Fall 2012

The Logistical Figure

Apathy, individualism, power

Clare Lyster

Inside Amazon’s distribution center in Swansea, Wales. Photo Gareth Phillips.

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 pm and you’ve worked a twelve-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 am the next morning. It makes no difference that you are in New York and your client is fifteen hundred miles away. Most likely the thought that your package has to travel cross-country in twelve 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 forty-eight hours, not really caring where it will come from and how it will get to you. Suffice 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.

THE TWO MAGICIANS: FRED AND JEFF

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.1 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; having grown up around 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.2 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 delivers upwards of five million packages a day and serves 220 locations worldwide.

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