Civilizational infrastructure

The systems that hold up the world are invisible until they fail. They're boring. They fade into the background. But they are important, more important than anything else— because a society that can't do the basics well? It can't do anything well.

You know the technologies. Think hard, squint a little, and they come to mind: Electricity generation. Sewers. Home construction. Marriage. Banking. The rule of just law (in both creation and enforcement). Education. Food production. Everyday transportation. Religion. Steel manufacturing. The list goes on and on…

All of these boring disciplines—which, together, I call “civilizational infrastructure”—underpin our society and culture. They are not the main events, the things that make life special. They just make the special possible. Most people spend most of their time consuming entertainment and building relationships and improving little aspects of their lives… and they should! But it’s dangerous if we all take civilizational infrastructure for granted, if we allow crucial parts to slowly slip away or not improve them when we can.

Thus, it is critically important that some of us spend our lives defending and upgrading this infrastructure— even though faithful service will be forgotten, as a job well done causes the public to notice nothing. To keep the basics chugging along is the task of the spiritual fellows of the proverbial IT guy: in good times asked “why do we pay you to do nothing?”; in bad times interrogated as to “why we pay you when things still break?”; but almost never thanked. It’s the role of the self-defeating prophet, who yells about an impending danger loudly enough that his peers mobilize to guard against it, only to turn and ask him what he was so scared about, because nothing came of his fears! However hard it may be, knowing stewards must take these thankless burdens from the shoulders of those who bear them, lengthening a chain of dozens of generations of duty— for the alternative is oblivion. Civilization would be lost.

It is this image that drives me most to work as hard, to be as ambitious, to always do the best job that I can. For I am here, and can type these words, because of the toil and sweat and genius of millions of stewards before me. It is the least I can do to pay a little of this debt forward— to pass to my kids and their peers an even better version of this magnificent civilization that I was born into by no virtue of my own.

I will never top Will Durant’s words when he spoke of how our ancestors "transmitted to us, rejuvenated and enriched, that heritage of civilization to which we must always add, but which we must never let die." The briefest telling of its magnificent journey to us spans an entire shelf. To protect it is our duty.

The basics are important. We must seek to do them well.