The Mysterious World of Infrastructure

One of my persistent hobbyhorses over the years has been infrastructure.  I’m convinced that it is both one of the most vitally important and completely overlooked issues in America today.  I’ve pondered this for a long time, but first got to thinking about it systematically in the wake  of the horrendous results of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.  It never ceases to amaze me how much we Americans take for granted the infrastructure upon which our lifestyle, and often our very lives, depend.  Occasionally a spectacular breakdown occurs (one thinks of–well, Katrina–also the blackout in the Northeast a few years ago) that makes national news, but after a day or two it sinks back into cognitive oblivion.  The level of breakdown we saw in New Orleans and elsewhere should by rights force us to take an honest look at the state of our nation’s infrastructure.

I don’t mean to trivialize by using a pop-culture reference, but this does put me in mind of something I used to ponder in my (excessive!) free time years ago.  Back in the 80’s one of my favorite TV series was Beauty and the Beast–the show with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.  For those too young to have seen it or those who didn’t watch it at the time, its premise was that there is an entire culture beneath the subways and sewers of New York.  Those discontent with the impersonality, venality, and general nastiness of modern urban life have dropped out–or better, dropped down–and have carved out a near-Utopian civilization.

There they live under the leadership of a wise old man, formerly a physician, referred to as Father (everyone there takes a new name, apparently).  They live in peace and harmony, dressed in clothing that seems a combination of the Renaissance, Bowery street-person, and Road Warrior.  Their chambers, hollowed out of the stone, look like Renaissance studies, all earth-toned, full of candles, and beautiful soft-focus shots.  The protagonist is a tough New York lawyer who is shot and left for dead by the mob; she is found by Vincent (a mutant who looks much like a were-lion who lives in the underground civilization, adopted by Father), heals underground, learns the ways of the people there, falls in love with Vincent, but then returns to the above-ground world, where she (assisted by Vincent, whom she frequently visits) fights crime.

It really is one of those shows where you either get it and love it, or think “What the hell?!” and dismiss it altogether.  Being a sucker both for romance and for fantasy, I liked it quite a bit.  Notice, however, that I say fantasy.  I don’t mean Vincent the mutant.  I mean the whole thing.  Yes, street people do hang out on subway platforms and such, but a whole society?

One subject I have taught is physics, and I have also long been a science buff.  When I was about 12, I thought of an idea for a totally underground society (otherwise completely unlike that of Beauty and the Beast).  The thing that would make it really neat would be that it was to be low-tech.  The fascination and romance of a hidden underground society is lost if one has it as all clean, antiseptic hallways dug by some consortium.  What fun is that?  From the point of view of the story, you want something quasi-Medieval–it makes it interesting and subversive.  Unfortunately, it also makes it impossible.

Consider–first, how do you see?  In a typical episode of Beauty and the Beast  you see more candles than you’d get in a Yankee Candle outlet.  However, assuming you’re living in caves several hundred feet below the ground (as the series made clear–they are far under the subway level), this would use up your oxygen (which of course would not be replenished, since it can’t freely circulate back to the aboveground), to say nothing of coating your walls, your ceiling, your clothing, and yourself with a thick coat of soot.  At least this would happen at the rate they burned them in the show!  Same problem with oil lamps, even worse with open fires on  hearths (you saw them, too, sometimes).  We’re being primitive, so no electricity.  So what do you do? Stumble around all day and night?

But while you’re stumbling, how do you breathe?  Deep mines have sophisticated ventilation systems, and it’s for a reason.  If you go deeper than a very superficial distance, the air becomes stagnant.  There is no exchange with the outside, hence smells and impurities build up.  If you were deep enough and had a large enough population (and in the show, the population underground seems vast) you’d have issues with the oxygen being used up.  You would go from a perpetual stench to outright asphyxiation!

Food:  No light and oxygen, no growing plants.  No plants, no animals.  No plants and animals, no food.

So, we have a subterranean populace that stumbles around in stinking, fetid darkness while wondering if they will die from suffocation or starvation first…hardly the context for a romantic fantasy series!  Now of course, it was only TV, only a show.  But it was amazing how easily the audience accepted the rationale without any explanation as to how the people of Beauty and the Beast managed to live in an impossible environment.  It is also amazing, in many post-apocalypse type movies, how the same thing happens.  People drive around in hot-wired cars, for example.  But with most people dead, as is the case in such a movie, who runs the power plants?  With no supervision, they’d quickly break down.  Then where does the power come from to run the gas pump at the gas station so you can jimmy it to steal gas to run your commandeered ride?  See what I mean?  My favorite is when on a sci-fi show (and much as I love it, Star Trek in all its incarnations is a huge offender here) a spaceship gets pummeled by enemy fire.  The consoles spark!  The lights go off!  Life support is failing!  But somehow, alwaysthe damn artificial gravity never goes out!  I realize that often the writers overlook it, and probably the effects would be prohibitive, but still!  Star Trek VI and one episode of Enterprise did at least make reference to such things, but they are far and away the exceptions.

Now it may seem odd to mention Katrina’s devastation and then go on an excursus through pop-culture, and I don’t want to draw too much from what I’ve mentioned.  Still, it seems to me that the stuff we have in pop culture and our reactions to real events often betray similar mindsets.  Arthur C. Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  He was exactly right–the problem is that the magic is our own technology.  People really do, I think, have an almost magical view of infrastructure.  Yes, we may gripe at potholes, or grumble when a thunderstorm knocks out our power for an hour or two, or grouse when we are driving along a road under construction.  Yes, we intellectually know that real, live humans have to go out in trucks to fix these things, that they are paid salaries, that these salaries come from the county or state or federal government, and that we pay for them with our taxes.  But on a gut level, we think that they do this stuff, they should do better!  The infamous generic they!  We think of “them” as if they were the pothole fairy, who mends our streets while we sleep; or the transformer gnomes, who keep power from going out; or the sewer elves who keep the plumbing from backing up; and so on.  We drive on bridges and roads, use natural gas and electricity provided by large complex plants, post things on the Internet, and somehow think that all these things are somehow natural, self-running, and that they will last forever with no maintenance.  We know better, but on a gut level this is what we actually believe.

This makes people act in strange ways.  A friend of mine gripes about the sewer fee he pays on his monthly water bill.  I try to explain that the sewage has to go somewhere and that someone has to build and maintain the plant and pipes that take it away, and that this can’t be done for free; but he gripes, “They’ve got an old plant already!  They want to charge us for a new one when we don’t need it, so they can make money off of us!”  He is a very intelligent person, but he seems to think that sewage plants and lines need no maintenance and never wear out.  The only reason the city could have for charging one is to make a quick buck!  Not that no corruption exists anywhere; but it is magical thinking–the old plant should last forever!  We shouldn’t be charged for it!  My friend, alas, is not an isolated example–I’ve heard many talk this way.

This brings it back to Katrina.  Many people seem almost psychologically overloaded with shock that such a breakdown of civilization, even after a horrible storm, could happen to us.  People still have difficulty believing that something like this could happen even in principle.  Aren’t they supposed to keep things like this from happening?  It has come out that the Administration ignored warnings, reduced funding, and in general took no steps that could have made things at least a bit better.  We have seen the inadequacy of the response.  All things predictable, inevitable to those who do simple, hardnosed analysis.  And yet it seems to take something of this magnitude for people to realize that infrastructure is most emphatically not magic.  It is something that we humans must pay for, build, and then perform ongoing maintenance for, and pay for the ongoing maintenance.  Not an incredibly difficult concept–unless you live in the world of Beauty and the Beast!

Posted on 23/06/2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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