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Logistics as a network function

4 min read

Logistics is the ultimate in network functions, if not the original network function. Jon Elledge at CityMetric makes a good case out of the enduring suckiness of home delivery firms:

In fact, there might be a structural reason why delivery firms are so often rubbish:  they’re accountable to the wrong people. When you order something online, you don’t pick who delivers it, the retailer does. As a result, you can’t boycott the delivery firm; neither are they the ones liable to compensate you if they screw up. There’s not enough payback for failure.

To make matters worse, many of these firms rely on self-employed drivers (this is particularly so at peak times such as Christmas, but seems to be true all year round). These guys are expected to do something like 100 drops a day, and are paid by the delivery. Leave aside the fact they’re even less accountable to you than their employer is, and consider how this’ll influence their behaviour. They have every incentive to prioritise easy deliveries, and no incentive whatever to care about you. If you’re slow to the door; if it’s difficult to park; if they forget to collect your parcel altogether, then that’s just too bad.

Would boycotting online retailers who use these firms change any of this? Eventually, perhaps. But even if the public were willing to give up its home shopping addiction, the lack of transparency regarding which delivery firms a retailer uses would rather blunt the attack.

The bottom line is that delivering parcels is an expensive game. You need a national network of depots and drivers and, ideally, a call centre (all of which might make one ask if we weren’t better off with a single national Post Office). The business is seasonal; the overheads are high. These are not obviously lucrative firms. It’s just possible that the service we get is the one we’re willing to pay for.

All logistical functions must be collectively owned and monopoly-managed. This is not (only) a political argument, but a network-theoretical argument.

In any network, the "last mile" is hideously resource-intensive, while only the trunk routes ever hit efficiencies of scale related to volume. In any process of privatisation, the trunk route franchises are bought up first, because those economies of scale make for easy profits... but those profits are only possible if you're not also losing money on keeping up the last mile, where economies of scale rarely (if ever) apply. Why should an operator pay for the last mile if they're not operating it, you might ask? Well, because without the last mile feeding traffic to and from the trunk routes, there would be less trunk route traffic to carry. The profits to be made on the trunk routes are actually rent extraction from the last mile; the separation of the two is a financial fiction which can only ever work against optimal function and efficiency. Because once the network is fragmented and the best routes have been bought up, the operator companies can then run the numbers on the last mile operations remaining, point out to councils that they're inherently unprofitable as constituted, and then demand subsidies in exchange for providing last mile connectivity, which the state has no option but to provide (because if people and stuff can't move around, your economy is fucked).

Which is how you end up with the delightful irony of Stagecoach raking in subsidy money from dozens of UK councils in exchange for sparse and sketchy local bus routes, while also running extremely profitable (because separately contracted) franchises on intercity coach routes and train lines. It'd be interesting to run the numbers and see whether the profits of trunk route operators and the subsidies paid out to last mile operators would be anywhere close to cancelling out if you looked at them nationally; my suspicion is that it'd be closer to that than not.

 

Move slow and fix things

3 min read

There's been a slew of recent good pieces coming from Aeon's partnership with The Maintainers, and this one by Patrick McCray is a doozy. Read the whole thing; I'm mostly putting these quotes here for my own ease of access, rather than trying to distill the essay.

Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance – think: steam engines – and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability. By the early 20th century – the apogee of Taylorism – experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency.

But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era. It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.

Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency – like the lone eccentric innovator – is not wanted. In the 1960s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. The lavish funding the Department of Defense devoted to promoting the technology didn’t automatically yield clear economic advantages. However, the new machines – ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt – increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, the new manufacturing innovations gave supervisors greater oversight over production. At one large manufacturing company, numerical control was referred to as a ‘management system’, not a new tool for cutting metal. Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change.

Bonus snippet:

Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. It’s common to hear how the 19th-century telegraph was the equivalent of today’s internet. In fact, there’s a bestseller about it, The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. Except this isn’t true. Sending telegrams 100 years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology. However, what was innovative for the majority of people c1900 was cheap postage.

 

The arena of acceleration

5 min read

Fairly chewy here by Aaron Vantsintjan, in which he does a little comparison of accelerationsim and degrowth. Utopian visions (and the appropriate delimiting thereof) appears to be an important axis of difference... and both introduce the notion of desire into their theories of change, albeit in very different manifestations.

... it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”. However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’; the embracement of ’imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Snricek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Indeed, progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable.

Fast-foward to some concluding remarks:

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.

[...]

Through [Paul] Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point – at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

It strikes me that what both accelerationism and degrowth lack, and what Virilio was implicitly arguing in favour of, is a better theory of infrastructure, given that infrastructure is the medium of metabolism, the arena of acceleration.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I? ;)