History is the autobiography of a mad man – Alexander Herzen
So, I don’t keep this site up nearly as much as a I used to. Aside from a few posts from 2016 and 2017, it’s a collection of my half cooked ideas of my early/mid 20’s. The reason I started this was because I would perseverate on an idea or a theme and not get that out of my mind until I unloaded it in writing. Ideas that, I may feel differently as I’m peering into my 30th birthday. That feeling hasn’t happened in years, until recently.
Every couple years or so the Army Corp of engineers releases a report on our industrial infrastructure, usually to depressing results. Despite what seems like constant road work our roads, bridges, drinking water, levees, and other industry we all use routinely averages a D…maybe a C- in the brighter areas. But I’m not here to talk about our industrial failures, which anyone who’s blown a tire on a road littered with potholes could explain to you. It’s our societal infrastructure, which no one seems to be able to talk about.
I can’t even promise you that I can articulate it’s decline any better than most, but I’ll try. Whenever I hear a story about a corporation or individual acquiring wealth and using it to distress others (Think Martin Shkreli spiking the price of A.I.D.S. medication) , I always sardonically ask myself “Oh I’m sorry, I thought we lived in a society!?” It’s not my quote but I can’t place where I originally heard it… South Park maybe? But it has become increasingly clear the answer it, maybe…no.
I’m not going to say we all live in petty fiefdoms, focusing entirely on our family and friends and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. But, it’s becoming increasingly that way. But I think the biggest indicator of the strength of our society isn’t the number of assholes like Shkreli, but our societal infrastructure.
When I say “societal infrastructure,” I’m talking essentially about “shared spaces” Social infrastructure is not “social capital” the concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and networks, but it’s more than that. It’s the physical places that allow bonds to develop. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. People forge ties in places that have healthy social infrastructures, not necessarily because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships, even across ethnic or political lines, inevitably grow.
Examples of spaces like these are public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, and athletic fields. These are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are community gardens and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Nonprofit organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructure when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, clothing, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments, while most require money to patron do add to the list with areas such as cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores.
Some places, such as libraries, YMCAs, and schools, provide space for recurring interaction, often programmed, and tend to encourage more durable relationships. Others, such as playgrounds and street markets, tend to support looser connections, but these ties can, and sometimes do, grow more substantial. Countless close friendships between parents, and then entire families, begin because two toddlers visit the same swing set. I know this because one of my family’s closest friends became friends with my family when my parents were at a public park with a 1 year old me, and met another parent’s playing with their 1 year old at a park… In 1991.
As human’s our innate need for interaction is paramount in our lives, yet the belief that these places should be cherished has been diminished. People haven’t completely abandoned shared spaces but are more likely to browse Netflix during their free time then meet people at a trivia night, or a pick up basketball game. I get it, it’s easier. Not to mention most news stories are about murder or scandal in these spaces. Speaking of Netflix, you can get stories about these shared spaces… but usually with numerous stories about serial killers and other sociopath monsters meeting victims in these shared spaces.
Who’s to blame for the degradation of our social infrastructure? National and numerous state budgets all show deep cuts to spending in these areas. These are leaders from both parties. At best it’s an indifference to these spaces, at worst an attack on them. As spaces degrade, people stop using them. As people stop using them, they get less funding, as they get less funding people stop using them… and it’s a cycle until they don’t exist. Our social infrastructure has “the Tinkerbell effect” as they only exist if we believe in them. If we do then you reverse the cycle. People participate in shared spaces, they invite their friends, more people come, should politicians still try to cut their funding, people fight for their areas, and ask for more spaces.
But Paul, you may argue, why must we depend on the government and the people for these spaces? We live in a capitalist market, surely businesses will bail us out! But aside from the few areas I named before…they won’t. They won’t because the nature of these spaces isn’t the turn a profit. Parks for example don’t make money, they spend it. They rely on tax payers to pay to work as grounds crews, event planners, tennis instructors , and to ref soccer games. Not to mention there are many examples of businesses with types of no loitering signs… which kind of defeats the purpose of being able to be somewhere and just exist. Businesses tend to try and succeed at attracting a certain crowd, and that crowd can exclude people with a type of skin color, or a type of paycheck, which again defeats the purpose. Remember the black teens that were thrown out of a Starbucks for merely existing there?
Social infrastructure is more than just a space to find friends. It’s a space to share ideas. At this time we see our country are more politically divided than ever. The cause is multifaceted but not unrelated to a decaying social infrastructure. This may be where social infrastructure plays it most important role. It’s role in holding together our democracy. If you have less places where you can share ideas face to face with others then you are left to do that over the internet, which serves as a divider where people tend to be more callus and less thoughtful then if they were face to face with a person. I certainly don’t romanticize them as some breeding ground where people will have their minds changed by strangers espousing differing political or social ideals but we can understand each other more if we physically surround ourselves with those who may think differently than us. It helps us think of the other side as not so “other”
In a time where all kind of institutions are being cut down and societal pillars are being chipped away at, we all feel a separation between each other. We live in a world where there is an all time high for prescriptions of Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. How can a lack of societal cohesion that can lead to a sense of distress not contribute to those numbers? A crumbling social infrastructure can lead to an intangible feeling of loss that one may find hard to put their finger on, with disastrous emotional and psychological ramifications.
Yes, our roads are bad, our drinking water is haphazard, aviation leads a lot be desired, and our energy production is inefficient. Our industrial infrastructure is a glaring problem in this nation but nothing that engineers and construction workers can’t fix. Many politicians, including President Trump have addressed the issue and offered plans to remedy it. But our social infrastructure, the spaces we all use, where friendships our made, ideas are shared, our democracy is strengthened and our innate need of “togetherness” is met, I would argue is more important, and one that no one is talking about.