Cruel Pies: The Inhumanity of Technical Illustrations

Fitting that this appeared in Technical Communication, August 2001, Vol. 48, No. 3. (requires registration and login, full text requires subscription) before the 9/11 tragedy at the World Trade Center. The article by Sam Dragga and Dan Voss posits that statisticians and information designers that create information graphics of grave statistics such as fatalities have the ethical responsibility of not reducing those lost lives to mere statistics. They promote the view that a humanistic ethic of visual communication should be adopted. The discussion of ethics in technical illustrations ordinarily focuses on issues of deception or distortion (that is, telling lies), creating a limited definition of visual ethics. Conventional graphic displays of human injuries and fatalities, for example, leave invisible the misery of the victims and their families, and offer what becomes, in effect, a pitiless depiction of statistical information. Such illustrations are neither objective nor ethicalónot because of what they show but because of what they don't show. Technical communicators ought to adopt a humanistic ethic of visual communication that considers both the sensitivity and efficiency of their illustrations.