Monday, January 13, 2014

The Illusion Of Control

We've had a major engineering project underway in our sandpit since the beginning of the new year. It's exactly the kind of play we were hoping would emerge when we first envisioned sand on two levels, with the cast iron water pump installed at the top. As one kid pumps, the rest of them scramble around with their shovels, digging madly, working to abet the water's flow, to direct it, and to, at least temporarily, control it. 

One would think they could dig without the water continually flowing, but when the water stops, the diggers stop as well, shouting, "We need a pumper! We need a pumper!" until someone takes up the position. They've not gotten to the point of being able to extract this real world physics experiment as numbers on paper. They need actual water, actual sand, actual topography, and actual gravity in order to form their theories, testing them with the immediacy that is the power of hands-on learning. These experiments are forming the foundation of their understanding of the physical world and, when the day comes for algorithms they will be something real, not just formulas to memorize.

This particular canal runs through a system of three 6-foot lengths of house gutter, drops as a waterfall to the lower level, then snakes around our small wooden boat, where until last Friday it ended in a nice mud hole. On Friday, the diggers decided to wrap the water around the boat's stern, which according to the lay of the land is slightly uphill, which means they've had to calculate an angle into the sand to allow the flow to go in a direction it would not go on it's own, not without our engineering.

Back in my twenties I read a memorable book entitled The Control of Nature, by the author John McPhee. In it he documents human efforts to control nature through major engineering projects. In one example he focuses on the efforts of scientists in Iceland to prevent lava flow from enveloping a village. In another he takes a look at the complex efforts undertaken by Los Angeles to prevent debris flows caused by tectonic activity, wildfires, and erosion from destroying homes in the San Gabriel Mountains. The third are the ongoing efforts by the US Army Corp of Engineers to control the flow of the Mississippi River in order to prevent flooding. While McPhee shows us human ingenuity and creativity at its best, he also concludes in each of these cases that nature, ultimately, will not be controlled.

The river will flow where the river will flow, perhaps staying behind the levies for a day or a week or a year or a decade, but ultimately, as we glimpsed in Hurricane Katrina, the water will claim the course destined for it by its own nature, interacting with actual sand, actual topography, and actual gravity. McPhee tells the story of continual human activity, one in which we must maintain constant vigilance lest we be overwhelmed by flood, lava, and erosion, much the way the kids remain in constant motion in order to gain whatever control they can over the water under their temporary command.

Each day they've arrived to find the water gone and their canals in need of dredging. If they did not work on it every day, it would be gone in a week's time. In the end they cannot control nature, just as they've found they cannot always control their classmates with shouts of "We need a pumper! We need a pumper!" finding that sometimes they themselves must choose to take time from the digging for a turn at the handle.

As McPhee points out in his book, these massive engineering projects are really an illusion, at least in the big picture. Houses built on crumbling mountains, flood plains, or in the path of lava flow will ultimately be destroyed. We rush and panic and plan, yet in the end we never really have control over anything but ourselves. The only difference between the rest of us and the children playing in the sand is that the children seem to not only understand, but take joy from this illusion of control.

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Stephanie Schuler said...

Great stuff! Thanks for sharing!

David said...

Beautiful post. It is nature that will control us. Reminds me of a Buckminster fuller quote "dare to be naïve".

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I actually just wrote about the illusion of control from a Christian perspective. If you have a chance, check it out. I would be curious to hear what you think.