Daring, risky innovation by a famously conservative — notoriously hidebound — public service institution leaves old print ‘legacy’ media trailing far in its wake



ANDERS NILSEN on the power of graphic storytelling, New York Times, 18 October 2015 - postgutenberg@gmail.com

This set of drawings by Anders Nilsen — scanned from crumpled newsprint found lining a box of crockery — was an answer with a touch of genius to The New York Times’s invitation to artists in 2015 to convey ‘the power of graphic storytelling in one comic panel.’ What might that talking horse symbolise today? Could it be conventional — legacy — media’s post-Gutenberg future, with which they seemingly cannot strike up any sort of conversation?

Believing the impossible gets easier with practice — say, half an hour a day, the White Queen advises Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. Here’s a mental barbell for anyone else attempting that exercise: the U.S. Navy, a military institution as renowned for being rigidly hierarchical, compartmentalised and tradition-bound as its counterparts in practically every country, has been implementing — not merely experimenting with — radically progressive new operating methods driven by new technology. 

Some of us waiting impatiently for an equivalent leap in publishing — or even the smallest experimental prototype with a hint of forward-thinking — could almost weep with envy, reading a thrilling account of nautical innovations in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly. These are grounded in thinking about a much broader and deeper managerial revolution, as the title conveys: ‘At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor.’ 

Possibly the most startling effect of reading the piece is realising how rare it has become to learn about large-scale innovation strictly for the public good, untainted by the profit motive. It is now hard to remember the last time a technological transformation with implications for nearly everyone was not about making some obscenely lucky 15 year-old a billionaire in three years, and greedy for even greater wealth and power.

A sample of the revelations from that tale of a sea change: 

… Built in 2014 from 30 million cans’ worth of Alcoa aluminum, Littoral Combat Ship 10, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, rides high in the water on three separate hulls and is powered like a jet ski—that is, by water-breathing jets instead of propellers. … Unlike the older ships now gliding past—guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, amphibious transports—the littoral combat ship was built on the concept of “modularity.” There’s a voluminous hollow in the ship’s belly, and its insides can be swapped out in port, allowing it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.

The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

… On most Navy ships, only a boatswain’s mate—the oldest of the Navy’s 60-odd occupations—would handle the ropes, which can quickly remove a finger or foot. But none of the three sailors heaving on the Giffords’s ropes is a line-handling professional. One is an information-systems technician. The second is a gunner’s mate. And the third is a chef. “We wear a lot of hats here,” Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Damontrae Butler says. After the ropes are put away, he reports to the ship’s galley, picks up a basting brush, and starts readying a tray of garlic bread for the oven.

Two boatswain’s mates are on hand, but only to instruct and oversee—and they too wear lots of hats, between them: fire-team leader, search-and-rescue swimmer, crane operator, deck patroller, helicopter-salvage coordinator.

… The operative concept is “minimal manning.” On the bridge, five crew members do the jobs usually done by 12, thanks to high-tech display screens and the ship’s several thousand remote sensors. And belowdecks, once-distinct engineering roles—electrician’s mate, engine man, machinist, gas-turbine technician—fall to the same handful of sailors.

… Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone.

… The Navy, curiously, has pushed the idea forward with an abandon unseen anywhere on land …

This¯article by Jerry Useem does not pretend that giving the methods of old sea dogs a makeover has been error-free. One innovation that has already come a cropper:

… [T]he modular “plug and fight” configuration was not panning out as hoped. Converting a ship from sub-hunter to minesweeper or minesweeper to surface combatant, it turned out, was a logistical nightmare. Variants of all three “mission packages” had to be stocked at far-flung ports; an extra detachment of 20-plus sailors had to stand ready to embark with each. More to the point, in order to enable quick mastery by generalists, the technologies on each had to be user-friendly—which they were not. So in 2016 the concept of interchangeability was scuttled for a “one ship, one mission” approach, in which the extra 20-plus sailors became permanent crew members.

Mistakes on the road to genuine progress are unavoidable. Time for another invocation of T. S. Eliot. His gloomy opinion of lilac-breeding featured here last year was nonsense, to any botanist, but this observation by him has rarely been stated better:  ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’