(cross-posted from my blog, Sunday Stopwatch)

The other day, I was walking home on an empty road and a bus drew past me. It got me thinking about the differences in our speeds. I could never compete with the bus on speed. Not only because the bus has a big engine, but also because of the context it's embedded in. The bus lives in a world where the roads are made for it, and where fuel is available to it. Each of those two things - roads and fuel - both have their own highly complex supply networks. Roads require asphalt concrete, asphalt concrete requires giant plants for extracting rock and producing bitumen glue, both of these involve giant, planet-spanning networks of people who talk to each other, coordinate on amounts, routes, deadlines, shipments, issues with shipments, quality, quantity, and everything in between. And that's just for road material! We haven't even started to talk about the fuel part, nor how the buses themselves are produced! And the most incredible thing is how these networks - these complex, inert behemoths - they actually work, and work pretty well. If you taboo your understanding of what a road is, and instead see this enormous, civilization-spanning spell that has "road" as a byproduct, you really start to get incredulous that the whole thing works at all.

All this from the fact that the bus goes much faster than I walk. I guess I had a spiritual experience: a deep insight and appreciation of the sheer size of the entire thing. And that got me thinking - why have I been ignoring civilization?

Not in the sense of industrial illiteracy even though I could certainly be more industrially literate, but specifically in the sense of making a categorical distinction between being focused on things and being focused on people. These feel like they are different: people focused on things use tools, optimize systems, measure and analyze, think in terms of inputs and outputs, and so on. On the other hand, people focused on people use language, talk to others, understand their motivations, help or prevent them from achieving their goals, and so on.

And they are different, they're two different clusters of personalities and preferences, but I guess I see the thing side of civilization now. I feel like I missed the forest for the trees with civilization. Civilization is also a tool to be wielded, same as any computer program, angle grinder, surgical knife, or 3D printer. It's just huge.

All this maybe sounds trivial. More than anything, this is an appreciation post. Recognizing the tool-nature of civilization was similar to learning about x86 assembly: you know that the computer works somehow, you just don't know how. But then you learn about assembly and you get a lot of appreciation for this entire level of nature. So, same for civilization. Thank you bus!

Oh, and there actually is one practical conclusion. If civilization is a thing to be wielded, a great, slow, powerful spell that binds an entire planet... you should maybe wield it! What I'm saying is that you should do politics.

From Steven Buss, speaking about local politics:

Many of us feel that local politics is too small or too inconsequential to be worth thinking about. But the reality is that local politics impacts your day more than anything else. The high cost of housing, the dirty sidewalks, the broken roads, the unsafe bike lanes, the crippling traffic and pitiful transit system are all due to bad local politics.


2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:36 AM
New Comment

Thanks for sharing this. I often catch myself thinking this way, about how, for example, the outlet in the very room you're sitting in is connected to another strand of wire, and another, and another, until the very generator in some powerplant somewhere. And since other outlets in other buildings and cities are connected to the same state, you could say that there is almost a complete circuit between your room and every other room connected to the same grid.

Or go up a level: consider that all this infrastructure is being operated by humans, and that connecting each human is an invisible line--a contract, a duty, a responsibility, an agreement--but of course it's never just one line, it's actually a whole infinitely complicated web of them. Imagine the person that agreed and committed to emptying the mailbox on your street and taking the contents to a drop-off location. And the next person who agreed and committed to collecting all the bags of mail and putting them through a sorting machine. And then the next person who agreed to and learned to load up trucks with all these bags. And then all the drivers, complete strangers, who agreed to show up at a certain place in time to pick up some bags and drive them over to another place. And... and then the whole system of judges and inspectors and operations people who make sure that everyone else keeps their commitments, so that you can put a piece of paper in one box and another person can retrieve from another box on a different continent.

It's quite something, this machine. 

Interesting perspective but I’m not sure if that quote employs the best argument. By that logic since, for example, your lungs impact you, personally, far more than all of civilization combined then focusing on your lungs, breathing, etc., should take priority over local politics.