Jesse LeCavalier

 

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

Cover Interview of November 30, 2016

Lastly

The operations of Walmart produce an environment shaped by abstraction and privatization. The company uses its logistical expertise to support its growth, which in turn is increasingly automated. I hope that the book will contribute to a better understanding of these tendencies and their consequences.

Abstraction enables much of contemporary consumer society in the US. One-click purchasing allows us to consume on impulse, knowing that the thing we want could be delivered the next day, the same day, or even the same hour. These processes are carefully calculated to make sure that other thoughts or questions do not interfere. Thus, all of the infrastructure necessary to make this amazing world of near-instant gratification possible should be kept out of mind. I hope that the book will create some space to consider these developments. Such convenience and externalization also contribute to a naturalization of these processes of fulfillment. To keep up, logistical enterprises like Walmart increasingly rely on automated processes, including, for example, Amazon’s purchase of KIVA Systems for $775 million. I am earnestly curious about the political, social, cultural, spatial and aesthetic consequences of these transformations but I am also conflicted about them. As machines increasingly reorganize our environment, we are surrendering control in subtle but significant ways.

The processes of externalization defer costs to elsewhere along the line, both upstream and downstream, whether in destructive practices of resource extraction, exploitive labor conditions, waste burdens, or all of the above and more. At the same time, logistics presents an incredible realm of sensory and aesthetic fascination that helps generate new ideas of what is possible and the alternative worlds that could result. However, if these imaginations are guided only by the financial ambitions of corporations or by the political ambitions of populists, the possibilities are limited if not dangerous.

Walmart has its own satellite network, its own data centers, its own truck fleet, its own weather service, and increasingly even its own city. And yet, it depends fundamentally on the public interstate system. While it contributes to that system through tax revenue, the rewards it collects far outstrip its investment. This might challenge us to wonder to what extent can we renew our investment in sites of collectivity and to what extent we can create new kinds of affinities. An expanded infrastructural imagination would provoke a related increased demand of infrastructure to do more. In other words, while corporations present narratives of inevitability around their own growth and technological projects, it is important to remember that these stories are contestable, even if things that are relatively quick to initiate can be difficult to undo. With the celebration of privatization and its alleged advantages, certain dubious conclusions can be drawn. The idea, for example, that being good at business also means that one would be good at governance is one of the many dangerous ideas in circulation at the moment.