Creaky Infrastructure

Brett Neilson November 14, 2012

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter

After conducting research in Shanghai and Kolkata it seems almost capricious to complain about Sydney traffic. Yet in this wealthy city of backyards and bays, waiting in road traffic bottlenecks has become a constitutive part of urban experience. The problem is not only that Sydney, like the cities of the American west, grew up around the internal combustion engine. Nor is it simply that population growth has exceeded the capacity of public and private agencies to provide transport infrastructure. Rather, the reluctance to invest in such infrastructure is a symptom of wider economic and social tendencies that have unfolded against the background of a general depoliticization of life. Rising debt, longer working hours, growing precarity and stress have all contributed to the rampant individualism and aggression that displays itself at Sydney’s clogged intersections and gridlocked motorways. Little wonder then that logistics and traffic infrastructure have become major issues in this far-from-laid-back metropolis.

The Transit Labour research platform in Sydney sought to address the interface of labour and logistics in one of the tightest knots of the city’s transport network: the Port Botany container and port facilities and the intermodal terminals (inland ports or freight hubs) that stretch into its hinterland. Nestled on the northern shore of Botany Bay, the southern water body that is ugly sister to the city’s iconic harbour, Port Botany is currently undergoing a massive expansion and privatization exercise with the view to increasing its annual throughput from just 2 million Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) in 2011 to 13.6 million in 2040. Logistical technologies and management practices are seen as key to extracting maximum efficiencies from transport and supply chain infrastructure that will be placed under considerably more pressure, even assuming the completion of current and future development plans. These practices are understood as crucial to Australia’s economic future in the context of Asian economic expansion. A recent Australian government white paper states that ‘linking with regional and global value chains’ should be a priority for Australian businesses.


Port Botany is a site for the import of consumer goods, primarily from East Asia. Its main export is empty containers, travelling north to be refilled and shunted further on their itinerant tours of the world’s trading networks. Port Botany was also a key site in Australia’s most notorious industrial dispute of the past two decades: the 1998 waterfront conflict (during which stevedoring companies attempted to break union power by recruiting former and current members of the Australian Defense Forces and training them in Dubai). The violent crescendo came in the first week of April when Patricks stevedores sacked its entire workforce and deployed snarling dogs and balaclava-wearing security guards to clear workers from the site. But aside from Port Botany’s industrial and political prominence, symbolized by its towering orange cranes and twinkling evening lights, its landside infrastructure feeds into the city’s traffic grid. In so doing, it joins the congestion of this grid to wider global trade corridors through material conduits of software, labour and infrastructure.


Much logistical work in Sydney is about the management, transport and storage of empty containers. In 2010/2011 total empty container movements through Port Botany amounted to 560,930 TEUs – an increase of about 5%, accounting for about 28% of total throughput in Sydney. This compares to chemicals which represented the largest containerized commodity export group at 11% of throughput. Empty container parks stretch across Sydney, from the near vicinity of the port to various intermodal terminals located on the peripheries of the city. The paradox of emptiness is that it must occupy space. This economy of emptiness results in storage and transport problems for the smooth operation of supply chains. Substantial tracts of land parceled up for development as intermodal terminals are talked up by those tasked with advocating the benefits of very substantial infrastructural investment from both state and private sectors. Faced with local community opposition, governments and port authorities cite two primary motivations for developing intermodal terminals on the city’s edges: the need to accommodate a massive increase in TEU throughput in coming years, and the belated recognition that Sydney’s road network is at its capacity, with rail seen as part of the solution to getting container trucks off the roads. The anticipated increase in productivity realised through investment in transport infrastructure is coupled with managerial technologies that seek to redefine the relation of life to time.


Just-in-time and 24/7 are the temporal mantras of the logistical world. The technologist’s vision of universal interoperability, real-time routing and enhanced productivity is accompanied by a discourse of complete supply chain opitimization from raw materials to consumer. Such fantasies are made possible by computational design. In the eyes of its boosters logistics is the key element of the city’s economy. Logistics is the art of making the city live. During their visits to Port Botany, container parks, intermodal terminals and logistics industry forums, the Transit Labour researchers repeatedly heard the adjective ‘living’ used to describe logistical operations.


‘It’s a living beast’ – the manager of the MCS container park said of the enterprise he oversees. Open for business around the clock, never certain when the next load will arrive, and strategically located close to Port Botany, this mud-filled lot is animated by a ‘just get it done’ attitude that may not register on-screen. Here boxes are shunted in a container ballet where the virtual plays catch-up with the actual and the capacity to meet contingency is lauded. Compared with the staging floors of the Port Botany terminals, where the placement of containers is controlled by sophisticated software models, the operations of this container park measure up quite well. With its prime location alongside the railway that connects the port to the new Enfield Intermodal Logics Centre (ILC), the managers of the MCS yard express considerable cynicism about the capacity for the Enfield ILC to seriously compete with their more ad hoc but necessarily flexible operations. In situations where a ship is partly loaded with full containers and ready to sail within the day the stevedores will contact MCS to arrange rapid trucking of empty containers to the port in order to make up the slots.


The Future Logistics Living Lab, by contrast, presents itself as a collective brain for solving the city’s logistical nightmares. An initiative of National ICT Australia, Fraunhofer Institute and German software company SAP, the Living Lab provides a forum for researchers to interface with logistics industry experts. Apart from visiting this Lab as part of the Sydney platform, Transit Labour researchers regularly participate in its workshops. One of the Living Lab’s current projects is called Total Port Logistics. The aim is to troubleshoot the congestion that surrounds Port Botany by seeking to introduce mathematical models and instruments that can efficiently coordinate shipping, road and rail supply chains in an integrated manner. The ‘living’ in Living Lab refers to a quality of collective intelligence that is open to problem-solving and confident of its capacity to smooth out the chinks and blockages that impede the passage of freight through the port and slow the movement of traffic around the city.


Missing from these accounts of unimpeded integration of code with organizational cultures and material conditions is the time of living labour. Here we find another register of the ‘living’ that underscores the biopolitical conditions that make logistics possible. From voice picking technology in warehousing to the increasing automation of ports, logistical labour in Sydney is defined by a high degree of control and oversight by machine operations. The real-time measurement of labour performance and its immediate integration back into systems of fault tolerance aims to minimize the disruption that might arise from workplace organization, go-slows or sabotage. It is as if labour was contracted under the fantasy of technological interventions eliminating the gap between living labour and its abstract measure. One consequence of such forms of ‘protocological power’ (Galloway) is a subtraction of time in the course of daily work that might otherwise be expended on labour organization. There is a potential erosion of the more social dimensions of work that can manifest as enduring forms of worker solidarity.


The scene of infrastructure is frequently underscored by substantial disjuncture and operational conflict. What could be loosely grouped as a coalition of interest on the part of technologists, government policy makers and industry managers is often at odds with the experience of workers on the frontline of ‘supply-chain capitalism’ (Tsing). At a practical level, the tacit knowledge of, say, truck drivers who know that chatting with reception staff while delivering a consignment works well to lubricate ongoing business relations is something that defies easy coding into the parameters of GPS devices and container triangulation techniques that route transport according to efficiencies made in delivery, pick-up and driving times. Some technologists are aware of this social aspect of economic life, but find it difficult to translate as a parameter within an algorithmic system. At a certain point, for now at least, life refuses absorption into code.


Without holding any nostalgia for organizational forms unable or unwilling to adapt to socially transformed constituencies, we note that political bodies such as the National Workers Union (NWU) in Sydney have to engage a membership with a high rate of national and cultural variation. There remains a strong masculine predisposition within many unions, particularly those associated with transport logistics. In a meeting with members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), Transit Labour researchers were given an insight into the gendered and racial composition of transport workers in Sydney. Compared with the NWU claim that 79 different nationalities work in the Woolworths warehouse at Yennora, only 2.5% of TWU membership is made up of female workers, with the large majority of members comprising of Anglo-Celtic males. We start to get some idea here about how labour forces in different sectors of logistical operations are distinguished along gendered, ethnic and racial lines.


This fragmentation of labour along the logistical chain is another obstacle for political organization. Logistics integrates, but there is a division of labour. Take for example the traditional fall-out between dock workers and truckers. The former are strongly unionized and tend to see the latter, many of whom are owner-operators, as not real workers. What would it mean for workers to develop forms of organization and solidarity that work along the supply chain? Such a prospect requires the garnering of logistical knowledge among working populations.


Workers’ collective understanding of the logistical networks in which they work can become a key piece of political knowledge if studied and applied in systematic ways. The production of such knowledge involves not only the building of strategic links between workers along the supply chain but also the reckoning with divisions that separate the computational from the physical domains of logistics. The heavily masculine domains of dock work and trucking, for instance, must build alliances with the feminized logistical labour of data entry, freight forwarding and procurement. The problem is even more pronounced when one considers that these tasks are often carried out in different national jurisdictions.


While the international division of labour cuts across national borders, an additional obstacle to workers’ integrated knowledge across global supply chains consists of protocological barriers at the level of code. No doubt many will recall the days when a MS-DOS floppy disk could not be run without a lot of messing about on a Mac system. Today, the logistical world of software management and planning systems multiplies this sort of protocological conflict from local to transnational scales with different computational systems unable to interface, resulting in a return to pieces of paper to authorize transactions along supply chains and transport routes. These are the sort of protocological impediments to supply chain integration that technologists seek to address. Certainly they also impact on the capacity for logistical workers to communicate across platforms and territories. But the primary objective, at least for technologists and managers, is to improve efficiencies in transport and communication. The production of comprehensive knowledge of conditions and operations on the part of workforces is quite a different proposition. It can enable political thought and build a practical capacity to organize labour across multiple and shifting lines of division and fragmentation.


A more substantive affect of code on the capacity of logistical workers to build networks across and along supply chains arises from the power of computational systems. In many logistical settings – warehouses, ports, transport networks, offices – management and distribution software individualizes the worker as an isolated unit assigned to algorithmically determined tasks performed against real-time indicators of efficiency. If workers are to use technological interoperability to facilitate the production of logistical knowledge in ways that further their political aims, they might also have to build alliances with software engineers and designers. Indeed, there may be a need to invent alternative technological systems that at once help build relations across political, technical and organizational barriers and remain outside the data-capturing algorithms of supply chain software and workplace management systems.


Already available social media networking software such as Facebook or Twitter might be one option here. But these systems are designed primarily for chatting, even if we have seen them put to use in the mobilization of political populations, as was the case with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The more informal sectors of logistics industries rely on such software to manage their own supply chain operations. But they face a protocological barrier when informal supply chains meet the computational architecture of the world’s dominant logistical software developers: SAP, Oracle, Infor, MS Dynamics AX, Descartes Systems Group, to name some of the leading players. Either way, the capacity to remodel parameters of proprietary logistics software packages is out of the question and existing social media software will lock workers into silos of Friends and Groups. Both are insufficient for workers seeking a comprehensive overview of logistical operations. The materiality of communication and transport provides one key site from which to begin assembling a political knowledge of logistics organized in part through algorithmic architectures.


Beneath the abstract and physical architectures of logistics lies the restless body and mind of labour. Too often seen as a unit to be managed by techniques of monitoring and control, the labouring subject can be both an enabler of supply chains and the agent of their demise. The all-too-human predilection of shifting tastes, patterns of consumption, waning interest and refusal to function as a machine can bring supply chains to a grinding halt. But logistical systems are indifferent to whether such blockages result from the political machinations of labour or circumstances such as extreme weather events. They seek to develop modes of resilience or robustness that are insensitive to the distinction human/nonhuman around which so much theoretical bluster currently blows. It is salutary to remember this when contemplating the gridlock that afflicts Sydney’s streets. Creaky infrastructure and the logistical organization of labour are the twin parameters that mark Transit Labour’s analysis of changing relations of production, trade, bordering and technology in this particular urban space. The tension between computational systems and their capacity to govern through the rule of code and the various contingencies special to living labour will serve as a more general analytical architecture in our ongoing study of global supply chains.