The Cargo Cults of USA – Part II

In an extraordinary essay titled “The Smell of Infrastructure,” Bruce Robbins argues that the scaffolding of our lives, the infrastructure that carries shit and coal and lobsters and water and electricity is often made invisible. He has a rousing call to arms:

Infrastructure needs to be made visible, of course, in order to see how our present landscape is the product of past projects, past struggles, past corruption—for example, how public transport lost out to the private automobile only because tax dollars were diverted to roads, effectively lowering the price of cars. But we also need to make infrastructure visible as a guide to the struggles of the present (p 32).

That is what John McPhee does in his divine Uncommon Carriers, which is his beautiful ethnography of coal trains and hazmat trucks, river and lake barges, and extraordinarily, of UPS.  I think most of the chapters in this volume have been New Yorker essays, but it’s their adjacency that makes them so powerful.  This is a kind of ballad of transport, a decidedly humanist take on the technological sublime, and although its politics are nowhere as radical as Alan Sekula’s extraordinary work, it carries something of the poetry, something of the humility and curiosity and intelligence that make Sekula’s work so much the best thing there is out there on transportation.

My own favourites in the volume are the chapters on the coal trains – miles long and incredibly powerful- and on the riverine transport.  We learn a lot about how coal trains have become the norm in the central plains of the US. And I was surprised to read that with the mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin becoming  “the largest coal mines in the history of the world” (p 194), the decline of rail in the US was arrested; or that “the coal thing would revolutionize American railroads, slow the spread of creeping desuetude, reverse -to a large extent- their antiquation.  Before the end of the twentieth century, it would all but jam solid the busiest trackage”; or that this “was the direct economic result of the Clean Air Act of 1970” (p 193).

The chapter on riverine trade is a beautiful complement to the chapter on rails, not least because McPhee’s direct comparison with the rails reminds me so much of China Mieville’s Railsea (a kind of landbased Moby Dick taking place on a tangled skein of rails):

All day long as I look out from the pilothouse I can’t help thinking, and thinking again, that this river is as natural as a railroad track.  Its corridors are framed in artifice.  The pool above the damn at LaGrange is eighty miles long.  The State of Illinois and the US Army Corps of Engineers have accomplished such extensive alterations that restoration is beyond reason.  [..Within the river’s] straightened sides it is really a canal, and it has been a route of freight transportation since Colonial times. […] Navigational dredging began in the eighteen-fifties, but the rearrangement of nature did not really become earnest until the eighteen-nineties and the early twentieth century, when many hundreds of miles of levees were constructed not only along the river but also around segments of its floodplains -those bottomland lakes, ponds, marshes, and  sloughs- which were drained by a system of ditches and pumps, “reclaiming” acreage for agriculture (p 94).

McPhee writes about the military usage of these rivers, and of course all transportation infrastructure in the US are considered strategic assets [pdf]:

But what really strikes me in the book is the chapter on the logistics firm, UPS:

UPS once leased old gas stations, furnished them with sawhorses under four-by-eight plywood sheets, and used the old gas stations as centers for sorting packages.  How they have the Worldport, as they call it -a sorting facility that requires four million square feet of floor space and is under one roof.  Its location is more than near the Louisville International Airportl it is between the airport’s parallel runways on five hundred and fifty acres that are owned not by the country, state, or city but by the UPS.  The hub is half a mile south of the passenger terminal, which it dwarfs.  If you were to walk all the way around the hub’s exterior, along the white walls, you would hike five miles.  You would walk under the noses of 727s, 747s, 757s, 767s, DC-8s, MD-115s, A-300s – the fleet of heavies that UPS refers to as “browntails.” Basically, the hub is a large rectangle with three long concourses slanting out from one side to dock airplanes.  The walls are white because there is no practical way to air-condition so much cavernous space (p 163).

What is striking about this is the extent to which the infrastructure we consider public is no longer such a thing.  That the ownership of the “public” spaces and access to such ostensibly public goods as airport runways has passed to mega-corporations such as UPS is completely normalised.

McPhee also beautifully conveys the way the space is used inside the UPS hangar has become a kind of a parody of a dystopian vision of industrlialisations, something like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times:


or Monsters Inc.:


Here is McPhee:

A  hundred and twenty-two miles of belts and monorails… You see packages in every direction moving on a dozen levels and two principal floors, which are perforated by spaces that allow the belts to climb to all levels and descend ultimately to the level of the airplanes. Over all, this labyrinth, which outthinks the people who employ it, is something like the interior of the computers that run it.  Like printed circuitry, seven great loops, each a thousand feet around, are superposed at right angles above other loops… Unending sequences of letters and small packages zip around these loops, while the larger packages follow one another on the belts, each package tailgating the one in front of it but electronically forbidden to touch it…. Somewhere around each primary loop is one of three hundred and sixty-four positions where a given parcel will suddenly depart for another loop, where there are three hundred and sixty-four additional positions, at one of which the package will continue its quest to school up with like-minded packages (pp 166-167).

But what is fascinating is something I had no idea about.  That UPS is now expanding into provision of services that have other companies’ names on them (sometimes even, UPS provides these services under nondisclosure agreements): “Over recent years, FedEx, of Memphis, has been chasing UPS in ground transportation of packages with about the same intensity that UPS has displayed in competing with FedEx in overnight deliveries…  The root criterion impelling UPS and FedEx appears to that a healthy business grows, expands, and must go on indefinitely expanding, or it dies” (p 169).  And this expansion entails taking over for repair of Toshiba laptops in UPS hangars, it stores and ships Bentley parts and specialist pet food.  It warehouses and dispatches Jocket underwear.  “UPS calls this relatively new part of its business UPS Supply Chain Solutions” (pp. 171-172).

What is most despiriting in the story McPhee tells is the story of the workers who work for UPS:

Some five thousand workers come nightly to the sort, but few of them ever touch a package, which is largely what the hub is about, as it carries automation off the scale of comprehension.  After a package comes out of a can [a standard aluminum container] and is about to zing around in belts and chutes and into on-ramps and down straightaways as fast as an athlete can run, the first of the two handlers -package under eyeball- applies the live human factor, making a couple of crucial but not irreversible decisions: the package is to be placed on the correct choice among three adjacent belts, and the package is to go off on its ride label-side up. Sortation used to require a more complex application of human thought, but in the development of the UPS air hub the intellectual role of the workers “out in the sort” underwent a process of “de-skilling.”  “When they made the hub, they de-skilled a lot of positions,” a UPS manager explained to me. “Label-side up. That’s pretty much the extent of the training for these folks” (p 164).

In the context of capitalism, automated or semi-automated work is soulless, repetitive, exhausting. It requires no thinking, makes the labourers expendable. And interestingly, the meteoric expansion of automation has meant that with the declining need for labour, a great deal of capital can be “re-shored” in industrial countries, precisely because labour costs are not an issue [of course there is controversy about automation – and many a Marxist argues that such automation can be emancipatory, though of course in a socialist context.  But where “work is scarce,” Peter Frase argues in The Jacobin“political horizons tend to narrow, as critiques of the quality of work give way to the desperate search for work of any kind.”]

But the workers who only have to place the packages label-side up are not the only people working for UPS. There is also a skilled workforce that tries to correct ordinary human error in labeling of packages:

A package going through Louisville is scanned as many as six times in the hub alone… The label is read, the weight and dimensions registered. The label is digitally photographed. If something is wrong, as is not infrequently the case, the system calls the package an “exception.” […] In the Telecode Office, a large room at the edge of the core, row of telecoders bend toward computer monitors and study bad labels in digital imagery.  Telecoders have twenty to thrity seconds to rectify the labels in an electronic way, which, usually they are able to do, tapping at their keyboards. […]

A large percentage of the people at the computers appear to be college students, and that is what they are.  While automation has de-skilled the sort from the human point of view, shrinking the population around the belts, it is at the same time burning the midnight oil of college students in order to overcome its blemishes.  Automation alone will not do everything for eight million packages a week, and UPS is so needful of reliable part-time employees that it has embraced the field of education as if it were a private university.  It recruits students. It pays tuitions. It gives medical benefits and assistance with housing.[…] UPS is both the founder and the endowment of Metropolitan College, which has classrooms at the hub and also outsources its students to the University of Louisville, Jefferson Community College, and Jefferson Technical College.  One semester at a time,the college signs contracts with the students, committing them to attend classes by day and work in the small hours for the UPS Next Day Air operation.Whether this is an academic bonanza or indentured servitude is in the eye of the scholar (pp 176-177).

In the context of the US, where education is everything and everything costs money, money spent for education binds the workers to the firm: “The [student] loan is the only thing that relates to staying time [i.e.working at UPS] – four years for eight thousand dollars” (p. 179).  Many of these workers “are single parents, seventy per cent are female, and the median age is thirty-four” (p. 180).

And there are the on-call hyper-skilled workers as well:

Every night around the network, UPS has something thirteen airplanes and thirty-two crew members ready but unassigned. They sit and wait for trouble to arise… The UPS term for this is “hot spares.” In Louisville or elsewhere, the light lights up, a siren goes off, and a loud-speaker says, “Activate the hot spare!” Hot-spare crews report to work each evening and go out to the ramp to pre-trip their plane. They they wait.  They arrive at seven and go home at three in the morning. If they are triggered by a call to “replace a mechanical” or “rescue that volume!,” they have thirty minutes to get their planes off the ground (p 183).

Many of these pilots have been trained by the military – paid for publicly, and the training and skills are taken to the UPS.

There is something about this whole package: unskilled, semi-skilled, and hyper-skilled workers embedded in a vast network which includes the military and universities (both as providers of training to the work-force) whose elucidation is to me the signal achievement of McPhee’s UPS chapter.