Yucca Mountain

Radioactive Cats, Communication, and What We Routinely Get Wrong.

We’ve been talking to people from around the country, in various industries, and one result has been remarkable – we barely understand each other. We’re using the same words but mean different things.

We expect different common words and pronunciations based on region. But what about a benign word like “invoice” – something you wouldn’t think be up to interpretation?

On more than one occasion we’ve had a whole meeting only to realize we had two different conversations. We realized at the end we were speaking past each other and needed to define common terms. All parties thought it was a successful conversation up until the point something cracked and we realized we hadn’t understood each other at all.

Most communication is pushed out in our “personal” dialect; the words and phrases we intrinsically understand. Because those words are the same as someone else’s words we assume they mean the same thing we mean. That makes sense; we interact with the world via the same tools we use to understand it. However, it’s worth remembering the words of this old dude who wrote Pygmalion:

I thought about this when reviewing a notice I came across recently; it went something like this:

DO WHAT WE SAY! We’re very serious.

Consequences that you’ll face if we don’t get the thing we told you to give to us the way we want it.

Something vaguely legal sounding. Blah blah blah. Repeating something else from another part of the note.

More things about stuff you don’t care about. DANGER!

Blah blah blah without proper grammar or punctuation. Very outdated process for collecting the thing and information – you can only do the thing this way. Another not really related piece of information that’s super easy to misinterpret. This probably shouldn’t be in this notice at all and if it is, definitely shouldn’t be in this section since it’s divorced from the first two sentences above and is likely to be overlooked but we’ll say it was there and your fault for not having absorbed it.

Mess around and find out. We WILL cut you.

Yours sincerely,

Not a human being

This is normal and it comes from an honest place. The person that wrote this desperately wants you to know all of it. They’re throwing their best pitches at you; all the classics. Bold. ALL CAPS. Underlined italics. Different fonts. Highlighter. Different font color. Changeups with various combinations of the above. It’s a technicolor whirlwind of sound and fury that fails to achieve its purpose.

It doesn’t fail for a lack of effort but from a lack of proper consideration for the reader and for the purpose of the communication. It succeeds in checking a box that says “send notice that says X.” But it doesn’t communicate. More on that in a moment.

It reminded me of the Yucca Mountain problem. How do we store nuclear waste for 10,000 years and effectively warn future humans to stay away? Think about it for a minute.

Languages are constantly evolving and changing. Symbols we use to signify danger may not be interpreted the same way in 500 years. A circle with a line through it doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning to a human who has never encountered it.

Weathering and other conditions can erase or erode warnings left in hundreds of years, let alone ten millennia. Even warnings of danger and mystical curses could be ignored like they were when we cracked open the burial tombs in Egypt in less than half that time. Artists and scientists have come up with some cool ideas but you can see where most of these could easily fail.

Maybe something uninviting? I’m already curious.

My second favorite suggestion had nothing to do with the nuclear waste tomb. It looked instead to what has remained a constant in the human race for all of recorded civilization; our love of cats. Seriously. The idea is to engineer cats to change colors when exposed to radiation and then spread the customs and knowledge that if a cat changes colors it’s time to leave the area. They’re called Raycats and I’m totally into it. It’s not the easiest solution but it does have the benefit of being totally badass and I don’t even like cats.

The prevailing thinking seems to be the kitchen-sink approach; put up signs in stone in every known language, creating the most uninviting surroundings imaginable, and hope to god that’s enough to dissuade future people from letting their curiosity get the best of them. Good luck.

This is the sign they chose.

My favorite idea is born out of reframing the problem.

Stated problem: How do we communicate to future people that this area is home to deadly stuff? That’s a tough one.

Restated problem: How do we keep people from messing with this area for 10k years?

The answer to the second problem is to do nothing. You’ve already placed it in the middle of an actual desert and buried it under thousands of feet of rock and lead. Without any marker or indication of the tremendous effort put into the place, why would anyone bother to excavate? Erase it from existence and let time be your friend. But I digress…

When we want to communicate something the onus falls on us to ensure we’re thinking of how our message might be received. Will it be understood the way we mean it? Most messages don’t have the ability to transmit more than a couple things in a meaningful way so use your bandwidth wisely.

Who is this for?
What do we want them to know or do?
What’s the easiest, way to communicate that?
Is this message urgent, important, or some combination of the two?
Could our message be easily ignored, misunderstood, or confused?
Should this be two separate messages? More?
What’s the most effective method to transmit the message?
Are we using terms and language our user understands?
Did this communication simply check a box or did it do its honest best to transmit information from us to them?

Thanks for reading. On your way out, exit through the gift shop: