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kottke.org posts about systemic sublime

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.

The history of straws

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 22, 2018

Alexis Madrigal is great at the systemic sublime — taking an everyday object or experience and showing how it implicates interconnected networks across space, time, and levels of analysis. His history of the drinking straw — or rather, “a history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the drinking straw” — is no exception. It doesn’t give quite enough space to disability, either in its history or its examination of the straw’s future — the stakes of that debate are better-covered in this David Perry essay from a year ago — but there are still plenty of goodies.

Temperance and public health grew up together in the disease-ridden cities of America, where despite the modern conveniences and excitements, mortality rates were higher than in the countryside. Straws became a key part of maintaining good hygiene and public health. They became, specifically, part of the answer to the scourge of unclean drinking glasses. Cities begin requiring the use of straws in the late 1890s. A Wisconsin paper noted in 1896 that already in many cities “ordinances have been issued making the use of wrapped drinking straws essential in public eating places.”

Add in urbanization, the suddenly cheap cost of wood-pulp paper goods, and voila: you get soda fountains and disposable straws, soon followed by disposable paper cups, and eventually, their plastic successors, manufactured by a handful of giant companies to the specifications of a handful of other giant companies, in increasingly automated processes for the benefit of shareholders. It’s a heck of a yarn.

Every cup of coffee is a spectacle of logistics

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 31, 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

Robinson Meyer drank a cup of coffee shipped hot overnight from a roaster in Minneapolis to The Atlantic’s office in DC as part of a Thermos promotion. He traces the beans, cultivated in Kenya and grown in El Salvador, all the way to his mug:

[T]here’s something that enables all of this, from my supping of the coffee to your reading this now: the global supply chain. The ability to fling ingredients and products from coast-to-coast and continent-to-continent makes not only Thermos’s contest but Spyhouse’s very business possible. It’s the supply chain that moves coffee beans from El Salvador to Minneapolis, where they can be roasted and sipped in days. It’s the supply chain—in the form of FedEx, which, remember, has the world’s fourth largest collection of aircraft—that performs the final stunt of getting coffee around the lower 48 in half a day.

Behind every ingredients list stand the movers and shippers of our world: each, like FedEx, possessing a private army of execution. I accepted Thermos’s coffee contest because it seemed a spectacle of logistics. But every single day of our lives is already that.

Meyer’s essay is part of what seems like a still-developing genre—Paul Ford’s essay on “the American room” is another example—of stories that excavate the hidden infrastructure that make everyday experiences possible. These systems are utterly prosaic exactly because they’re the product of huge amounts of manpower and material working according to painstakingly developed protocols. The author’s motivation for exposing them seems to be to both demystify and reenchant the world, and the attitude expressed is a mixture of admiration, awe, and dread.

Neal Stephenson’s classic Wired essay “Mother Earth, Mother Board” might be the model for the genre, like Tolkien is for epic fantasy. Let’s call it the “systemic sublime.”