Designed to accelerate capitalism, logistics is key to maintaining the Western phantasm that ‘capitalism is an intelligent computer’ and to concealing the labor of those whose hands sustain its ‘operating system.’ In this SILENT WORKS interview Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki talk to political geographer Evelina Gambino about how logistical landscapes are becoming the sites of labor struggles.
One of the main sites of the logistical revolution is Georgia, a country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, located at the Black Sea. With a population of 3.7 million, Georgia is at the center of ambitious infrastructural investments aimed at transforming the country into a logistics hub for the China-led New Silk Road project. These developments are reshaping Georgia’s territory, its economy, and, last but not least, its classed regime of labor. In your work on logistics you speak of the logistical assemblage making up the New Silk Road as a “deterritorialized cyborg.” Why and how is it deterritorialized?
I use this metaphor to invoke the composite nature of the New Silk Road and logistical expansion in general. Firstly, it aims to highlight the relational element of logistical expansion, in terms of both spatial relations and agentic ones. As Deborah Cowen suggests in her recent book “The Deadly Life of Logistics” (2014), the advancement of logistics since the invention of the container has engendered a “dramatic recasting of the relationship between making and moving, or production and distribution” (Cowen 2014: 104). No longer located in one place, production is now in constant circulation. It is thus perennially incomplete and at the same time always of many places. This circulation, importantly, does not refer just to physical movement – of the actual components of one commodity traveling across space to be assembled, purchased, consumed – but also to the circulation of capital and soft infrastructure that shapes new geographies of accumulation.
Could you explain what you mean by calling it a ‘cyborg’?
I use cyborg to speak of the entanglement of human and non-human agents in the making/unmaking/domesticating of large infrastructural networks. The word cyborg, as the students from the M.A. in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College reflect in their recent reader, originates in the union between the two words ‘cyber’ and ‘organism’. ‘Cyber’ is derived from cybernetics, which itself derives from the verb ‘to steer’ or the noun ‘steersman’; organism, on the other hand, is a word that indicates an assemblage of tools (organs) that work together to create a whole. Together, they suggest a new meaning: ‘that of uneasily identifiable nature.’
As an appreciation of enmeshed-ness and the non-reducible nature of agentic relations, ‘cyborg’ has embodied the challenge posed by Donna Haraway to the essentialism of a certain kind of feminism that placed female biology at the centre of the struggle against the patriarchy. I think a similar challenge can be posed towards the logistical gaze that aims to organize technologies, subjects and space, smoothing out the crisscrossing that ties them together.
This notion, by highlighting the coexistence of and communication between different components within one single entity, makes it possible to see logistics as a complex assemblage of operations that span from bodily functions to advanced technologies. In turn, such a view enables us to reject any facile understanding of logistics as mere technical/technological effort towards synchronization. It does so by highlighting the murkiness and ultimate indeterminacy of the terrains on which new connections take place. These terrains are inhabited by a number of different actors – human, animal, material, chemical – whose interactions shape the existence of the infrastructural solutions that compose logistical networks.
How can its technological design be grasped? What are its technological components?
There is no unitary design. While the promise to deploy state-of-the-art technologies in the building and operation of large logistics infrastructure is omnipresent in the narratives that emerge around these developments, in my work I am more interested in charting the variety of regimes – technological but also of production and, indeed biopolitical – at play across these networks. It is undeniable that certain projects have achieved an extremely high degree of automation and that global logistics has been a site of rapid technological advancements – from the deployment of robotics in ports such as Rotterdam, to the development of devices to chart workers’ bodily movements and efficiency in Amazon warehouses, to the vast deployment of machine learning to speed up inventory and storage across supply chains. However, alongside these almost futuristic and indeed somewhat dystopian scenarios, a host of different relations exist, not just as corollary but as a core propeller of these logistical worlds.
Is there a way to render these abstractions more tangibly?
I think these awkward convergences are shown brilliantly in Tekla Aslanishvili’s documentary essay Algorithmic Island, which is the basis for a two-channel installation at the Berliner Gazette Winter School SILENT WORKS. By focusing on the trial and error at stake in creating logistics infrastructures in Anaklia, on the Georgian Black Sea coast, Aslanishvili exposes the cracks, frictions and scars behind the smooth surface of mega projects of accumulation. The space of Anaklia, which is also the site of my own fieldwork, has been at the center of a number of subsequent projects in the past decade. While they all share the same overall concept, namely, to build a deep sea port and a futuristic city on this swampland at the border with the de facto state of Abkhazia, the failure of earlier attempts is, nevertheless, hardwired into the current development of the project, and in the expectations of those who observe it. Focusing at once on material traces and on the discursive glitches that make up the story of Anaklia, Aslanishvili successfully exposes the intersection between a form of technological sublime and the ecosystems that they are set to transform.
One image is particularly strong in showing these awkward encounters: the justice house built by former president Mikhail Saakashvili as the first element of the futuristic city of Lazika, planned on the southern shore of Anaklia, lies abandoned at the end of an interrupted boulevard. More than five years have passed since the building’s construction; Saakashvili’s demise abruptly interrupted the project. The building, made of glass and curved steel pillars, was projected to echo the design of local vernacular houses, the ‘Megrelian Oda,’ raised on stilts to avoid the frequent flooding of the terrain. Unlike the original Oda, made of light and easy-to-repair wooden panels that rested on stone pillars, this futuristic version weighs so much on the unstable ground that it necessitates foundations almost as deep as they are tall. In one of the opening images of ‘Algorithmic Island’ we see the carcass of this building, rotten and rusted by the salty humidity of the Black Sea shore but still leaning on the surrounding landscape. The place is deserted, a far cry from the second rendering presented by Saakashvili to introduce his vision of the future, a city buzzing with people, vehicles and businesses of all kinds. Only cows slowly cross on faded zebra lines, followed by one man, armed with a large spade, diligently collecting their droppings.
How do the discourses of ‘self-learning’ algorithms, ‘self-driving’ automation and AI surface in the narration of the New Silk Road as a deterritorialized cyborg?
The horizons of endless experimentation provided by the advancement of AI and self-learning algorithms are central to the expansion of logistics across space. I believe, however, that in order to understand the role of such technologies in shaping our logistical futures, one must pay attention to a fundamental struggle between a desire towards openness and infinite growth and the necessity to protect the interests of those who aim to profit from the management of logistical spaces. This struggle is indeed embedded in the design of logistics spaces. Think about smart cities. It is planned to construct a smart city in Anaklia in the near future. The city, according to its CEO, is conceived as ‘a space of experiment, a reform zone’ that should respond to the changing desires of its inhabitants, and, in so far as it hopes to be an entirely private city, to its owners’ needs.
Adaptability, thus, is a key element of the planning and designing of ‘smart’ logistics spaces where technologies and data are deployed to achieve maximum flexibility for seemingly endless openness to consumer desires. Dreamworlds of never-ending AI-driven experimentation are outlined to all of those who wish to listen. Logistical multifunctional spaces, what Keller Easterling calls ‘the zone,’ are ostensibly marked by such openness to infinite adaptation, but such experimentation is contained by hard boundaries. As the CEO made clear, the Anaklia smart city must offer a reliable and stable environment for investment: political uncertainty is not good for securing profits. Importantly, therefore, all experimentation should be driven towards creating a liberal and unbureaucratic environment: it is intended to be simple, to guarantee low taxes or duties, to grant the absence of capital controls and ownership restrictions, to allow multiple currencies – and finally, to have labor legislation separate from the rest of the country.
In other words, while the experimentation should be limitless, there is only one direction in which it can go! This, I believe, was the central theme discussed during the Berliner Gazette conference AMBIENT REVOLTS, where we took AI and the discourse around it as an object of inquiry to unearth the violence, biases and world views that get naturalized and reproduced through these technologies. And the SILENT WORKS project follows up on this by focusing on labor struggles in this context. In a similar fashion, as Orit Halpern reminds us, the infinite testing at the core of the planning paradigm of smart cities conceals, through its emphasis on openness, the multiple ways it furthers specific interests and materializes old forms of violence on different terrains.
How are discourses of semi-autonomous technologies re-narrating the politics of labor?
I think there is a tendency for labor to be invisibilized in the accounts of logistics expansion. I believe this to be related to a certain fetish of technological and technical advancement, of the promised purity that those advancements predicate. The ability of simple technologies, such as the container, and more complex ones, such as software able to synchronize operations, to simplify and speed up the circulation of goods and information has rendered the productive efforts made by humans invisible. This invisibilization operates on different levels: from aesthetics, to discourse, to policy.
As many of us devoted to the critique of logistical capitalism have observed, the aesthetics of cargo mobilities has become prominent far beyond logistical spaces: our cities, fashion magazines, art galleries and music videos are filled with repurposed containers, logistics companies’ merchandise transformed into fashion items, and evocative images of shipping yards. This aesthetic takeover, however, as Alberto Toscano has noted, often erases those who are – still – important inhabitants of logistical landscapes: the workers stacking, packing, moving, and storing the goods and parts traveling inside containers across the world. When logistical landscapes are depicted as silent landscapes of colorful corrugated metal, as in Edward Burtynsky’s celebrated images, their most vital component is suppressed, erasing the smells, sounds, and clashes that animate daily life on the docks, hubs, railways, etc., that constitute logistical connections.
Such erasure from the realm of perception is echoed in the way the workforce is treated by those who plan the spaces of logistics – at times as a commodity whose cheapness can be turned into an asset for those interested in investing. A quick look at most of the websites promoting investment in Georgia shows that a ‘competitively priced labor force’ is listed among the country’s chief benefits. Exploitability is thus marketized and, as the CEO of Anaklia city makes clear, policy must be deployed to maintain ‘competitive advantage’.
During the discussion that I referred to above, the CEO also stated that measures such as the minimum wage are nothing but a bureaucratic hurdle that stands in the way of achieving true competitiveness. Statements such as this, by no means exceptional among the proponents of seamless and integrated global circulation, invisibilize the workforce, not just as bodies at work but as agents capable of upsetting and reshaping the dynamics of production. The minimum wage, as is well-known to most, is not a bureaucracy: on the contrary, it is the result of active and victorious struggle on the part of the organized working class. Rather than just being a result of that struggle, the minimum wage is a reminder of the possibility for further oppositions, and further victories by the organized working classes. The invisibilization of workers, therefore, is also an invisibilization of their capacity to struggle. In this sense, we can understand how such invisibilization is in fact a masked attack, a stripping of workers’ rights and ability to resist exploitation.
What does it mean politically that the logistics sector still relies on great amounts of labor power despite the advancement of increasingly AI-driven automation?
I believe that the continued relevance of workers within circuits of accumulation that are increasingly striving towards automation implies the renewed need for forms of solidarity and care to be practiced across these circuits. The classic fairytale of market economy is that ‘the invisible hand of the market’ will magically solve all our problems. A world of evidence has been proving this belief erroneous, but still it informs the ways countries and corporations operate. There is no invisible hand of the market, but there are billions of invisibilized hands of those who make that market work and that are hit by its failures.
Such a contrast between what is seen and what is made invisible and who does the work and who benefits from it is powerfully captured by another contribution to the Berliner Gazette Winter School SILENT WORKS: Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze’s film “The Invisible Hand of My Father.” The artist tells the story of his own father within and against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. Nugzari, the protagonist of the film, left Georgia for Europe in the aftermath of Soviet collapse. After working for many years as an undocumented laborer in Portugal, Nugzari finally was granted legal status following a job amnesty in 2008. That same year, however, his arm got stuck in a cement mixer while at work and his hand had to be amputated. As he had just obtained a work visa, he was able to access public healthcare and a pension for life. With this small amount of money granted, Nugzari returned to his native Racha, a region in the northwest of Georgia, where he now lives growing crops in his garden and making wine in his traditional wooden house. While the invisible hand of the market never provided for him, it was his own, severed and now invisibilized hand that granted him and his family a decent existence.
By inverting the ethereal, supposedly omnipresent hand of the market with the once lively and now discarded hand of his own father, Gagoshidze exposes the corporeal and, indeed, gruesome dimension of late capitalism. He shows how the market has blood on its invisible hand.
But that’s not all Nugzari’s story does. It notably also blurs the lines between the different actors taking part in shaping the global market: the life story of the worker Nugzari is dependent on a series of contingencies and glitches connecting across multiple scales and epochal changes; in turn his severed limb is placed as an actor in the much larger dislocations of power that led to the 2008 financial crisis.
I believe that this film is a reminder of the interconnectedness of our present world and the murkiness of its workings. In turn, within such a dense and constructed mess, so far away from the smooth stories told in narratives of automated landscapes, different accounts of labor emerge, echoing Marx’s distinction between labor power and labor. On the one hand, there are the undocumented, precarious and transnational conditions under which Nugzari is selling his labor power and that ultimately lead to his accident; on the other, we are shown the daily labor that his sacrificed hand granted him, a work whose fruits are not taken from him but are part of his existence. Within this opposition the severed hand stands erected and, finally, painfully, visibly confronting the violence of the market.
Against the masking of the violence that propels contemporary capitalism, achieved through the proliferation of narratives that praise the smoothness of market operation and their autonomy, we need a different kind of care. We must pay attention to the multiple forms of labor that exist, some of which are testimony to different modes of production where exploitation is replaced by care. Detecting them and sustaining them may provide a tool for a political effort that subverts the present.
How can the infrastructure of logistical landscapes be re-coded and re-purposed to alternative ends? Would this entail alternative forms of logistics that actually challenge the power of logistical AI? I wonder what you see as the limits of this approach?
Different people writing on logistics have noted how the expansion of logistical connections also implies the strengthening of connections between different workers and their struggles, and that, more importantly, the necessity of logistics to coordinate all of its different geographical points to maintain the accelerated tempo of just-in-time production renders it extremely vulnerable to disruption: a delay in one spot can disrupt the entire circuit. The workers in one place can thus have an enormous impact on the whole supply chain. Through heightened connectivity, new and perhaps unexpected connections can be made. I think this is certainly true as is shown by recent episodes of transnational solidarity, such as the dockers of Genoa refusing to load a Saudi ship carrying weapons, in protest against the Yemen war and in solidarity with those who are suffering as a consequence of it. Similarly, I believe that logistics struggles have not just put different faraway struggles in touch with each other, but have proven to be a site for practicing transnational solidarity within a single nation, as is the case with the longstanding struggles in the Italian logistics sector, where a multinational labor force has come together to fight against local bosses and the imperatives on international production.
What I am not sure about, however, is whether we can define these and the many other acts of resistance that have infested logistical networks as forms of ‘counter-logistics’, as in the repurposing of logistical connections for other means. As much as I feel the power of such a term and its potential to bring about new forms of organizing, I fear that by talking about the possibility of a ‘counter-logistics,’ we may suggest that logistics is a coherent and unitary system that can be repurposed or turned on itself. I think that would be a misconception. I believe counter-logistics, or counter-logistical practices, if we can use this term, are happening. They exist within and are integrated or awkwardly clashing with the logistical networks we observe expanding.
During my fieldwork I have observed countless small acts of defiance and much larger exertions of power that counteracted the synchronizing rationale of logistical connection. Not all of these forms of countering, moreover, are positive and, indeed, not all are rooted in the present: some of them are the histories of the spaces and infrastructures that come to be joined within a transit corridor. What I mean is that those networks, as I have said before, are composite and contingent. They incorporate within themselves countless life-worlds, some of which are working against the push to homogenization and synchronization that logistics engenders. This does not mean that we should just sit back and hope for everything to explode. Instead, we should pay attention to these worlds, unearth and mobilize them to make the international connections granted to all of this new and shiny infrastructure a bridge towards new organizing strategies.
How can we challenge the seamless narrative of logistics? In other words, how can we challenge logistical AI as a narrative, a discourse, and an emerging assemblage of power?
Logistics, especially when it comes to global logistical routes, is often narrated as powered by the pursuit of seamlessness – whether that refers to transit, transactions, or lean production models. A world connected through logistics, like the one imagined by Chinese president Xi Jinping in his accounts of the Belt and Road Initiative, is a space of connectivity where goods, capital and certain bodies could travel through space/time without encountering obstacles, to the benefit, as he often stresses, of the entirety of humankind (NCN 2015). Within this context AI lends itself to the affirmation of such dreams by promising to eliminate the friction and unpredictability of human error, saving time and thus money.
In other words, logistical connectivity is emerging as the grand organizing narrative of this stage of late capitalism, and technology is a crucial element of it. While these changes are happening right in front of our eyes, it seems difficult to provide explanations that can account for their multiple, intersecting elements. But while this multiplicity seems to be rejected by mainstream observers, I believe that actually exposing this constructed-ness may provide us with tools to challenge logistical power as it’s currently developing.
As I mentioned before, this is done by charting the coexistence of different production regimes, ethics, and temporal dispositions at play in the making of logistics and, fundamentally, by understanding that for every attempt at lean production, frictions and clashes take place. While this might seem an ode to chaos, it is instead a political necessity. Already 20 years ago the feminist geographers J.K. Gibson–Graham called for an upsetting of the macho narrative of capital expansion, not just as it was presented by capitalists but as it was, somewhat insistently, reproduced by various strands on the left.
I think this call is still relevant, and it definitely applies to narratives around logistics. In my current fieldwork I am attempting to chart the effects that logistics development – or the promise of it – is having on a small and relatively peripheral country such as the Republic of Georgia, attempting to produce what anthropologists call a ‘thick description’ of what, from a logistics perspective, is nothing but a dot on the map enabling cargo to move swiftly between East and West. This type of description, I believe, can provide a starting point for challenging what you refer to as logistical AI.
About SILENT WORKS
The SILENT WORKS project is dedicated to excavating forms of labor that are buried under present regimes of AI-capitalism. Find all details and up-to-date information on the SILENT WORKS project here: https://silentworks.info
About Evelina Gambino
Prior to her work on logistics in Georgia, Gambino took part in the creation of a network of precarious workers, migrants, researchers, grassroots unions and activists. One of the imperatives of this unique network is that one’s subjectivity does not exclude the other. She has been realizing bottom-up initiatives partly in highly secluded migrant laborer settlements in Italy, including co-research and collaborative educational projects documented in her article ‘The Gran Ghettò: Migrant Labor and Militant Research in Southern Italy’ in “The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering” (2017), edited by migration researcher Nicholas De Genova. What Gambino calls ‘collective militant research’ is an attempt to develop a research practice from within an emerging struggle, seeking to build an understanding of research as integral to the composition of a class consciousness, rather than outside or above it. The possibilities opened up by this attempt, as well as its limits, inform her current work on logistics.