homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

The mysteries of the supply chain

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

I’m a sucker for good attempts to think about the supply chain and global logistics networks — or rather, thinking through the impossibility of thinking about these networks, because of the systemic sublime. In “See No Evil,” Miriam Posner has a doozy of an essay that does just that. In particular, she picks up and runs with modularity: the feature that makes individual commodities, shipping containers, software components, and suppliers interchangeable and to no small extent invisible to each other.

How do you manage the complexity of a system that procures goods from a huge variety of locations? You make it modular: when you black-box each component, you don’t need to know anything about it except that it meets your specifications. Information about provenance, labor conditions, and environmental impact is unwieldy when the goal of your system is simply to procure and assemble goods quickly. “You could imagine a different way of doing things, so that you do know all of that,” said Russell, “so that your gaze is more immersive and continuous. But what that does is inhibit scale.” And scale, of course, is key to a globalized economy.

On the one hand, this all seems very logical and straightforward: to manage complexity, we’ve learned to break objects and processes into interchangeable parts. But the consequences of this decision are wide-ranging and profound.

It helps explain, for one thing, why it’s so hard to “see” down the branches of a supply network. It also helps explain why transnational labor organizing has been so difficult: to fit market demands, workshops have learned to make themselves interchangeable. It sometimes seems as though there’s a psychological way in which we’ve absorbed the lessons of modularity—although the world is more connected than ever, we seem to have trouble imagining and articulating how we’re linked to the other denizens of global manufacturing networks.

Modularity, one of Posner’s sources says, has become a “characteristic of modernity.” And because each box is invisible to the next, even technologies like RFID tags, blockchain ledgers, and machine learning just become new black boxes, or “one more technology to counterfeit,” as another source puts it. There’s no putting Humpty Dumpty together again.