James Fallows Seminar Media

Posted on Tuesday, October 20th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Civilization’s Infrastructure

Tuesday, October 6 02015 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Fallows Seminar page.

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Audio is up on the Fallows Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.

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Infrastructure investment tricks – a summary by Stewart Brand

All societies under-invest in their infrastructure—in the systems that allow them to thrive. There is hardware infrastructure: clean water, paved roads, sewer systems, airports, broadband; and, Fallows suggested, software infrastructure: organizational and cultural practices such as education, safe driving, good accounting, a widening circle of trust. China, for example, is having an orgy of hard infrastructure construction. It recently built a hundred airports while America built zero. But it is lagging in soft infrastructure such as safe driving and political transition.

Infrastructure always looks unattractive to investors because the benefits: 1) are uncertain; 2) are delayed; and 3) go to others—the public, in the future. And the act of building infrastructure can be highly disruptive in the present. America for the last forty years has starved its infrastructure, but in our history some highly controversial remarkable infrastructure decisions got through, each apparently by a miracle—the Louisiana Purchase, the Erie Canal, the Gadsden Purchase, the Alaska Purchase, National Parks, Land Grant colleges, the GI Bill that created our middle class after World War II, and the Interstate highway system.

In Fallows’ view, the miracle that enabled the right decision each time was either an emergency (such as World War II or the Depression), stealth (such as all the works that quietly go forward within the military budget or the medical-industrial complex), or a story (such as Manifest Destiny and the Space Race). Lately, Fallows notes, there is a little noticed infrastructure renaissance going in some mid-sized American cities, where the political process is nonpoisonous and pragmatic compared to the current national-level dysfunction.

By neglecting the long view, Fallows concluded, we overimagine problems with infrastructure projects and underimagine the benefits. But with the long view, with the new wealth and optimism of our tech successes, and expanding on the innovations in many of our cities, there is compelling story to be told. It might build on the unfolding emergency with climate change or on the new excitement about space exploration. Responding to need or to opportunity, we can tell a tale that inspires us to reinvent and build anew the systems that make our society flourish.

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