I was transported recently to a place that is as enchanting to me as any winter wonderland: my local post office.
In line, I thought fondly of the year I came to this country from Turkey as an adult and discovered the magic of reliable mail service. Dependable infrastructure is magical not simply because it works, but also because it allows innovation to thrive, including much of the Internet-based economy that has grown in the past decade. You can’t have Amazon or eBay without a reliable way to get things to people’s homes.
Of course, infrastructure is also boring, so we get used to it and forget what a gift it truly is. I never do, maybe because I discovered it so late.
My first year in the United States was full of surprises. I remember trying to figure out if the 24-ounce glass of ice water the waitress placed in front of me was a pitcher, to be shared by the whole table. But where was the spout? I had expected some of what I encountered – I had seen enough movies and came to this country expecting big cars and big houses and wide open spaces. I got used to gigantic glasses.
But I didn’t expect the post office.
The first time I needed to mail something, I trekked over to my campus’ post office, looking for the line to get my envelope weighed. The staff was used to befuddled international students like me, I suppose, and one clerk took my envelope without fuss, said “first class letter” and took my change.
Then I discovered some vending machines outside the office. People came and bought stamps. “So many people must be into stamp collecting,” I thought to myself. Was that another weird American quirk? Otherwise, why would people waste money buying stamps in advance, without having their letters weighed?
Something I take for granted now just didn’t occur to me: There were standardized rates, and you could just slap a stamp on your letter and drop it in a mailbox, and it would go to its destination.
I then encountered a visa service that asked me to mail in my passport. My precious, precious passport. With a self-addressed, stamped envelope for its return. I laughed at the audacity of the request. Despite being a broke student, I booked a plane trip. I couldn’t envision putting my passport in the mail. I’ve since learned that this is a common practice, and I’ve even done it once or twice myself. But it still does not come easy to me.
I noticed that Americans were a particularly patriotic bunch: So many of them had red flags on their mailboxes. Sometimes they would put those flags up. I presumed it was to celebrate national holidays I did not yet know about. But why did some people have their flags up while others did not? And why weren’t they American flags anyway?
The mystery was solved when I noticed a letter carrier emptying a mailbox. I was slightly unnerved: Was the mail being stolen? He then went over to another mailbox with the flag up and emptied that box, too. I got my hint when he skipped the mailbox with the flag down.
Yes, I was told, in the United States, mail gets picked up from your house, six days a week, free.
The thrill of libraries, too
I told my friends in Turkey about all this. They shook their heads in disbelief, wondering how easily I had been recruited as a CIA agent, saying implausibly flattering things about my new country. The United States in the world’s imagination is a place of risk taking and ruthless competition, not one of reliable public services.
I bit my tongue and did not tell my suspicious friends that the country was also dotted with libraries that provided books to all patrons free. They wouldn’t believe me anyway since I hadn’t believed it myself. My first time in a library in the United States was very brief: I walked in, looked around and ran right back out in a panic, certain that I had accidentally used the wrong entrance. Surely, these open stacks full of books were reserved for staff only. I was used to libraries being rare, and their few books inaccessible. To this day, my heart races a bit in a library.
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the link between infrastructure, innovation – and even ruthless competition. Much of our modern economy thrives because you can order things online and expect them to be delivered. There are major private delivery services, too, but the U.S. Postal Service is often better equipped to make it to certain destinations.
Almost every aspect of the most innovative parts of the United States, from cutting-edge medical research to its technology scene, thrives on publicly funded infrastructure. The post office is struggling these days, in some ways because of how much people rely on the Web to do much of what they used to turn to the post office for. But the Internet is a testament to infrastructure, too: It exists partly because the National Science Foundation funded much of the research that makes it possible. Even some of the Internet’s biggest companies, like Google, got a start from NSF-funded research.
Infrastructure is often the least-appreciated part of what makes a country strong and what makes innovation take flight. From my spot in line at the post office, I see a country that does both well – not a country that emphasizes one at the expense of the other.
The New York Times
Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina.