Dragga and Voss: "Cruel Pies"

Dragga, Sam, and Dan Voss. “Cruel Pies: The Inhumanity of Technical Illustrations.” Technical Communication 48.3 (2001): 265-274. Web. 20 Oct. 2010.



Article purpose:


This article will therefore address the following:


  • Review the existing research to define the prevalent treatment of the ethics of visual communication in the field and determine where it may be lacking
  • Explain the implications of introducing a broader, more humanistic view of ethical illustrations
  • Demonstrate the need for this humanistic view by looking at a sampling of conventional graphic images
  • Explore possible techniques for humanistic illustration


A Limited Definition of the Ethics of Visual Communication


Ethics definition usually linked to distortion/deception. Usual dependent criteria for graphical excellence based in efficiency. May discuss social responsibility/ cultural sensitivity, not need to humanize impersonal grafx. D&V note: "All the works cited, as well as others, have made valuable contributions to the body of knowledge on the ethics of visual communication, but they focus almost exclusively on accuracy and honesty versus misrepresentation and deception" (266).


Cites those starting on broader understanding: Dombrowski''s Ethics in Technical Communication (2000) presents inhumanity of Nazi tech diagram.


"To communicate ethically, we will need to develop a genuine sensitivity to the human implications of the statistical graphics created and used every day under ordinary circumstances" (266).


A Humanistic Ethic of Visuals


Miller''s 1979 call to perceive tech comm as humanistic. Really only applied that to the verbal. Uses Minard''s diagram of Napoleon''s invasion of Russia-- how it doesn''t indicate the suffering and massive loss of life. Cites Katz and Barton and Barton. Assumption that objective is to make statistical information accessible (bottom of 267); have we humanized?


A Sampling of Cruel Pies


Provides examples of pie charts/bar graphs: labor statistics showing loss of life in fishing industry, fatalities in other industries, and depicting employment in logging. Styles of depiction essentially the same (268). "Nowhere but in the accompanying words is the anguish of this subject explicit" (268).


Human fatalaties from mattress/bedding fires (Consumer reports); baby walker-related estimated annual injuries (Consumer product safety review). D&V state "people are deprived of their humanity and objectified for purposes of statistical manipulation" (269). People akin to whiches, not whos.


Possible Solutions


Not solution to start depicting mass carnage. "consider ways to humanize the visual display of information, such as using appropriate pictographs or superimposing bar graphs and line graphs on photographs or drawings of pertinent human subjects" (269). Notes the obvious omission of a photograph of a patient on a medical record. "Hybrid literacy" (integrating words and images) or "semantic fusion" (using words to increase recognition of humanity) as a possible goal (270).


D&V distinguish between possible statistical (but not emotional) redundancy (271).


Recognition that integration may be challenging so as not to trivialize or mortify.


"There might not be an appropriate graphic or text/ graphic solution for every case of an inhumane illustration. It is therefore also important to keep in mind that, though technical communicators are typically encouraged to incorporate visuals, using no graphics would be clearly superior to displaying cruel graphics" (272).


Consider audience as well-- is the photo of the person in the medical chart as necessary for small rural clinic as it might be in large city hospital?