“Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.”
— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
A couple of years ago, the political leaders of the United States were negotiating (which might be a generous characterization) a large infrastructure bill. To generalize, one side took the position that infrastructure includes things like roads, bridges, ports, transit systems, and the electric grid. The other position took a broader approach and included items like health care, technology, job training, and scientific research in their definition of infrastructure. And yes, there’s much more nuance in the arguments from both perspectives, but what’s important here is that there’s even a discussion about infrastructure. Both parties agreed they needed to invest in infrastructure. The questions aren’t “if,” they are “what, where, and how much?”
My question is: Why?
Why did (and do) we need to have a conversation about maintaining our infrastructure? When you build a road, you know it will deteriorate. When you build a bridge, the engineers tell you upfront what the serviceable life of the bridge will be (and there are fun graphs that show the downward curve of the bridge’s reliability over time).
It’s not a surprise — not in the way that the need for internet access grew over the past twenty years. So why aren’t these costs planned for and incorporated as a normal, regular part of civic business?
The answer, in short, is that we don’t value maintenance.
And yes, I recognize that there are many individual citizens, towns, states, and countries that do a wonderful job planning and maintaining their infrastructure. I’m speaking culturally. In the US, we emphasize the new, the forward, and put little focus, energy, or value in keeping things going, alive, healthy, and whole. Continual forward-focus is a problem for our country as we look at deteriorating infrastructure. It’s a problem for our budgeting when we save for the house or the car but don’t plan for the maintenance costs. Looking for the new at the cost of maintenance is also a problem for relationships.