Examining the points of abrasion in the so-called smart city: where code meets concrete and where algorithms encounter forms of intelligence that aren't artificial.
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New technologies help orchestrate and accelerate the complex and constant movement of energy, goods, people — in a word, logistics. Its relentless flow defines the metropolis: New York City’s landscape is being reconfigured by the demands of an on-demand culture. However, the spacetime of logistics extends far beyond the smart city. The dictates of “seamlessness” link the extraterrestrial orbit of positioning satellites to routing algorithms guiding a single building’s smart elevator system. The logics of logistics permeate our inner lives too, instilling optimization as a personal ambition and cultural norm. Inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, Ingrid Burrington takes us on an idiosyncratic tour through the entanglement of infrastructures that govern our “logistics planet” — more or less. From pipelines to traffic lights, logistical operations are always vulnerable to technological malfunction and human error, or coordinated action.
The term “logistics” can feel about as slippery and ill-defined as “neoliberalism.” As it’s applied today, the word has become so deeply ubiquitous and pervasive that it starts to be difficult to identify what exactly logistics is, let alone what’s not absorbed into it. If logistics is more or less the coordination of the movement of things (commodities, bodies, humanitarian aid, military equipment) across space over time, it’s hard to conceive of any activity that isn’t logistical. We could speak of a logistics of gossip or a logistics of bird migration as readily as we do shipping containers and troop movements.
But just as neoliberalism is more than a set of economic policies, logistics is more than an abstract term for ordering things: It’s a form of management, a security imperative, a world-making process unto itself. Not all systems are logistical, but to assume a logistics lens on the world tends to systematize it — making it mappable, standardized, subject to control, and predicated on perpetual growth almost always in need of optimization.
The dream of the smart city, as defined by architectural renders and vendor marketing copy, is the dream of the logistics city. But the logistics city is primarily a node in a logistics planet. It’s defined by, dependent on, and networked to globally distributed systems. In a charismatic megalopolis like New York, this simultaneous hyper-local and global scale usually manifests as a myopic hubris. When local news regularly becomes a global talking point and local industry manages the planetary-scale movement of capital, framing the logistics landscape as emanating outward from smart city urbanism makes a kind of narcissistic sense. But so much of what keeps New York City in the perpetual motion of logistics exists outside city limits: in the broader metropolitan sprawl of warehouse fulfillment centers that make next-day-delivery possible, in the nationwide flows of oil and gas needed to create and move the products in those warehouses, and in the planetary orbits of satellite systems guiding on-the-ground movements. The logistics city begins in space and drills down to streets.
In this tour of the logistics city from its planetary to street-level organization, logistics values — such as efficiency, inevitability, and an illusion of rationality all prioritized over human and environmental needs — permeate the landscape. But so do interruptions and glitches challenging those values. These landscapes are not tidily interlinked so much as in a state of entanglement — sometimes producing chaos, sometimes producing hope, and always in defiance of the imperative of perpetual production. From these perspectives, the logistics city begins to look quite brittle.
The top-down perspective of Earth from outer space has a long history of being misunderstood as an objective “view from nowhere,” so it makes sense that it’s the viewpoint from which global supply chains are managed and visualized in granular detail by satellites. But even the vantage point of space is situated — “governed,” if nominally, by United Nations treaties and the laws of physics. In a way, the perpetual falling that is an object in orbit could be considered a metaphor for the always-in-motion spirit of logistics — with the distinction that the constant movement of commodities and capital isn’t dictated by gravity so much as capitalism.
Satellite systems provide a variety of information to logistics networks. Imaging satellites can collect data on maritime activity to keep track of where a certain ship is at a given point, while communications satellites specifically serving the shipping industry keep the ship connected to corporate headquarters where its fuel, speed, and cargo are subject to constant remote monitoring. But it’s navigation satellites — things like GPS and GLONASS — that have played the most dramatic role in bringing the logistical view from nowhere to every corner of everyday life.
Thanks in part to a 1998 FCC rule that required all cell phones to adopt GPS receivers, and the 2000 opening of a more precise form of GPS to civilian use, manufacturers figured out how to make GPS receivers small enough for mobile devices. This, in turn, made it easier to put GPS receivers in lots of other systems like shipping containers, fitness trackers, and pet collars. Now we all have the privilege to view our lives from nowhere.
Earth’s orbit may provide enough abstraction to suggest elegant control in networks on the ground, but the landscape of space is actually pretty cluttered. Pieces of nonfunctional space trash (debris, micrometeorites, and dead satellites) circle the planet, haunting operational satellites. The more satellites go up (and as demands for planetary-scale data intensify, they are going up at a rapidly rising rate), the greater the risk of debris crashes, and inevitably the greater the volume of debris overall. Lots of debris eventually gets pulled back to earth, but natural re-entry can take years and is extraordinarily difficult to accurately predict. While a Gravity–style event of cascading satellite collisions isn’t that likely in the immediate future, it only would take one such incident to paralyze global trade and communications.
Of course, minor forms of terrestrial paralysis can happen simply through human error, as experienced in New York City one weekend in April 2019. GPS measures time with extremely precise atomic clocks, which are too precise to match the timekeeping systems of the planet. Earth’s rotation is subtly uneven — slightly slower than the machines used to track movement on it — and so once in a while, technical systems will have to implement a leap second to account for the discrepancy. When New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications neglected to implement leap second preparation for its citywide wireless network NYCWiN, remotely managed traffic lights, speed cameras, and license plate readers went down for the better part of a weekend. By failing to synchronize with the view from nowhere, the city’s infrastructure couldn’t perceive or manage traffic on its own streets.
All of the industrial and technological developments that made the logistics city possible are contingent on energy logistics. With the discovery of energy stored in discrete and transportable materials (coal, oil, natural gas) that could be used elsewhere came a new geographic distribution of markets, as well as transport technologies (i.e., railroads) that required synchronization to an agreed-upon time system to serve all of those markets.
But transport systems like railroads and long-haul trucking require fuel themselves, not to mention labor. Oil and gas pipelines have a logistical edge over rail and trucks — they are far cheaper per barrel, in part because of not having to pay anyone to act as a transporter. Today, over 2.5 million miles of pipeline run through the United States, and thanks to them, billions of objects exist. From cars and nail polish and sweaters to computers and toothpaste and pavement, petroleum leaches into almost every conceivable industrial product.
The language of logistics tends toward comparisons to nature — a product does not have a timeline but a “life cycle,” supply chains run “downstream” and “upstream,” and logistics itself has a “flow.” In this framing, the movement of commodities is part of the natural order of things, and that natural order requires the utmost protection. In both state and federal treatment of American pipelines, the commerce and security imperatives of logistics become painfully evident.
Since 2017, eight states have passed “critical infrastructure” laws that increase penalties for protesting near pipelines or other critical oil and gas facilities. Some of these laws have been challenged in state courts (in the case of South Dakota, successfully). Meanwhile, a federal version of it was introduced as model legislation by the Trump Administration last summer. Pipeline protests are not always effective for stopping construction, but they are a source of friction (in timetables, in costs, in public opinion) that companies can’t ignore. Making the penalty for civil disobedience essentially on par with terrorism, in theory, would prevent such protests from happening in the first place.
When the state of New York denied a crucial permit to a natural gas pipeline set to run underwater past the Rockaways and Brooklyn, local utility providers created their own kind of blockade. National Grid and Consolidated Edison imposed moratoriums on hooking up new gas lines in New York City and Westchester, effectively holding new developments and renovations hostage. The companies eventually abandoned the tactic, thanks in part to some strong-arming by the Cuomo administration, but the Northeast Supply Enhancement Project (colloquially referred to as “the Williams pipeline” after the company constructing it) isn’t dead yet — Williams continues to promote the project as the only hope for meeting the city’s growing energy needs. This isn’t true — National Grid could truck in natural gas or utilize existing pipelines, but both of these options are more expensive (i.e., not as efficient as a new pipeline).
At a moment when the imperative to stop using fossil fuels could not be articulated more urgently (and when a majority of polled Americans support transitioning to renewable energy sources), rhetoric that treats pipelines’ flow as natural order can seem absurd. But this is what the logistics lens does: It prioritizes continuous flow, presumes infrastructural necessity, and can’t really imagine anything outside itself rendering it unnecessary.
As pipelines snake their way to ports, they also pass a massive convergence of other infrastructures — railroads, freeways, and inevitably warehouses. Earlier this year, a NJ Spotlight report dubbed New Jersey “The Warehouse State” on account of its recent boom in warehouse development (apparently, the Garden State lacked in efficiency). Proximity to the ports of Bayonne, Newark, and Elizabeth, several major interstates, and the massive consumer base of nearby New York City have all contributed to New Jersey’s growing logistics economy. So has the rise in e-commerce (and tax breaks from the state for e-commerce companies). In large part through its network of warehouses, in 2017 Amazon became one of the top ten employers in the state.
While warehouse work has always been demanding, for many workers the pace started to shift in 2009 when Amazon piloted its same-day Prime delivery service in New York City. The demand for faster and faster delivery times has forced other New Jersey warehouses and fulfillment centers to radically change their systems and the expectations of their workers, without matching compensation or safety training to those changes (leading to incidents like a worker dying from a forklift fall in an Edison warehouse, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigations into two Amazon warehouses over negligent practices by the company’s in-house medical services). Many warehouse workers are temporary employees hired by a contractor, paid sometimes just minimum wage and offered little by way of worker protections.
In the world of warehouse logistics, as at the level of the pipeline, it’s the human bodies of organized labor that provide the most friction. A 2017 strike by employees at New Jersey’s Freeze warehouses led to a pay increase, while in Minnesota, Muslim Amazon warehouse workers were able to get some concessions from the company to honor their daily prayer schedule. A dearth of media attention and recalcitrant management are a major hindrance to worker campaigns, but one of the biggest challenges facing warehouse workers is the fact of consumer demand for quick-turnaround delivery from e-commerce. More than half of American households have Amazon Prime subscriptions. Ironically, convenience at the expense of overworked warehouse workers in all likelihood doesn’t amount to increased free time for consumers. The fractional time saved by not going to a store or waiting a few hours instead of days for a package tend to go into increasing productivity, not leisure.
An enduring vision of the ideal city relies on the idea of serendipitous logistics. Jane Jacobs’ oft-cited “sidewalk ballet,” while metaphorically bound to the notion of choreography, appeals because it suggests seemingly effortless, improvisational grace rather than rigid top-down order. The pricey fast-casual and/or upscale retail and housing developments commonly associated with gentrification seek to replicate this effortlessness, but often fall short. This is, in part, because the values and lifestyle associated with gentrification tend to be less interested in serendipity and more in efficiency, apparently finding delight in being able to quickly get back to or, even better, never stop working. (Examples of such premium conveniences include the color-coded line system at Whole Foods or the all-encompassing lifestyle proposition of the We Company — wherein “we” can Work, Grow, and Live, all under the same corporate banner.) While the process of gentrification can’t be reduced to its more gauche manifestations, the end result is a robust system to maintain the efficient flow of capital with precision control and reinforced by an assumption of inevitability, necessity, and order. The lifestyle brands of gentrification are, at the heart of their cold, dead hearts, logistics brands.
And many of these brands have figured out the efficiency gains of cutting out the retail middleman. These brands aren’t visibly transforming neighborhoods through taking up retail space, but they are a sign of neighborhood change: in the muted pastel modernist subway ads for delivery and subscription-based startups that line more and more daily commutes, the branded cardboard boxes in lobbies and curbside recycling. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with services offering home delivery for dinner, a mattress, or erectile dysfunction medication (among other products), these niche startups primarily market themselves to an upwardly mobile, career-focused, and extremely online gentrifying demographic that apparently doesn’t have time to leave the house for errands — or is perhaps afraid to do so in their “up and coming” neighborhood. These gentrifiers don’t have to live with the guilt of seeing a local business displaced by an overpriced boutique: The boutique just comes to one’s door, while the local business quietly withers away.
A similar effect emerges with 311 calls, which a 2018 Buzzfeed investigation showed to be closely intertwined with gentrification in New York City. For the newcomer expecting a certain kind of order and uniformity, calling 311 about loud music or a bunch of people hanging out on a stoop evades the friction of having to, say, actually talk to one’s neighbors, or interrogate why they think an entire neighborhood should conform to their sense of personal comfort. While 311 is a multifaceted city service that serves residents across demographics, its use for reporting neighborhood complaints can also become a method of complaining about — and sending police to interrupt — the very sidewalk ballet that Jacobs so effusively described. The assumption that games of dominoes on the street, loud music, or simply residents gathering outside their home constitutes a public nuisance is aligned with the conception of “disorder” that defined New York City’s approach to policing for over 20 years. The theory of emphasizing and aggressively policing minor nuisances or petty crime may have produced the kind of orderly streets and subways that put the anxious gentrifier at ease, but reduces neighborhoods to yet another terrain to be made efficient, where serendipity and social ties won’t interrupt the flow of labor and commodities.
About a year ago, my therapist’s office building upgraded its elevator systems to destination dispatch. If you live in a large city and you’ve been to a new and/or expensive building in that city, you’ve probably experienced a destination dispatch elevator. Rather than waiting for everyone to select their floor when they get into the elevator, passengers select their floor from a touchscreen, then are assigned a specific elevator to ride. This system trades the discomfort of having to stand in close quarters with strangers for an interminably long ride for the discomfort of having to stand in slightly-less-close quarters with strangers for an interminably long wait for an elevator that, in theory, will offer a shorter ride.
Elevator company promotional videos gesture at other benefits of destination dispatch: Combined with RFID badge data that designate someone as an employee on a particular floor, the elevator now offers a fabulous resource for monitoring workers’ entry and exit into the office. The introduction of a more digitized elevator experience could provide the elevators with training data to better understand day-to-day elevator distribution!
In my anecdotal experience, results have been a bit more uneven. The elevator will sometimes send me up three floors when I need to go down, gathering other passengers before sending us to the lobby. The system can’t tell the difference between one person who needs to go to the 16th floor and one person with three increasingly agitated children who needs to go to the 16th floor, so elevators will end up crowded anyway. Newcomers to destination dispatch will often get onto the first available elevator, only to be baffled by the absence of buttons and annoyed at having to go all the way back down to get to their preferred floor. And destination dispatch can only address so much, considering in this case it’s a retrofit of a pretty old elevator system. One of the maintenance workers in the building told me that three or four times a week he has to deal with a stuck elevator — and while it would be a tidy narrative to attribute that failing to technological intervention, it’s more likely related to the building being really old and the elevators receiving a lot of use (and, like the satellites of our starting point, also subject to the laws of physics).
Elevators are second only to the subway system in terms of conveyances that make the density of New York City possible. They’re also second to the subway in terms of most-complained-about transportation system in New York City. To some extent, no amount of improvements to elevators would stop our complaints. Office elevator rides are at best adequately forgettable but rarely “enjoyable,” and also New Yorkers love to complain about things. But systems like destination dispatch are less about necessity and more about an unshakable faith in optimizations — which, when grafted onto pre-existing infrastructures, are essentially pointless in the absence of long-term maintenance. To draw one more comparison to the subway, they’re the countdown clocks: nice to have when they actually work, but I’m more concerned about fixing the subway cars and tracks.
From beyond the sky to the skyscraper, the pursuit of optimization, efficiency, and totality has become so commonplace — and framed as utterly necessary and natural — that it’s perhaps no surprise that such optimization has been further internalized into the cultivation of self, making efficiency as much a personal journey as it is a market imperative. The different logistics landscapes explored here thread into the everyday urban experience both literally (e.g., a GPS receiver used in a delivery service routing app to bring a package from a New Jersey warehouse to Brooklyn, the petroleum synthesized into the high-performance fabric of the item in the New Jersey package and fueling the delivery vehicle, the package taken from a Downtown Brooklyn high-rise lobby up a destination dispatch elevator) and in the perpetuation of logistics values as cultural norms. This is not to say that all pursuit of orderly or efficient systems is inherently unhealthy or a path toward dehumanization. But within the networks that make up the logistics self/city/nation/planet, that pursuit of order and efficiency is deemed more important than and comes at the expense of the dignity and wellbeing of living things.
Ultimately, the greatest source of friction in logistics systems is simply the imprecision and uncertainty of the reality they seek to precisely contain. The earth doesn’t rotate with the precision of an atomic clock. Human beings are unpredictable and stubborn and defiant. Old buildings with old, slow elevators will still be old and slow even with a new routing algorithm. In this respect, the logistically seamless ideal of the smart city is and probably always has been more horizon than destination. And while the presumed rewards at that horizon of infinite order and control may appeal to some, it’s not clear that the journey toward it is worth the cruelties and destruction left in its wake.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
Examining the points of abrasion in the so-called smart city: where code meets concrete and where algorithms encounter forms of intelligence that aren't artificial.