A Plague Comes to Busytown

Conventional science and engineering disciplines have struggled to explain how COVID-19 is transforming our world. The beloved children’s books of Richard Scarry can help us understand why.

One of the curious oddities of the COVID-19 crisis is just how poorly science has done at anticipating its twists and turns. Each day, the pandemic seems to surprise us anew. Despite the enormous scientific resources at our disposal, we have proven unable to keep pace with the speed and ferocity of the onslaught, the paths it is taking through communities, or the human and economic wreckage left in its wake. The breadth of our ignorance was efficiently captured by a journalist who has written widely about pandemics: “We don’t know where it is. We don’t know where it’s going. We don’t know how it’s spreading.” Nor do we know what’s coming next, or how to plan ahead. The only thing that appears to be working is distancing—a strategy first alluded to in Leviticus.

This is the first of a series of three articles. Read the second part here, and the third part here.

On January 23, 24 days after the initial detection of the new coronavirus, China was forced to shut down Wuhan, one of its largest and most important cities. The virus was already in Seattle and Milan. It soon surfaced in New York, then New Orleans, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Then came the revelation that cases were exploding in African American communities, and more recently that Hispanic neighborhoods also appear at heightened risk. Over the last two weeks of March, oil markets blew up and the economy came to a standstill, putting 22 million US workers out of work almost overnight. On March 25, India did what it has never done in its history, halted the mammoth network of trains that move 23 million people, daily, around the country.

Why didn’t we foresee any of this? Why haven’t we been better able to divine how fast the virus would spread, the places it would go, or the consequences it would carry for the global economy? Why does this timeline seem to be getting less certain over time, the harder we look? In a world awash in information, in which the United States alone spends $130 billion annually on scientific research and development, how is it possible that we were this ignorant?

How not to see what’s happening

I propose that we have so badly misjudged COVID-19 because the scientific lenses through which we observe and attempt to make sense of reality actually impede our view of the world that the virus has infected. The scientific paradigms and disciplines within which we pursue facts, build instruments, and construct models are unbelievably powerful for isolating and breaking down the world into its component parts and understanding how they tick. But they remain deeply and disturbingly incapable of putting it all back together again to describe the interconnectedness and complexity of a global society that, it turns out, is the perfect host for COVID-19.

The life sciences, medicine, and public health have focused enormous attention on the coronavirus as a biological organism and an infectious disease. We now know a great deal about its genetics, how it attacks the body, and potential medical treatments, although much also remains uncertain. Early knowledge led infectious disease experts at the National Center for Medical Intelligence to anticipate that COVID-19 could pose a significant risk to the United States and other countries, and this knowledge allowed epidemiologists to model the pandemic’s growth and to estimate, under different scenarios, what proportion of the populations it might infect, how fast, and with what mortality.

Although some models highlighted potential risks to European countries and the United States, they estimated that Asian countries such as Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea faced higher risks, and their estimates of which parts of the United States and Europe would get hit first and hardest were equivocal at best. As much as the biological and health sciences were able to reveal, they didn’t quite prepare the United States for how fast this particular microbe traveled, who it infected, and who it killed. And as the science studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff recently observed, although our knowledge emphasized the need for distancing, the models could not tell us whether people would be able to distance successfully or what the economic consequences of doing so might be.

We have so badly misjudged COVID-19 because the scientific lenses through which we observe and attempt to make sense of reality actually impede our view of the world that the virus has infected.

Another significant part of the response to coronavirus has been rooted in engineering know-how, mostly taking the form of a bottom-up effort to throw as many technologies at as many aspects of the problem as possible: to expand manufacturing of protective equipment, scale up the processing of tests, and create apps and analyze data to track various aspects of the outbreak. As useful as those tools may be, neither biologists nor engineers have viewed engineering as particularly relevant to understanding the disease or its progression through the world. Yet it turns out that the pathways carved by coronavirus have everything to do with how we have engineered the economies and societies of the twenty-first century. Airplanes carried it fastest from Wuhan to Europe and the United States, following the trails of global supply chains and business travel. Industrial and automobile emissions of pollutants paved its way into our lungs. Indeed, it’s as if we designed our most advanced, industrial societies just so this virus could take full advantage of them.

The production of scientific knowledge within universities and laboratories is still organized around the scientific disciplines that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the world is vastly different from the one in which our forebearers laid out the intellectual geographies that still rule what counts as an interesting question, meaningful evidence, and a worthwhile publication. The virus has exposed those differences, revealing the poverty of our current scientific imagination for understanding the reality we now inhabit. We look back disdainfully at the alchemy and astrology of centuries past, but the fact is that our tools for understanding and preventing COVID-19 haven’t been much more effective.

It’s as if we designed our most advanced, industrial societies just so this virus could take full advantage of them.

To get a different view on the virus, let me transport you to a strange place: the place where we all actually live. Like the land where the wild things are, it is all around us. Yet in our minds, we never really grasp it. In the words of Umberto Eco’s narrator in The Name of the Rose, “we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas how illegible) in the error of the world.”

We are techno-humans

That strange place is called Busytown. It is captured in Richard Scarry’s beloved children’s books What Do People Do All Day? and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Drawn in the 1950s and 1960s, the books introduce children to modern life and, especially, to all the variety of things that moms and dads and other people do in modern societies. In doing so, they paint a richly revealing picture of life in a technological society, one which more clearly than any scientific textbook opens a window onto the world that COVID-19 has laid bare.

On one page we see Busytown’s electricity grid: a coal-fired power plant, a train carrying coal, and wires conveying electricity first to a substation and, then, to a house full of gadgets plugged into outlets and electrical conduits bolted onto its walls. The coal mine is on the page before. It’s an illustration of infrastructure, but not just infrastructure. For suffused throughout the books’ many images of technological systems are people (or, rather, animals acting out the roles of people), doing what people do all day.

And for the most part, what people do all day turns out to be making technology work. Outside Scarry’s power plant, a young pig shovels coal into the elevator that runs it up to the boiler. Diane the cat drives the train. A portly bear oversees the boiler room, letting everyone know: “It’s hot in here.” An engineer mouse glances out the substation window. Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is full of gas station attendants, car washers, traffic cops, road construction crews, oil truck drivers, lane marker painters, stop sign installers, Mistress Mouse and her auto repair tow truck, ambulance drivers, snow plow drivers, tank crews, and everyone else who helps make it possible for the rest of us to get in our cars and go from one place to another.

Nor are workers the only ones making technology—and technological society—go. Another young pig sits atop the power plant studying “Ohm’s Law.” His presence reminds us that universities added whole new departments of electrical engineering—today the largest departments on many campuses—to train people to design and operate the new electricity infrastructures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the first electrical engineering curriculum in 1882, the same year that Thomas Edison opened his first commercial electrical power plant.

And ordinary, everyday people make these systems go too. Down the street from the power plant, momma fox vacuums, daddy cooks on the backyard electric barbecue, and the kids watch TV upstairs with Lowly Worm. In Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, every single vehicle is being driven by somebody with somewhere to go: taxi dog driving the foxes to the airport, fireman cat driving the engine to the fire, mail cat driving his mail van, lady fox driving her roadster, miss kitty in her kitty camper, and of course the pigs and the rabbits headed on family road trips.

We are, in deep ways, no longer human, in some biologically meaningful sense. We are techno-human, part and parcel of the great infrastructural systems that organize life in the twenty-first century.

It’s all too easy to read these books as being about technology: the engineering of roads and the construction of houses, the workings of the coal mine and the power plant, the design of water purification and air transportation, the organization of a hospital. But in Scarry’s world, technology and culture are not separated in the way that they are in departments of engineering and literature. The characters in Busytown are living their ordinary lives: working at the power plant, writing a letter to grandma, having a baby, going shopping and on trips, training for military service, getting tonsils taken out, keeping the streets crime-free, putting out fires, selling their goods at market. What Scarry illuminates for us is that today, all these activities are thoroughly structured by, infused with, and interconnected via technology.

We are codependent with our technologies. We design and organize them, and we make them work. They in turn make us who we are. They shape how we work and play. They allow us to imagine and accomplish things that would otherwise be unattainable. They sculpt our bodies in all sorts of ways, via the industrialized food we consume, the chemicals we ingest and breathe in, the surgeries we undergo, and the injuries we acquire from machinery, car crashes, and modern instruments of war. We are, in deep ways, no longer human, in some biologically meaningful sense. We are techno-human, part and parcel of the great infrastructural systems that organize life in the twenty-first century: energy, water, transportation, manufacturing, health care, food and agriculture, water, buildings, and more.

What’s true for us is true for this virus. We are taught to think of coronavirus as a product of nature, its origins in our encounters with wildlife, its illness a product of the race between its ability to reproduce inside us and our immune system’s ability to vanquish it. But this biological view of COVID-19 conceals more than it reveals; it is a disciplinary blinder that renders the disease’s next moves invisible to our tools and our models. You can’t understand this pandemic until you understand Busytown and its inhabitants—those beings whose travels, interactions, ideas, and bodies (filled with zillions of novel coronavirus molecules) are shaped by the industrial systems that Scarry reveals for us and whose lives, in turn, have shaped the circumstances that gave birth to the virus, how and where it travels, and who it kills.

This is the first of a series of three articles. Read the second part here, and the third part here.

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Cite this Article

Miller, Clark. “A Plague Comes to Busytown.” Issues in Science and Technology (April 30, 2020).