Friday, April 27, 2012

Infrastructure: The Invisible Hand That Feeds

Your daily commute is riddled by potholes that decorate the local main roads and highways. The pavement appears rough, broken, with jagged edges and patchwork splotches of darker colors where in the distant past someone has attempted to fix a full body injury with a small band-aid. Every single day your car bounces down the road, reverberating with each pavement indentation, and the drink in your hand sloshes violently, spilling over the side. If you were as poor at your job as this, you reason, you'd be fired. How can such terrible infrastructure happen?

Infrastructure is vital to any civilization. If a country is to grow or progress, or even function, some sort of infrastructure is needed. It acts like the circulatory system does to the body, delivering blood and other important constitutes to where it's needed, or the digestive system, transporting food to the appropriate location in the body and breaking it down into energy. Outside of weird analogies to the human body, a country really does need to move food from one side to the other, either from a region of farmlands to city centers or from a port, or some way to move vital services like firetrucks and ambulances.

Unfortunately, a successful infrastructure is virtually invisible. The meaning of the word at the most fundamental level is the physical transfer of goods from one place to another -- even the internet needs physical lines to transmit the digital information. The transfer itself is most important. It ultimately doesn't matter what the water pipes look like or how large they are; what's important is that water is provided to the populated safely and when it's needed. What this means is that the better infrastructure is, generally, the more you don't notice it, which makes it more difficult to justify expenses year after year to the public. What's sad is that the infrastructure that stands out is what fails -- bridge collapses, e. coli scares, car crashes, and even potholes.

Since the benefits from infrastructure are wide-ranging and hidden by interactions with multiple steps -- clean, reliable, affordable water means that a family can buy a washing machine easily, which allows a company producing washing machines to operate in a stable business environment -- what is gained for the private sector is not always understood. Some people may see the public sector as a waste of money that drains the rest of the economy, but at least for infrastructure it's what helps build an economy. Private companies in the US rely on just-in-time delivery, which reduces inventory and costs; that would not be possible without a reliable and efficient transportation system that could support a complex and fast freight network. There's certainly room to improve transportation in this country, but it's still at a level where it can deliver goods from one ocean to the other in a remarkable amount of time.

That's one specific fact that's taken for granted. It's absolutely amazing that we can travel thousands of miles in a few days or even hours by plane. That's a trip that used to take months and years, and many people would die along the way. There are also more common examples of how we all take for granted infrastructure. Crossing most bridges is a forgettable daily activity we have to do to access more vital things like going to work or picking up groceries. A bridge is an astounding human accomplishment that modifies nature to make things easier for people. That sort of large scale and analytic development to change our environment is what separates us from the animals.

In fact, advances in the future could change the very nature of infrastructure. For an extreme example, think of a sci-fi teleportation device. Let's ignore quantum tunneling, wormholes, and other bits of theoretical physics. What it does is take the core principle of what transportation is without any superfluous medium like a road. It's perfection in terms of what transportation is trying to do in seamlessly moving people and goods. You're not shown the complex physics and amazing technology that allows an individual to travel a great distance in the blink of an eye instantaneously; all you know is that you're there one second and here the next -- it's all about the here and there.

That pothole-filled road is not part of a Greek myth to burden your journey. Without those roads (or rails or trails) you could not have traveled to school that granted you an education, to your first job interview, visited, your first love, bought your car, or done many of things that make you who you are, and that doesn't even mention the rest of the infrastructure sphere that has shaped your life. It's a gift that we live an age where the questions we have about our drinking water are along the lines of, Is there too much disinfectant? and not, Will we have enough so our children won't die? We cannot forget the incredible work that has gone into building the structure of civilization.

Don't frown at that pothole. The very fact that it exists means you were fortunate enough to have a road.