Our Addiction to Amazon, FedEx and the Culture of Immediacy
So you probably have no idea what happens to your priority package after you deposit it in a drop box in your office lobby. It is 7:30 p.m. and you’ve worked a 12-hour day. No cause for concern if, in your post-deadline exhaustion, you inadvertently pass the box on your way out of the building; there are another 149 drop-off locations within a mile and a half of where you are standing on 42nd Street, each one equally poised to ensure your work will arrive at its destination by 7:30 a.m. the next morning. It makes no difference that you are in New York and your client is 1,500 miles away. Most likely the thought that your package has to travel cross-country in 12 hours will not register. All you care to know is that it reaches its destination on time. If you are either the nervous or curious type, you will follow the route of the package online for a detailed breakdown of its trajectory, but mostly you remain clueless about the extensive procedures and coordination necessary to make the delivery deadline. The same can be said for purchasing an item on Amazon.com. Log on to your computer, browse an infinite array of products, select the most suitable one, and look forward to seeing it on your doorstep in 48 hours, not really caring where it will come from and how it will get to you. Suffice it to say that as a user you are completely oblivious to the extensive procedures involved in what seems like a simple action—the timely delivery of a priority package to your client or finding the last pair of a limited issue of lavender shoes in your mailbox. Logistics is magic.
Founded in 1971 by Vietnam veteran Fred Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, FedEx grew up hand in hand with the new economic and social structures of the post-Fordist global economy. The shift from automated manufacturing, such as the mass production of goods through repetition of tasks in an assembly line model, to a more flexible form of production whereby goods could be customized or varied in response to a range of consumer markets rose concurrently with the increasing atomization of Western culture. In addition, the rise and popularization of digital information systems and flexible production’s dependence on computer technologies can also be traced to the early 1970s when technological innovations such as the bar code, ARPANET, and early commercial video games were introduced. Smith foresaw the rise of corporate dependence on electronic systems, especially in the banking industry, which he believed would necessitate new fast-track and flexible modes of delivery. Designing an air-freight network, which up until then was limited to schedules of passenger routes, was not only a commercial and timely opportunity but also carried personal interest. In Vietnam, where he was a Marine, Smith witnessed the challenge of moving troops and supplies to remote areas in the countryside and the devastating effects that resulted from mistimed and poorly organized modes of distribution. Moreover, he was no stranger to the airline business; being familiar with his stepfather’s airline maintenance facility, he was a smart interpreter of the rules and regulations in the industry. In fact, he began his logistics empire by retrofitting two second-hand Pan Am passenger planes at his facility in Little Rock for the purpose of shipping cargo, although it would not be until mid-1975 that the company would turn a profit. Greatly enhancing the company’s position was the 1977 revision of the Federal Aviation Act, resulting in the deregulation of cargo planes, which meant air-freight providers could choose rates, routes, and planes best suited to their company structure. FedEx now handles 10.5 million packages per day and serves 220 countries and territories.
In 1971, Jeff Bezos was still in middle school but would later attend Princeton and earn a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. A job at D. E. Shaw, an innovative New York hedge fund, allowed him to develop computer software that was a forerunner to online e-trade systems. It was here, while researching internet options, that he became involved with e-commerce and the increasing market for online retail. FedEx was already a leader in logistics but not yet a cultural phenomenon by the time Amazon.com was founded in 1994. At that time, there were 1.5 million English books in print, a large branch of Borders could hold 175,000 titles, and 35 percent of books were returned to publishers. Amazon, like most other computer start-ups, began in a garage, this time at the Bezos home in Seattle. There was one modem, and the two gigabytes of storage could store one million book titles. In 1995, those who had Internet access in the U.S.—approximately 10 million users—used Netscape 2.0. Amazon began with a just-in-time distribution model, in the hope that they would only act as a broker and have books distributed from existing warehouses operated by other companies. However, it soon became clear that in order to expedite delivery and maintain control of operations, Amazon had to store the books itself. It began with a small storage space in Seattle with room for 2,000 books; initially, the inventory there included the top 10 best-selling books, later expanding to the top 25 and eventually the top 250. By July 1996, with increasing access to the web (35 million people were online by the end of the year), Amazon was selling 5,000 books per day and the company opened a larger warehouse in Seattle. Amazon.com currently has more than 80 fulfillment centers around the world to store its own stock of books and products for its direct Amazon-to-buyer system as well as merchandise for its third-party brokerage services. In the 20 years since it was launched as a bookseller, it has evolved to offering a wide range of products, as well as cloud computing and web services; in 2013, its net sales were more than $74 billion.
Amazon and FedEx have much in common. Both founded by brilliant entrepreneurs; both responsible for distribution infrastructure utilized by millions worldwide each day; both deploying proprietary technologies and information systems to coordinate the order and delivery of goods; both denying geographic limitations by compressing time and space to bring goods, services, and users closer together; both maniacally controlled organizations operating on precise time schedules that are very often measured in microseconds. In a 2009 essay in the New York Times, Tom Vanderbilt estimated that a 100-millisecond delay in the transmission of an order from a customer’s computer to an Amazon server would reduce the company’s sales by 1 percent. The speed at which orders can be transmitted across the Internet and between Amazon’s data center and its fulfillment centers is critical to its performance.
The result of FedEx, Amazon, and their logistical kin working to such precise parameters is the creation of a culture of immediacy—as users, we have come to rely on having anything anywhere at anytime, all the while remaining apathetic to the logistical complexities demanded by a lifestyle of convenience. Depending on its final destination, a priority FedEx air package originating in the U.S. will travel to either Indianapolis or Memphis before final delivery. Almost half of FedEx’s shipments, 3.5 million packages per day, pass through its 832-acre Superhub at the northern edge of Memphis International Airport, where FedEx moved in 1973, making it the world’s second busiest cargo airport and the primary organ of the company’s shipping network. There, a single-story 39-acre space hosts the “Sort”—the procedure by which all packages are received, processed, and routed to their destinations. In order to make early morning deliveries, the bulk of cargo flights arrive and depart the Sort Center between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., during which hours a plane lands or takes off every 30 seconds.
At 9 p.m. 8,000 (non-union) FedEx employees check into the Superhub for the night shift to make sure your package will arrive on time. It takes 33 minutes to unload 50 containers from a full B-747 when it lands, and ball bearings in the floor of the Sort Center guarantee quick container transferal, so that in 15 minutes a package reaches its destination pile. A package handling system, a computer-controlled set of conveyors known as the Matrix, directs the trajectory of packages to outbound planes for delivery. It typically takes a package 30 minutes to pass through this intestinal arrangement of conveyors where electronic cameras located on and over the conveyor belts read destinations of packages and direct each to one of twelve secondary belts arranged by ZIP code. If laid straight, the belts would stretch some 300 miles, the distance between Chicago and St. Louis.
An alarm signals “Zero Hour” at 2:09 each morning, the time by which all packages must be offloaded from incoming planes and on the conveyor system so that outbound planes can be loaded in time to make early morning deliveries. Westbound packages are sorted alongside packages going east so that if delays ensue, workers on the western packages can stop and help their colleagues packing for eastern destinations. Memphis is on North American Central Time and so has less leeway sending packages to the East Coast, which is an hour ahead, rather than the two hours it gains in sorting West Coast deliveries. When the plane from Memphis lands at its destination, the package is taken by truck to a regional distribution center closest to its final destination and then onwards for final delivery. If it were going to Beijing, this last leg might be by bicycle. If Paris, it might arrive via a small electric urban cab. Traffic in downtown areas often results in a package taking as long to travel what urbanist Stephen Graham describes as “the last mile” as it does to pass through the Sort Center or travel by plane.
Amazon’s procedures are as elaborate and particular. As soon as you hit the final checkout button, your order for lavender shoes enters the system in one of Amazon’s U.S. data centers in Virginia, California, or Oregon. The time it takes for your order to reach a queue at a warehouse is continually shrinking as Amazon closes the gap between order and shipping, a procedure that can be witnessed by the decreasing length of the cancellation window allotted to the customer. An Amazon warehouse employee, known as a picker, will retrieve your product, as well as countless others, from the shelves in the warehouse and, in so doing, will walk up to 14 miles per day during an 11-hour shift. Single orders are straightforward but multiple orders are sorted by algorithms and broken down according to where goods are located in the warehouse. Pickers are typically assigned a “pick area” and given an ideal “pick path” on a handheld scanner since they retrieve goods for multiple orders at the same time. Manual or automated sorting of picked goods takes place later.
In the warehouse, products are arranged according to demand or “velocity threshold,” to use Amazon’s in-house terminology. About 70 percent of products are located on either deep or shallow shelving systems similar to those found in a library or supermarket. Shallow shelves are for low-demand products while the deeper shelves are for more popular ones. The remaining products, mostly those in very high demand, are stored in case flow racks—stacked, deep bins on rollers for popular products that arrive in small quantities—while very high-demand items that arrive in bulk (and presumably larger sized items) are placed on pallets. Each storage system holds seven days’ worth of products and can be stocked by either random or directed storage. “Random storage” means that a product is placed wherever there is available space (this means your shoes maybe placed next to a coffeemaker), while “directed storage” means that a product is always placed in the same location. Random storage versus directed storage is a hot topic in the warehouse industry. Some experts believe that random storage is more efficient because placing a product in the first available space means that the warehouse is always full. However, if an item is always in a different position, then a picker (despite GPS navigation) will spend more time retrieving it. On the other hand, continuously placing an item in the same location allows for faster picking (presumably the picker becomes familiar with the layout of the warehouse) but limits the utilization of the space (storage units are emptied as products are picked and not filled up again until inventory is restored).
Over the years, Amazon has conducted its own zoning studies that attempt to optimize the tricky relationship between time and space in the warehouse. These can be summarized in four different modes of organizing inventory, some of which are currently used by the company: A fast pick zone, a special area for very popular products located near receiving docks and conveyors; a golden zone where popular products are located on shelves at a height between three feet and five feet from the floor, which is considered the most ergonomic positioning of merchandise; clouds (batches), multiple zones of popular products distributed around the warehouse so that more pickers are closer to products in high demand; and product affinity, arranging products according to type (music, books, electronics, etc.), which proves to be an efficient system since even in multiple-item orders research has yielded that customers tend to purchase items from a single product group. Regardless of the storage system (or combinations of systems) deployed, computers constantly monitor the trajectory of a product from its arrival at the warehouse through to its shipment to a customer. Amazon currently continues to use (people) pickers but the company is researching various robotic systems for retrieving goods, given that speed of retrieval is a vital factor in Amazon’s logistical operation.
The shoes arrive from Nevada to your home in Kansas City in 48 hours. They don’t fit. No problem; logistics is a two-way route. You send them back. The shoes have traveled 1,600 miles, not counting the route from Brazil where they were manufactured. No one said logistics is sustainable.
In his famous account of Paris in the 19th century, Walter Benjamin identified the quintessential figure of the modern industrial metropolis as the flâneur, a term borrowed from the poet Charles Baudelaire. The flâneur was a “stroller,” a wealthy and educated idler who spent time exploring the new urban experiences that a large sophisticated city like Paris had to offer—especially the exotic shopping arcades that emerged there in the early to mid-19th century selling luxury goods in narrow roof-lit interior streets that sliced through the dense fabric of the city. To many, the flâneur also came to typify a lazy bourgeois, who, unlike his working-class counterpart, could investigate the city because he had nothing else to do. For others, the flâneur was not only the personification of a new technological sensibility (he took great interest and pride in the iron structure and glass panels of the arcade roof), but was also a victim of modernity. His detached spectatorship represented the alienation and disengagement felt by the citizens of the city as a result of the capitalist values that underpinned the industrial metropolis.
In his seminal 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” German sociologist Georg Simmel attempted to profile the figure of modernity, this time from the perspective of his psychological characteristics. The consciousness of Simmel’s “Metropolitan Man” was defined by the many fleeting sensations of the industrial city (rapidly changing images; quick personal exchanges; brief glances) that were in direct contrast to the consistent interactions and habits of small-town life. As a means to handle the psychological impact, the metropolitan subject evolved an inner consciousness that Simmel called an “intellect,” a sort of self-defense mechanism that enabled him to handle metropolitan culture, which was also characterized by punctuality (the most popular accessory at the time was a watch); exactness (schedules organized daily life); calculation (impulse and intuition were considered parochial and thus discouraged); and exchange value (every aspect of society was reduced to a monetary rate). Intellectuality was a desensitizing agent that could render one immune to (or at least capable of withstanding) the physiological consequences of the big city. In doing so, one cultivated what Simmel called a blasé attitude, but the emotional neutrality of the blasé was also projected as rudeness, callousness, and antipathy in social situations and thereby echoed the alienation that Benjamin locates in the flâneur. Moreover the blasé person’s indifference to his environment and fellow citizens generated a culture of extroverted behavior, forcing one to pursue extreme measures to distinguish oneself in public. Differentiation was nothing less than a means of preserving one’s individualism. Does the apathy and individualism of Simmel’s blasé figure not provide a remarkably apt characterization of the post-Fordist logistical figure?
Apathy could be projected as a form of laziness. After all, we sit at home and order in everything from food to movies, which is having its own set of consequences for the city. In 2011, the most coveted retail space on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile closed after the bookseller Borders vacated the space. The store—which opened in 1995 opposite the old water tower, famously known as one of the only structures to survive the 1871 Chicago fire—was a popular site for tourists, suburbanites on day trips, and local residents. In addition to books and music, it hosted a café and a number of public programs, including a twice-weekly children’s story time, readings, and book signings and was characterized as a “superstore,” a prototype for a new retail environment developed by Borders in 1985. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and is not the only brick-and-mortar outlet to suffer the consequences of online retail.
Apathy could be used to describe our indifference to the often comical nuances of post-Fordist modes of exchange. A set of eight dinosaur cupcake decorations purchased for $1.49 on Amazon.com costs $8.95 to ship. That the plastic decorations ship from a warehouse in Georgia to an apartment in Chicago is not only excessive but bordering on the ridiculous and shows up the large-scale inefficiencies between logistics and contemporary culture.
Apathy might also lie in our complete ignorance of the actual procedures that organize our lives. In other words, logistical systems are “black boxed,” the term given to complex, ubiquitous systems of which users have no understanding and which are relied upon without much thought until something goes wrong. In June 2012, an electrical storm downed power to one of Amazon’s primary data centers in Virginia, leaving customers across the country without access not only to Amazon’s website but also other logistical services such as Netflix and Instagram, whose databases are hosted by Amazon. It was the second outage in as many weeks. Several times since the summer of 2011, United Airlines has also experienced IT issues that have affected its passenger reservation system and website. In June of that year, a computer glitch lasting five hours left thousands of travelers stranded in airports across the country, and in August 2012, the carrier’s airport processing and reservation system and website were affected again, resulting in the delay of more than 200 flights. FedEx exercises great control over its operations to minimize such glitches. A hub-and-spoke model reduces error by directing all air packages sent from the U.S. to two central locations in the country; 15 on-staff meteorologists pinpoint weather conditions within a five-mile radius of a particular place; emergency planes fly to regional hub airports so they can be diverted to wherever there is demand or weather delay; half-full planes are sent out in the event that they also need to be diverted to other airports where package volume is heavy. Technology amplifies control by interpreting the bottom-up logic of the system’s own feedback loop, allowing the central hub to automatically record quantity and destinations of packages, provide tracking information, and assimilate a network of 42,500 drop box locations. “SenseAware” enables customers to monitor special or critical shipments in real time, for example, tracking the temperature, location, and exposure to light of a human organ en route to a hospital for a transplant. Minimizing error not only produces greater efficiency but, more importantly from the perspective of FedEx, facilitates even more control within the system. Our apathy is its resilience.
Given the myriad options made possible by logistics and the endless ability to customize products to accommodate and justify our own lifestyle choices, individualism is more readily preserved by the logistical figure than his modern metropolitan ancestor. Amazon brings the city to our living room or workplace—almost the same percent of consumers purchase from their office as they do from home—by offering not only an array of products in almost every category but price comparisons and a variety of shipping options. As the world’s largest online retailer, it indulges us with so many choices in one location that it perfectly facilitates the super-customization that is the basis of post-Fordist culture. Or is it that individualism is disguised as something else? Every purchasing decision we make is stored in an Amazon data center and used to influence future purchases by streamlining advertisements that aim to fulfill our unique consumer needs. Over an eight-month period beginning in February 1999, Amazon began to build its one-stop shopping experience by purchasing all or part of companies with extensive databases and customer itineraries, as well as software companies that enabled new computing strategies (such as Alexa Internet Co., which provides commercial web traffic data.) Amazon was not just enhancing its stock of goods but, more importantly, was buying retail and customer information to increase its dominance and accumulate control over virtual retail markets. Amazon knows everything about each one of its customers. Individualism is masterminded. In 2007, the company’s Kindle would not only change how people read but also ensured that Amazon, which supplies material exclusively to the product, would dominate not only the sale of hard copy but also digital material. In communicating the alienation of the modernist subject, Benjamin’s flâneur represented something more troubling than just an idle and indifferent shopper. In the case of the logistical subject, it is that somebody somewhere knows what you want, when you want it, and how best to get it to you. Our individualism is their power.
Clare Lyster is an architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Excerpted from her forthcoming book Learning From Logistics: How Networks Inform Cities (Birkhäuser, 2015), and reprinted from Cabinet (Issue 47), a quarterly magazine of conceptual art, literature, and essays.
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