In praise of invisible things


The other week, as part of my real job, I finished helping a big micro-mobility company (that’s not a contradiction in terms) from America who now wants to expand into Australia. I have never ridden an electric scooter or an electric bicycle in my life, but it was very interesting to explore the technology behind it, the business model of shared e-vehicle schemes, and all the changes this seemingly minor new mode of transit is bringing to cities worldwide. A day later, for the first time in about year and a half, I flew interstate. It was not the most traumatic of experiences; for a starters, I could actually still fly. But the airport was probably less than half as busy as pre-COVID, with five out of twenty displayed arrivals and departures marked as “cancelled” on the screens. As for the price of the ticket now, compared to the yesteryear of relative competition and plenty…

Those two recent encounters with the world of transport – both personal and mass – reminded me yet again about how little thought most of us normally give to those aspects of everyday life that make all the others possible and pleasurable. These are the society’s logistics: the plumbing of our civilisation, often literally, because good indoor (and outdoor) plumbing make our existence infinitely better, healthier and happier. Yet it is a reasonably recent enhancement in historical terms, and remains sparse in many parts of the world. Utilities, amenities, transport, communication: the great “unmentionables” of our existence. We find these “necessities” boring and often ugly. We certainly take them for granted; they are such an obvious part of the fabric of our individual and collective existence we look straight through or past them. Instead, we should be awestruck.

To be fair, the great global upheaval surrounding the COVID epidemic did shake us, at least momentarily, out of our comfortable complacency. We briefly remembered the importance of truck drivers delivering fresh and packaged food from the countryside and from the warehouses to our neighbourhood stores. We got suddenly exposed to the unglamourous but absolutely crucial work performed by “essential” and “emergency” services – health care, police, transport, utilities. We certainly discovered how much we missed some of them when we could no longer lead our normal lives. Hopefully at least some of these lessons will stay with us for longer than the current crisis.

When I speak of “invisible” aspects of life, I mean both those we don’t actually see, like power, sanitation and communication, as well as those we do – but disdain.

Take the object of my second encounter: an airport. Airports are almost universally hated. They are places of waiting and of wasted time, the liminal spaces between “being” and “going”, neither here nor there. We associate them with ugly utilitarian aesthetic, lack of comfort, and crappy and expensive food. Even without the added layers of inconvenience brought about by enhanced anti-terror security or the pandemic-related public health measures, these giant waiting rooms are not places where any of us would voluntarily want to spend any time in if wasn’t necessary.

And yet, I find airports beautiful. They are the cathedrals of modernity. By that I don’t mean they are nice looking places (though some are nicer looking than others), but they are miraculous places. Not because of what they are but because of what they do. They represent – and they make possible – something that has been a mere dream through the great bulk of human history: access to relatively inexpensive, fast, long-distance travel for the masses. A world without airports is a world without exciting overseas holidays, a world of far fewer jobs and business opportunities, a world of isolation where you might never see your family and friends if they live too far away from you. An hour or two of being temporarily warehoused before being shot into the sky (another modern miracle) is a small price to pay for the boundless bounty that awaits us at the other end of our journeys. It’s human to grumble, but it’s wise to maintain a perspective on things.

A few years ago, I wrote about the economic equivalent of a religious experience I’ve had not long after first coming to live in Australia, an advanced and prosperous capitalist society so much in contrast with the communist Poland of my childhood. My epiphany occurred while driving past a large floor covering showroom and store in the middle of a semi-industrial area, far from residential areas. I suddenly realised  that very moment what a miracle of human progress and ingenuity our market economy is that allows a shop like this and millions of its cousins to survive and thrive, attracting a specialised clientele across often longish distances to carry out transactions that benefits all parties involved. St Adam Smith, pray for us sinners. And St Freidrich of Austria too, you of the spontaneously generated complex systems of human interaction.

I get a similar feeling of awe and joy when I look at something like an airport – but it could be anything else, from an electricity grid to a logistics system for a food store. What a miracle, what a work of art. Here we have actions of thousands of people and hundreds of different entities, commercial and public, coordinated through economic organisation and advanced technology to work (for most part) seamlessly for the good and the benefit of millions of people, making their lives better, richer and more interesting. How many opportunities we have all enjoyed that were barely dreamed of by even our grandparents, much less our more distant ancestors. How fortunate we have been to live at this and not any other moment in history.

None of the people involved are doing it out of the goodness of their own hearts, of course. Everyone is remunerated for their part, so it is not necessarily a matter of being thankful to each and every one of them, but appreciating what their collective effort makes possible. We do not do it often enough. The beauty of nature or of art or of human goodness makes us stop and reflect. The “invisible things” that power our civilisation are not beautiful or heart-stopping in an aesthetic sense. They can’t compete with a beach sunset or cute puppies. But they are exquisite nonetheless, testament to the collective genius of humanity when its wisdom, imagination and skills are applied to good ends.

The story of the past century or two, all the very real tragedies and the popular doom and gloom notwithstanding, has been one of constant progress: more people than ever before, both in absolute and relative terms, are living longer, healthier, richer, more varied lives. We are now so used to this progress (even as we take its products for granted) that it’s difficult to contemplate any other path before us. The great tragedy of 2020 might be the fact that just as we have come to appreciate more the sinews of our society and their unobtrusive workings, we could be losing some of the opportunities we considered inherent. As a melancholy Toby Young reflects in the latest “Spectator”:

As an ambitious journalist making my way in Fleet Street, I dreamed of becoming a Mid-Atlantic Man. Tom Wolfe came up with the term in the mid-1960s to describe someone who divided his life between London and New York…

Today’s young thrusters will have to come up with a different vision of the good life. At the time of writing, it looks almost certain that the British government will insist upon everyone entering the country spending at least 10 days in a ‘quarantine hotel’. We’re not talking about the Connaught, which gets a mention in Wolfe’s original essay, but a Sofitel or Holiday Inn Express just yards from the airport…

Will the Mid-Atlantic Man ever make a comeback? It feels doubtful, even if this is only a temporary measure. A combination of SARS-CoV-2 and global warming looks likely to bring the age of cheap air travel to a close. Shuttling between different world cities, whether for work or fun, will be a luxury of the super-rich, just as it was before the Swinging Sixties. We may come to look back on this period, when middle-class people could enjoy some of the same luxuries as the international jet set, as an aberration. The headline on Tuesday’s Sun captured the new reality. Above a picture of a couple sitting in deck chairs was the headline: ‘Looks like it’s Bognor again, dear.’…

Some may welcome this change as part of the ‘Great Reset’, one of many sacrifices we’ll have to make if capitalism is going to be ‘sustainable’… Underpinning my fantasy of becoming a Mid-Atlantic Man was a sense of the world opening up, with all the attendant possibilities for reinvention. I could transcend my ascribed identity and enjoy a freedom previous generations had only dreamed of. Alas, it looks as though it will be out of reach for future generations too.

It’s a fear I’ve discussed lately with many friends who enjoy international travel for business and pleasure. It will be tragic indeed if in the not-so-distant future we will come to see the past few decades as the lost golden age of interconnectedness; that all the great experiences we’ve had overseas in the past are it for us, unless we’re quite rich, which none of us are. I don’t want to get political, as this has been a pretty unpolitical post (except for those for whom everything is political, and in this case the infrastructure and the logistics of our civilisation I’m singing praises of are in reality the ugly outgrowths of patriarchy, imperialism and environmental destruction) but I do worry that phenomena like COVID and climate change are increasingly being used to by those in charge to shrink our horizons and restrict our opportunities for the future. Throughout history, the answer to virtually every problem and challenge we have faced was better technology. Too many think now that it’s more government, with more rules, more restrictions and more micro-management. Instead of putting our talents in designing institutions and systems like those in the past that helped liberate humanity from our limitations, we are now designing to restrict and circumscribe.

Whether with joy or with some sadness then, let us cherish the turning wheels of our civilisation and those who turn them, for most part out of sight and out of mind. We miss them when they stop. May they never.

Photo by Kevin Wenning on Unsplash