November 21, 2008


I recently moved back to the East Coast from California, and for the first year or so I saw the world with a curious sort of double vision, as my childhood memories were a sort of layer over the world I was seeing as an adult. As a child, I took a lot for granted, so seeing the same thing at the same time with adult eyes and my eyes as a child created an odd sort of perspective in which I not only saw things, but really began to think about them in a different way. The thoughts were not just different from those of the child, but also different from the way I had thought about the world in California. One of the things I started to see here in the Northeast was that favorite of wonks everywhere, infrastructure.

Infrastructure refers to all of those made things that make our world possible - not just the visible like roads and bridges and buildings, but the unnoticed like power lines and sign posts, and the hidden like buried water lines and sewer pipes. In the Northeast, much of the infrastructure was built around 100 years ago, and it shows its age. Also, by contrast with California, where the car is paramount, there is a relatively high density of public transit - bus and rail - even outside of New York City proper, as well as the enormous public transit system in the city. In part, these transit systems are made possible by the population density, but it also works the other way - the transit systems make a higher population density feasible here. In fact, even with the high density and transit, the area I live in, in Northern NJ, does not feel dense at all. It isn't until you pay attention to the housing infrastructure that you realize just how many people live around here.

One of the things about infrastructure is that if you look at it with the long perspective, the perspective of history, you can begin to see that we humans have been building stuff for a long time. If you look at it with the perspective of biology, especially the biology of social animals, you think, gee, that's nothing special. After all, termites build cities, and bees build hives and so on. On the other hand, bower birds build nests to attract mates.

And I find that an interesting thoughts. We tend to focus on infrastructure because of its social utility, but if building cities were all about social utility, they would be uniform, drab, and dare I say it, socialist. They would be the dreaded socialist worker housing - a long-gone trend in architecture, thankfully. Instead, if you look at the buildings from the heyday of the American skyscraper - the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building - they are ornamental, playful displays of power and capability. Each city, when it builds a new World's Tallest Building, tries to come up with something showy - something with a personality.

In a sense, then, infrastructure can be looked at not as a social utility, but as a societal display - a shared work of art, if you will. If you look at the people who build buildings - not the promoters who finance them, or the architects that design them, but the people who actually make them, with their own hands, what are they thinking? Is it "just a job," or, as seems likely to my admittedly biased self, are they not proud of their work. Do they point to the building with their children and say, "I built that." I am sure that they do.

And really, that's something that's being missed in our post-industrial service economy. There are people who build, people who make. They don't build things and make things because they're not competent to do something else. They make things - goods and infrastructure because that's who they are. They are people who build things. When we restructure our economy so that we don't build and don't make, we aren't just depriving Americans of jobs, we are depriving them of the way that they are hard-wired to be, to actualize themselves. People are different. Not everyone is an artist or a musician - some people are, most aren't. Some people are makers, and when we talk about industries and bailouts, we need to realize that the best way to have a functioning and diverse society is to make space in it for everyone, even (and especially) those who make things.

Posted by scott at November 21, 2008 09:52 PM