Oh, so there's a pandemic and suddenly you all want to protect the Post Office that brings you medicine and socks? Suddenly you're America's number one Census fan and think public health is really cool? Well, welcome to the Infrastructure Appreciation Society. Seriously, my God, welcome! I cannot tell you how happy I am you're here. Membership has been falling for decades. Please visit our website.
One of the oddest outcomes of our long global disaster has been an emergent appreciation for big, shared, legacy institutions and the infrastructure they support. I see it on Twitter, I hear it in conversations, I read it in the news. People care about mail sorting. They want Stars and Stripes to keep publishing. They want people with medical degrees, not politicians, to run our pandemic response. I guess being indoors a lot while the world crumbles will make you more sensitive to the fact that you exist as a single human node within a lattice of overlapping networks.
The good news is that there are many ways to appreciate infrastructure. You might read up on history in order to understand how bureaucracies form. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, was established in 1946 to fight malaria in the Deep South and prevent its spread—also inheriting, and continuing, the evil that was the Tuskegee syphilis study. Appreciating institutions is hard work, because they are sometimes wonderful and sometimes so corrupted that you wonder if they're worth saving. But they can also learn and improve, if they acknowledge the bad they've done, and get into productive lines of operation like smoking cessation programs, cancer prevention, and diabetes research. And if the CDC is not your thing (hello Trump administration), you have literally thousands of institutions to obsess over. Personally I'm a big fan of world postal systems, AT&T from 1920 to '84, and understanding how the railway-driven model of booking vaudevillians into theaters bootstrapped cinema. (So far I have not found a single other human interested in this subject, but I hold out hope.) But, I mean, if airmail is your thing, or the politics of road construction, you have options.
The trick is to start small. As you drift off to sleep tonight, imagine yourself as a piece of mail. A postcard to a friend. Into the mailbox you go. And then where? Do you know it would cost around $17,000 to send a letter to every single post office in the United States? (I've spent hours writing the notes in my head to the smallest post office in the USA, in Ochopee, Florida, where you can get mail stamped “Smallest Post Office Building in the U.S.A.”) This little question—where does it go next, and what happens then?—is the secret to understanding much of what humans built. You can ask this question about an email, a data packet, a census form, or a vote. You can ask it about farm workers, Google searches, photons, and Ubers. And when you ask, you start to realize how fragile certain things truly are, and how unbalanced. Your vote is a mere idea until it is registered and counted at the correct time. Bureaucracy is a tool for adding balance. Balance is hard.
I wish we had time to discuss zip codes.
What you realize, as you drift off to sleep, is that everything big eventually takes the form of a network: hubs, spokes. We act as if the internet invented networks, but it's just a variation on a theme of horses with mailbags, marathon runners with messages for the king in ancient Greece. A truly big idea isn't fully formed until it has been arranged to work in a network. And that turns networks into maps of power. The internet “just works,” but the people who make it go occasionally want to eliminate net neutrality so that they can have some extra money to go with their power. It's just human nature unless you regulate it.
When a networked institution reaches its final, mature state, it becomes invisible. We walk around on trillions of dollars of investment, but mostly we only notice a bridge when it collapses. Civic leaders are caretakers, not politicians, and it generally behooves them to fuss less in public. I have enormous affection for bureaucrats, and when I meet them they never believe me that I want to hear everything and see the PowerPoint slides too. What a wonderful world it would be if we could take 10 percent of the attention we typically reserve for monsters and weirdos and direct it to reasonable people with graduate degrees in boring subjects who run our actual world, keep poison out of the reservoir, and retire with a plaque.
I've lived through nearly 20 percent of America, as measured from the signing of the Constitution, and 70 percent of integrated schools. That's far more America than I planned. You grow up expecting to find your place in history, but history finds you. And finds you wanting. The weight was not lost, the novel wasn't finished, gender and racial inequality persist, much of the world lives on a dollar a day and wants a piece of fish. It feels as if it's time to stop imagining a better world and spend more time fixing this one.
I've also lived through 97 percent of personal computers and, by the same math, 280 percent of Facebook. Which makes no sense but feels right.
OK, so: Some people will say we did not achieve the liberation we expected; others will point out that on average the world is fractionally less cruel than before, if hardly kind. Studying just about any institution shows you that both things can be true. I did not personally save the world despite my best intentions, but I am in no way alone in trying.
I confess that I am suspicious of people who do not love good infrastructure. I'm not saying you must love institutions or trust them. But we should consider them daily and pay them mind, and tend to them with our taxes so they can do their work. And make noise when they fail to serve us.
Just because things are obvious doesn't mean they're invisible. When you are born, the hospital follows its checklists; as you grow up, packages come to your door; you vote in elections, if they'll let you; and when you die the Post Office will deliver your ashes. Here's a fun tip: Use Label 139, an orange sticker that says “Cremated Remains.” Or you can request an official box with an urn printed on it for your final journey through the network. Out of respect they send you Priority Mail—Express!
But not yet. First, welcome to our club! I can't wait until we're all back together and we can talk about the systems of the world together, and you can tell me how to fix them.
This article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue. Subscribe now.