Today, my friend Benjamin Cohen graciously provides the goods. Ben is an environmental studies scholar who teaches Science, Technology, and Society (in the Engineering School), and Environmental History (in the History Department), at the University of Virginia. He writes for both academic journals (such asEnvironmental History andConfigurations ), and popular magazines (check hiscool interview with Michael Pollan , author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in The Believer ).
Ben also writes a dashing column called“B.R. Cohen’s Annals of Science” forMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency , where he’s an assistant editor, and co-authorsThe World’s Fair, a blog that puts the sigh (of delight!) back in science.
This is how it happens.
It was an accident, a few years ago, that I came upon Gao Xingjian’s brilliant short story “The Accident,”  while leafing through a magazine, waiting for someone who was late. When the person showed up I retold the story, almost verbatim, straight through, wide-eyed.
More recently, it was an accident that I found myself professionally betwixt the humanities and the sciences, teaching history, ethics, literature and cultural studies to engineers. And I’m certain it was an accident—the final one, luckily, since this trope couldn’t hold up for another sentence—that I was pressed for a class reading and saw the story sitting on the side table.
In “The Accident,” a man is riding his bike across a busy Chinese street, a baby carriage attached to the front. A “two-car trolleybus” is coming from the other direction. The cyclist crosses diagonally. The bus driver sees him coming and beeps his horn, trying to avoid a collision. The cyclist seems to speed up, hoping to get past the bus, perhaps. The bus hits the bike. The child is thrown to safety. The bus driver has killed the man under his wheels and is distraught, while the cyclist, so close to safety, is now dead. And there’s this line, near the end: “It was unavoidable…. No one can escape death. And no city is free of traffic accidents.”
The rest of the story offers a series of observations and conjectures from passers-by. What happened? Who was at fault? How might the accident have been avoided? As the day goes on, it’s increasingly less clear what went down. New observers come on the scene and speculate and blame—the father (they’re sure he is the father of the child; we’re not) should’ve listened. The child should’ve saved his father. (“That’s terrible! Why didn’t he pull his father out of the way?” “It was the father who pushed the son out of the way.”)
The bus driver should’ve slowed down more, or swerved, or honked more insistently. And where was the mother? Working late? Not enough money? Why couldn’t the daycare keep the child a little longer? What’s wrong with the State these days, not taking care of its children? This is the effect of bad public policy.
Readers see the day passing and fading, as in a short film, with the sun rolling from right to left over the sky. The sun sets, and street cleaners hose off the last traces of blood, so passersby no longer know an accident occurred. Readers can imagine a new day oblivious to the prior one, speeding along with new traffic and new problems. We wonder: What really happened here?
When I use the story in my undergraduate engineering ethics classes, students usually say to go back to the facts—to the driver and the cyclist. Accidents happen when we don’t know something, they say. They review the case, map it on the board; they estimate speeds; they survey the scene. There were witnesses, yes, but they weren’t all paying attention and didn’t see the same thing. Conflicting as they are, we can’t trust first-person testimonies.
They say: The bus driver didn’t want to hit the man but felt it was unavoidable. It must’ve been the cyclist’s fault.
Or: He surely didn’t have a death wish, what with his child right there and his paternal instinct to save him when all else was lost, unclipping the basket and throwing it forward. It must’ve been the driver’s fault.
They wonder why I asked them to read this story, anyway. Am I suggesting that traffic engineers need to do a better job? Or that buses need better safety devices? The more allegory-prone of them suspect that the moral is that motorized transport will always squash human-powered technology. Is this a lesson in environmental ethics, of technology versus nature, of the difference between mechanical and organic? Wait a minute: Is this going to transition into a case study of the Challenger explosion and the need for better techniques to evaluate mistakes? What about personal responsibility—am I opposed to or in support of it?
You said “the State”—is this about Communism? I knew you were liberal.
I let this go for a while to see how many possible lessons they generate. Some of them get really pissed off, because by the end of class they forget it’s a fictional story and demand to know the answer, especially those who scored so very high on their math SATs and assume certainty looms over the horizon. They want to draw and re-draw that schematic of the street, the probable speeds of bike and bus, the amount of foot traffic, vehicle traffic, bike traffic. They build a world in their minds, accidentally, that seems real, and solvable.
All I wanted to suggest to them was that the answer isn’t easily available, that the horizon may move just as certainty does. I’m not trying to be coy or clever; I really just wonder how the uncertainty of fiction works with the uncertainty of science and engineering. This is how it happens, so far. With no conclusion.