Mouse Trap

Parker Brothers Mouse Trap Game

When an accident happens, what does it mean? Or, to put it another way, what does it reveal? After reading this post, you will be able to answer that question—at least, as viewed through the lens of Normal Accident Theory.

It is not, however, my intention to try to turn you into an expert on NAT.

In fact I have a quite different aim: I hope to use the framework of Normal Accident Theory to convince you that when it comes to avoiding accidents in the backcountry (and, indeed, in life itself), the game is rigged.

"Mouse Trap" is a 1963 children's board game in which players move their tokens—mice—along a winding pathway while simultaneously constructing a large and inscrutable structure around them. At the game's climax, the structure is revealed as an elaborate trap, which, upon the turn of a crank at one end of the board, captures the losing mouse at the other.

It's a wonderful metaphor for how accidents work.

We begin with an empty board. As we move along it, our choices and actions interact with randomness to build a vast and mysterious system around us. Part of its structure is visible—deciding to go on Saturday, for example, instead of Thursday, to accommodate a partner's schedule.

But most of the system is invisible, comprised of amorphous hidden connections that form between the ordinary apparatus of our lives.

When the trap is sprung, the connections become obvious.

Example: I shattered a tooth because a wildfire erupted on the day my partner and I picked to hike San Antonio Ridge, forcing us to backtrack and hike down in the dark without headlamps, leading to me blindly stepping into a hole at just the right moment so that I clunked my jaw in just the right way.

You there, reading this—do you feel so safe and secure where you are, right now?

I say the mouse trap is steadily forming around you. In fact you yourself are a component of it. You just can't see it, because you're the mouse. But it is there, I assure you. When the trap springs it will suddenly leap into view, as if it's always been there.

But for now, the trap is invisible.

Assuming its consequences are not so dire (and I hope that this is the case), it can be fun after the fact to puzzle out all the various pieces of the mouse trap and how they came to fit together so neatly. Admire our Universe's endless inventiveness!

But life is not always so benign.

From the point of view of Normal Accident Theory, there are three rules we should be aware of:

  1. Accidents are a normal and inevitable feature of complex systems
  2. Some accidents are foreseeable
  3. Some are not

From these three postulates we can and will devise strategies to help us manage uncertainty (including, where possible, reducing the system's complexity), but first and foremost we must be open to a bitter truth: not all accidents can be prevented.

Accidents reveal connections hidden within complex systems whose components themselves often lie beyond our full perception. In many cases, an accident is the only way those connections can be revealed.

We are all active players in this game, and the invisible tendrils of its many traps are right now forming around each of us. Things that appear now as harmless and unrelated will someday be unmasked as tightly-coupled and dangerous.

Awareness of this reality means acknowledging not just the limits of what we do know, but the limits of what we can know. So build your tactics, strategies, and safety procedures upon a foundation of humility. In our world, ultimately, uncertainty reigns supreme.

— November 30, 2023

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

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