You probably know the story by now: Pennsylvania school district gives laptops to kids, then uses the laptops to spy on them. And by “spying” I mean; “remotely take pictures through the built-in webcam in the students’ bedrooms”. The students didn’t know about it, or know the reason why it was a violation of the “code of conduct” to disable the webcam. Now the FBI is investigating.
These people are in big trouble. They violated several very important laws (normally you have to be Dick Cheney to get away with such) that can land them in prison. They exposed their school district to the mother of all class-action suits. And they undermined every laptop loan program in the country, abusing and destroying trust. It was a spectacularly dumb move, setting up and using the spy system.
Thing is; it wasn’t just one or two people. You know how this works: a committee had to put out an RFP for the software system, and review competing systems. Some pointy-haired boss had to approve the purchase. Unless their legal council is incompetent, they omitted asking him/her. Technicians had to install the software and train school officials in its use. School principals had access to the pictures and thought it would be a good idea to confront a student with one of them. The kid was eating candy, which the principal mistook for “pills”, and called the kid into his office. See! Here’s the evidence, kid. Of the school district committing a crime, that is.
There were so many exit ramps on the road between initial dumb idea, and pathetic national news story. At any point someone could have said; “Go ask your lawyers. This is wrong, you know it’s wrong, and you’re not going to do it or I’m going to the parents and the press.” And the pointy-haired bosses would have been angry but a quick consult with school district legal council would have revealed the objecting person as a valuable asset. It would go something like this:
(School district attorney: “You surely weren’t going to actually DO this, were you?”)
Pot holes of stupidity are seldom this deep, but organizations take the dumb road all the time, and they’re set up to reward “team players” while punishing individuals who raise objections. It’s true in politics, in religion, in education, and in business. When the project is completed, everyone slaps everyone else on the back and it’s attaboys all around. Status quo, stupidity, cupidity, mendacity and just plain bull-headedness wins the day.
It’s easy to think of dumb corporate decisions that became news: Enron, Ken Lay, or local stuff like the city arena that we were told would make a profit when everyone knew it wouldn’t (actual case). Or the church camp that was caught burying several barrels of chlordane next to the lake to save the cost of proper disposal (another actual case). In situations like that, who’s the most valuable team member: the “team player”? Or the one who says; “If you’re going to be this stupid, count me out.”
I would love to hear some ideas for developing institutional baloney detectors, and turning the usual value equation around.
NOTES… see also: