A World Made by Belief

The complexities and interconnectedness of the modern world are difficult to discern through traditional disciplines. We need to adopt the view of Richard Scarry’s classic Busytown books.

At the heart of our modern infrastructural systems—implicit but invisible in Richard Scarry’s drawings in his Busytown books—is the human mind. It turns out we can just all stop. On a dime. And when we do, chaos descends in our infrastructure systems, even as, as individuals, we sit peacefully at home, the world seemingly getting quieter, simpler, less hectic.

This is the third of a series of three articles. You can read the first essay here and the second essay here.

Like climate change and the 2008 financial crisis, COVID-19 is a stress test of our ability as a global community to navigate the complex challenges of the twenty-first century wrought by our relationship to technology. Unfortunately, we are perilously close to failing.

To pass that test, we will need new ways to understand the threats to our global economic and societal security. Our current models assume that these threats lie outside of us and our societies: in biology, in ecosystems, in the atmosphere. But the pandemic reveals that the real threats are techno-human, they are built into us, and into Busytown. Ask someone who lives in Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria was over in a day. For the remotest, poorest parts of the island, the electricity was off for over 11 months. Nearly three years later, Puerto Rico has still received only a tiny fraction of the federal funding it was promised to help rebuild its infrastructure.

Nor can we blame any particular ideology. Every political and ideological system—kleptocracies such as Russia, authoritarian capitalist states such as China, market-obsessed democracies such as the United States, egalitarian market-socialist countries such as Sweden—they’re all Busytown, and they’re all on the receiving end of what’s happening. They are all hybridized with technology.

And it’s the design of our human-social-technological hybrid world—the systems through which we organize our relationship to technology—that drives the distribution of power and wealth and the growth of inequality and unsustainability in today’s societies. As Scarry’s drawings make clear, our technological systems don’t just provide us with goods and services, such as food or energy, they embed us in relationships with machines (and, through those machines, with each other) in interlinked combinations that cut through our lives, our work, and our culture. They create patterns of social and ecological risks and impacts and material and financial resource flows around the globe. Those patterns are not distributed equally. They concentrate benefits in the hands of some and harms in the bodies of others. And those benefits and harms stack up across systems. As we’re observing with COVID-19, some communities are able to access neither quality health care from the medical system (which is a giant socio-technical system, too) nor quality food from the food system, even as they face higher burdens of costs for energy, food, and health, and higher risks from local industrial air and water pollution.

Throughout history, governments and government-owned enterprises and markets alike have organized techno-human arrangements in ways that are destructive to bodies and environments. Even democracies, as the Israeli political theorist and philosopher Yaron Ezrahi argued in his masterwork, The Descent of Icarus, have not been free from “dreams of political engineering nor innocent of the morally and humanly costly uses of science and technology to augment their power.” Environmental injustice, carbon pollution, and unequal access to the benefits of technology have plagued every society, every form of government, and every effort at industrialization. These problems are rooted in the modern race to build Busytown’s infrastructures—roads, cars, farms, factories, planes, paper mills—and the lifestyles and livelihoods that go along with them, a race in which all societies participate with results that look pretty similar everywhere across our globalized world.

Our science and engineering disciplines have trapped us into thinking that the problems with the world arise out of distinct categories and activities. We see the sickness of our world: biology. We see people and institutions make choices: politics and economics. We see a world full of technologies: engineering. But we see each separately.

Busytown doesn’t work that way. It’s too complex, too interconnected. In What Do People Do All Day? Betsy Bear writes a birthday card to her grandmother. She takes it to the post office, buys a stamp, and deposits it through the slot and into the basket. It gets postmarked, sorted, and put on an airplane to a neighboring town, where, once again, it is sorted and sent out for delivery. At every step a combination of people and technology move it along. And, at the end, in a classic Scarry twist, it almost doesn’t get there. Postman Racoon’s bag is full, so he puts the card in his hat. And then forgets. Fortunately, grandma is waiting for her card. She insists he must have it. But he can’t find it, until, when he tips his hat to apologize, out it pops, and she kisses him with joy.

Busytown’s challenges are our own—its inequalities, instabilities, infections, and unsustainabilities—rooted in the design and organization of its webs of techno-human systems.

It’s a very COVID-19 story, for the virus follows precisely the same kinds of techno-human conduits as Betsy’s letter. But it’s also a deeper story. For we can also see in this story inequality in a system that positions essential workers at higher risk than others for infection, if an infectious disease is afoot. We see inequality, too, in a system that affords some people privileges that others might not have; for example, if they are illiterate or do not have an address. We see unsustainability in a system dependent on jet fuel to move tons of letters and packages every day around the planet. We see vulnerability in a system that, should it quit functioning, would severely disrupt communications and supply chains and sever human relationships. And in a letter, stuffed in a hat and almost forgotten, we see a system whose possible failures are legion and, despite its extensive engineering, neither fully predictable nor controllable.

Busytown’s challenges are our own—its inequalities, instabilities, infections, and unsustainabilities—rooted in the design and organization of its webs of techno-human systems. But when we cannot see those connections, we are left with blunt instruments, such as social distancing and $1,200 tax rebates and hope for a vaccine, that reflect our narrow paradigms and, though they may help mitigate the spread of the virus and its destruction in the short term, likely only exacerbate the larger crises that we face.

We will never be able to adequately prevent, prepare for, and respond to the crises plaguing modernity if we keep trying to understand the world by first dividing it up among 400-year-old paradigms that no longer make sense. We need to learn to see the techno-human landscapes the virus travels and disrupts. We need to learn to see Busytown.

Crossing Green Street

Thirty years ago, I graduated from the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois. My curricular requirements included only four courses in the humanities and social sciences (and none in biology). I took many more, but the vast majority of my fellow engineering students did not. They languished in introductory courses that offered them no perspective on how to connect psychology or Western civilization to their intended future careers as engineers. They quit taking those classes as soon as they could. Meanwhile the number of English majors, historians, and political scientists taking courses in engineering was probably close to zero. Only as an honors student (one of 100 in my graduating class of over 5,000) did I have access to interdisciplinary electives and the thinking of philosophers and political analysts of technology that helped broaden my field of view to encompass multiple ways of understanding the world.

At graduation, the College of Engineering asked me to speak at one of the family events. I talked about my efforts to try to straddle a degree in engineering and a passion for political science in a single four-year undergraduate experience. I said that there was a great divide between the world of engineering and the world of society, made manifest at the University of Illinois by Green Street, which runs between the center of campus and the engineering quadrangle. I suggested that it was both remarkable and lamentable how few people crossed that street, and that the problems of the world, from arms races to the ozone hole, demanded that we figure out how to rethink the human relationship to technology. I suspect it hasn’t changed all that much, 30 years later. It hasn’t on the campus where I work today: my university reorganized the engineering college a few years ago but forgot to mix anyone else in.

Hundreds of millions of kids get the right intellectual start when their parents read Richard Scarry to them and they learn about Busytown’s busy techno-human world. But then they move on from board books to chapter books, into school, and on to college, and we stop teaching kids to see Busytown. In their classes, they do not map the techno-human arrangements laid out across the world or measure the consequences of their design and organization. They do not study techno-humans in labs or build models of techno-human systems. They do not write about them in journalism, analyze them in policy classes, sing about them in choirs, or read about them in literature.

The paradigms that today shape science and policy and culture persist as legacies of the intellectual geographies and disciplinary settlements fashioned centuries ago. They teach us cutting-edge science and canonical truths, but they also come with a price. They keep us blind to the deep integration of technology and humanity that puts our future at risk from climate change, COVID-19, and the precipitous collapse of the global economy. They prevent us from seeing how dependent our societies and economies have become on techno-human systems and the organizations whose job it is to run them; how much these systems drive unsustainability and inequality; and how brittle these systems have become, unable to absorb, adapt, and respond flexibly to shocks and surprises. They lead us to search for ever greater engineering and biological control, rather than recognize that prediction and control are themselves problematic ideas that are hard to reconcile with the complex, open-ended, indeterminacy of Busytown.

And that failure to match our theories to our realities, to see the world for what it is, is arguably the most serious threat of all. The Nobel-Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom once wrote, “All societies face the problem of reproducing themselves by teaching new generations how to construct and use the institutional tools they use in structuring human organization.… If a population is literate and if the theories about institutions that are taught in formal educational settings are relatively valid, modern societies can reproduce themselves in a stable fashion over a long period.”

The paradigms that today shape science and policy and culture persist as legacies of the intellectual geographies and disciplinary settlements fashioned centuries ago.

What happens when our theories about the workings of our societies are not relatively valid? What happens when, every day, from kindergarten to college to the most advanced conferences of our professions and scientific fields, we teach people to see worlds that are not actually there?

COVID-19 has come to Busytown. The townspeople are sick and hunkered down, and some of them, including those most exposed to chemical pollutants in the air they breathe, are in the hospital. Some of them have died. The electricity grid and power plant are infected, too, their output considerably lower. Far fewer of the cars and trucks go any longer. The oil is no longer flowing, and no one wants to buy it. To make sense of what happened, and perhaps to get ahead of it, whether for this crisis or the next, when we all get out of this isolation, we need to open our eyes, take off our disciplinary blinders, and really look around. Until we have the sciences that can see Busytown as it really is—a place in which people and machines work inseparably to make and inhabit the world—how can we expect them to help guide us toward the thriving future that we all hope for?

This is the third of a series of three articles. You can read the first essay here and the second essay here.

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Cite this Article

Miller, Clark A. “A World Made by Belief.” Issues in Science and Technology (May 2, 2020).