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Swift Report, satirical use of Mission Improbable


Click either cover to buy


Mission Improbable, now in paperback from the University of Chicago Press, is about how managers create the impression that they can do impossible things.

Here are the first two sections of chapter one. (in pdf)

The book addresses the following issues.

What happens when we must plan for massive disaster but have no experience, no clue about how to go about it? Mission Improbable enters the world of managers and experts who think they can rebuild societies after nuclear war, who think they can evacuate huge numbers of people after nuclear meltdowns, and who think they can cleanup huge oil spills. It is a world of whimsy and fantasy, a world where people have to think they can control the uncontrollable.

Unlike other fantasies, though, these fantasies are important because people represent them as real promises that can be kept. These promises are folded into plans, which Lee Clarke dubs "fantasy documents." Complex, highly interactive systems increasingly insinuate themselves into society. The justifications that are attached to those systems often mask failures that we need to see more clearly. Fantasy documents are used to convince audiences that dangerous systems are safe, that experts are in charge, that all is well. Fantasy documents make danger seem normal by allowing organizations and experts to claim that the problems are under control.

How does the U.S. Post Office make a plan to deliver mail after atomic Armageddon? How do oil industry executives make promises that they can collect 10 million gallons of oil spilled in the ocean? How do regulators try to convince people that everyone can be evacuated from congested Long Island after a nuclear power plant destroys itself? Doing these things requires that experts reconstruct history and fabricate tales that demonstrate that they have the right kind of knowledge and experience to get the job done.

Mission Improbable has a novel view of planning and prediction, one that emphasizes the rhetorical nature of managers' and experts' promises. Though people are increasingly skeptical of big organizations they have no choice but to depend on them for protection from big dangers, so they expect their experts to tell the truth. But the reassuring rhetoric these soothsayers construct under the guise of expert prediction may have no basis in fact or experience - the circumstances are unprecedented - and thus may not include the interests of society. Provocative and written for a general audience, Mission Improbable makes the case that society would be safer, smarter, and fairer if our organizations and their masters could admit their limitations, declaring frankly that they can not control the uncontrollable.

Larger image of the paperback cover. The image on the right is called Handwriting and Equation. It is meant to convey the scribbling of plans that need to be transmitted to people in a hurry. Do you see the subliminal?

Some reviews

Funny story about plans

"Oil Spill Fantasies" My article in the Atlantic Monthly that introduces the idea of fantasy documents

An interesting use of my ideas for examining reconstruction in Iraq

"Fantastic Safety"