Memorial Day 2015. Three months after our wedding day, my financially recovering husband and I opted for a local getaway to Galena, IL, a small tourist town by the Mississippi River. We wanted to see the river, to which my sister responded, “Huh? Why?” She was right to question us—we were probably only inspired by some vague, romantic notion of the river from literature (Twain).
Off we went to Galena. Honestly, we’re not really small-town America type of tourists. The few times we do this type of getaway, we run out of things to do. I guess we’re not into antiques and fruity jams that much, and we also look for Chinese food by the 5th meal or so…
But there was one thing that left an impression on me, which was our visit to the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, IA, across the river from Galena.
Naturally, there was an exhibit on steamboats with Mark Twain quotes sprinkled throughout the gallery walls. A well-crafted miniature of a steamboat was displayed, and I stared at it for quite a while.
Certainly, steam engines marked the dawn of technological and industrial overhaul, powering engines for various large-scale, useful work. They enabled steamboats and later on, railway locomotives, means to transport large masses of both humans and goods across the country. As the mechanical principles of their operations were understood and developed further, they became ancestors of modern turbines and internal combustion engines, from which we benefit each day.
Technologically, steamboats were a major accomplishment. But, they were more than technological artifacts; they were also human artifacts.
I paused in front of the steamboat miniature, troubled. It was blatantly obvious to me that the architecture was designed to mimic and enforce social strata. There were three levels—the lowest for the workers, who had to toil through shifts to keep the boat going; the second level for those who paid to travel and dine on the boat for business or leisure; the third mainly for the pilot. Perhaps it was just my 21st century pair of eyes, but these visible and intentionally constructed separations, sectioned by mere wooden floors, produced a discomfort.
The Haves and Have-nots were separated. The Have-nots toiled for the Haves, which on the steamboat meant constantly feeding wood to the furnace that boiled large amount of water for steam. These boilers were prone to overheating and explosions—indeed, most steamboats were destroyed by fire—and were not the most pleasant working environment, understatedly. Children worked on the boat too, and accidents did not discriminate.
Facts of life, one may say. It is just the way of the world, no different now than in the past.
Maybe. How could people be so oblivious to the things that went on, literally, under their feet? How could human worlds be so different and separated while occupying the very same vessel?
As steamboats traversed the Mississippi River, they also caused massive deforestation along the riverbank. Trees were cut down to produce wood for fuel. Environmentally, this was a disaster. Deforested riverbanks, unstable and prone to erosions, resulted in severe flooding that would occur for decades, many years after steamboats no longer graced the Mississippi.
The Appeal and Inadequacy of a Single Narrative
Steamboats were not just technological artifacts, nor societal, nor environmental artifacts. They were all of the above and more. One could slice this reality into a single narrative and tell an exclusively good or tragic story, but it would, at best, be partially true. The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.
The problem is, for one reason or another, we tend to respond better to single narratives. They are easy to explain and easy to remember. On paper, single narratives present a coherent and explainable reality that appeal to the public, translating into, say, book sales or political appeal. When something that we believe as good reveals a darker side, or vice versa, our minds have a hard time resolving the two. How can something good be bad?
Yet in the real reality, many human inventions are both good and bad. One aspect is rightfully celebrated, but another facet reveals something sinister in the shadow. In reality, multiple narratives can exist at the same time.
As an engineer, I could probably be forgiven for telling the story of the steamboat as a technological wonder and ignore its other aspects. But, as follows from above, there’s a great insufficiency with this practice.
How can one adamantly celebrate “progress” when humans and the environment come as an expense? How can one be spellbound by the beauty and grandeur of human inventions, and forgetting that they were built on the backs of other humans?
Don’t get me wrong, I think accomplishments should be celebrated. What I’m advocating is a kind of celebration that’s not ignorant, but one that is conscientious. It is a celebration with certain awareness (and ownership) of their possible “dark sides” and with resolve to do better in the future.
When it comes to safety and sustainability, technology learns. Though, it doesn’t usually happen until after some major catastrophes take place and government imposed regulations with severe economic penalties are enacted. My question is, Is this the only way we learn to fix mistakes and design better systems?
I can’t help asking the what-if questions. What if the engineers, designers, and all those involved in designing the steamboats were cognizant of safety both for humans and the environment? Would they have come up with a better version of the steamboat?
These hypothetical questions are impossible to answer since we only have one version of history. Plus, hindsight is 20/20.
But now that we have hindsight, can we do something about our foresight?
Can we be more mindful of the multiple narratives involved in a given situation? Can we work to integrate them somehow?
The business argument says, “It will take too long and too much money. We need to take risks; we can’t move on only when everything is perfect,” which has its legitimacy, within its economic narrative. But this is only one of the narratives at play…
These questions swim in my head and I don’t yet know how to reconcile them. All I know is that I see systems like the steamboats and I crave for something more. There has to be something better; there has to be a better way of doing things. As I live and work, I want to be that holistic engineer and human being who is not adamantly fixed on a single narrative.
Photo credit: The Dave Thomson Collection at Steamboats.com.