Jesse LeCavalier

 

On his book The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment

Cover Interview of November 30, 2016

The wide angle

This book looks at some of the technologies, infrastructure, and habits of mind that underpin American consumer society. It makes connections between our buying habits and the kinds of spaces we inhabit. The click of a button at an on-line retailer has a range of global implications, from energy use to labor practices. In processes of externalization, companies like Walmart work hard to make these entanglements distant from the minds of shoppers. While the book is implicitly critical of these tendencies, it is also genuinely curious about their effects and their possibilities, specifically the intelligence and potentials embedded in these logistical systems. While it is fundamentally important to remain aware of the tendencies of capitalism to bend technologies to its ends, it remains equally important to not see this as inevitable. Thus, one of the book’s larger ambitions is to provide material that could help support alternative worlds in addition to looking critically at the current one.

My background is in architecture and design with a particular interest in the way that public spaces take shape and the ways that infrastructure, as one of the few remaining sites of collective investment, can shape and support that process. As transportation infrastructure is increasingly used to support logistical functions and as sites like Walmart are sometimes the only places open 24 hours a day, the combination was a natural one. Logistics intersects with such a range of contemporary topics that the more I researched the operations of Walmart, the more connections I found to a host of issues confronting the built environment of the US, from aesthetics to questions of policy, labor, economy, resource distribution, data, privatization, belief systems, and demographic shifts. With results of the 2016 presidential election now in, trade policies, infrastructure development, and logistics more generally are all likely to be topics of intense discussion. The incoming administration has promised to both heavily invest in infrastructure and to also dramatically reduce federal income through substantial tax eliminations. Meeting its stated infrastructural goals will then require financial support from the local level, from public-private partnerships, or from the private sector entirely. While the pro-privatization position argues that such an approach can yield faster, better, and cheaper results, it threatens the fundamentally collective dimension of infrastructure. Moreover, and more disturbingly, the versions of infrastructure that the incoming administration has emphasized are not those that provide collective benefit and opportunity but instead those that create division and inequality including, especially, the border wall that was a refrain of the campaign. Likewise, if the incoming administration’s isolationist trade policies come to pass, contemporary logistical systems would be reorganized and with them a potentially dramatic impact on the built environment, among other things, confronting the US with the consequences of the externalization enabled by decades of neoliberal trade policies. Walmart, of course, has been one of the beneficiaries of these, as described by Bethany Moreton in her book, To Serve God and Walmart.