Wednesday, November 02, 2005

off the charts

What an absolutely thrilling read! The first section of Hutchins reads like a novel…and has inspired me to write completely off-topic. Hutchins’ experience on the Palau forcefully brought home to me how when systems work, you don’t really notice them, but when something goes wrong, the scaffolding that holds the system together becomes so overwhelmingly apparent that it can be extremely disconcerting.

Two years ago I was wandering around Western China (as you do) when the SARS virus broke. Within two short weeks, this sprawling country was transformed. An invisible killer was at once everywhere and nowhere; the media was being secretive and contradictory about the extent of the epidemic; tourists – because we were extremely mobile and painstakingly obvious – were being hauled off buses, questioned by armed police, and subject to mandatory temperature checks. Every country in the world suddenly required people traveling from China to be quarantined for up to two weeks. Since hospitals were the environments where the disease was most commonly spread, this was not an attractive option.

I was stranded somewhere up on the Tibetan Plateau and had been refused entry into Tibet proper because an outbreak of SARS in such a poor region would be devastating. Since the concentration of casualties was principally in the East, and Tibet was closed to the West, I headed North, skirting the Taklamakan Desert and eventually hitting the Silk Road. Every few hours, I was hauled off buses to have my temperature checked by inefficient stick thermometers. It was freezing, and by the time the official could read the mercury bar on the thermometer, the reading suggested that I should be clinically dead. This usually prompted laughter from all concerned (mine tinged with a slightly nervous hysteria). Within days, everyone was wearing nasty surgical masks, and I was suspiciously eyed by all locals. Foreign equaled disease, and though I could not speak Mandarin, I gleaned that many media reports were blaming tourists for the spread.

Within weeks, this chaotic situation was transformed. Instead of being taken off buses, officials in gleaming white body suits, rubber boots and very complicated masks would come onto the train or bus and point guns at everyone’s forehead with state-of-the-art temperature-taking guns! Everyone was zapped, and those with a high reading were unceremoniously hauled off the bus. The media was awash with anti-SARS propoganda. People were encouraged not to spit (a national pastime); saccharine anti- SARS anthems blasted out from TVs and radios everywhere (think “We are the World” through a helium fog). Even the glorious Chinese fake rag trade cashed in on the delirium: walking down any metropolitan street you could spot fake Fendi, Gucci or Prada anti-SARS apparel. (In the face of an international epidemic, one simply must accessorize.)

By the time the spread had been brought under control, I was hiding out in a yurt somewhere close to the Pakistani border, freezing my ass off and surviving on nasty yak-butter tea. When I finally emerged, SARS protection mechanisms had been completely sublimated into the culture. Temperatures were screened as you walked in the door of a public transport building, the masks had disappeared, eerily empty trains were once again teeming with people. In the space of a few short weeks I had changed from a human being to a potential disease-carrier and back to a human being, and no one batted an eye. The whole experience was an incredible lesson in how environmentally tangled we all are, how systems adapt ferociously quickly to change or threat, how radically contingent are entire sense of reality really is. Reading Hutchins, I felt this urgent sense of how networks of communication, technology and human cognition really function – and I am sure that we all have experiences in our lives when who we think we are and how we relate to our environment is radically called into question. And maybe my ultimate point in this digressive narrative is this: while we may sometimes get lost in the theories under discussion, maybe our navigation charts lie not only between the covers of a book, but among the synapses and electrical pulses that connect our lived experience to the world.


Blogger Annie said...


Thanks for such an engaging story. You prompted my thinking in a way that was much more interesting (at least to me!) than before.


6:28 PM  
Blogger asw said...

What an amazing and scary story. I can't believe what you went through. But, I really liked how in the last paragraph of your post you really connected your experience to the Hutchins' piece and you made me realize another aspect to the book in how much our experiences at different points in our lives at different moments can alter our cognitive paths and navigate us down a completely different road and knowledge experience. You have given me a lot to ponder... Amy

11:06 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

In a CNN article on the economic cost of the bird flu pandemic:

"The report said the most immediate economic impacts of a pandemic might arise -- as was the case with the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003 -- not from death or sickness but from people and governments responding in an uncoordinated way."

Sean, I think you'd agree with this statement but I'm wondering what a "coordinated way" would look like? I mean imagine our class was assigned the task of dealing with a SARS outbreak or prevention (as they are now doing by preparing to quarentine people at airports coming from Asia) would we coordinate efforts? I guess I can't help but think of events like 9/11 and Katrina....compared to say mobilization of the American military forces....what works in coodinating such large scale actions?

10:48 AM  
Blogger Sean McCarthy said...

Alison -

it is a difficult question to answer, because actually being in a pandemic or a Katrina state (and god bless me, but I've "done" both) are on-the-ground situations that I don't think can ever be adequately prepared for. Emergency systems can certainly be in place - a most painful absence in new orleans couple of weeks ago - but I think these systems rise to meet the occasion. Emergent meets emergency, if you will.

What was missing in both the SARS pandemic and Katrina were clear communication systems and decisive decision making mechanisms. Think the Balkans, Rwanda or wherever else you care to mention: hesitancy costs thousands of lives.

Action is so often tied up in hesitant structures of delegation that no system will ever entirely work, in my opinion. And on that glum note I will sign off.

12:59 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

Crazy stuff. Seems that you witnessed a culture shifting between modes, like from western navigation, to etak navigation, and back again. I'm curious, how were they linking SARS to tourists? I personally believe that our out of control meat processing is going to be the cause of the next mass epidemic.

4:20 PM  

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