigned ‘root cause,’ such as that employees were playing sports without wearing safety goggles and that employees did not wear gloves when handling harsh soaps” (181). Once again, we see that the concern for proper paperwork overrides concern for the health of the employees. It seems as if bureaucracy transcends humanity and transforms it into an insignificant disturbance.