Panel discusses hidden consequences of e-commerce
By Lou Fancher
It's a yin yang cyber world. As consumers, we want to have our cake and know its source, but we don't want anyone to watch us eat it.
While a considerable portion of the U.S. population exercised their credit cards on Cyber Monday and settled in to track their purchases, a "Mapping the Cybernetic Supernode" presentation Nov. 30 at the David Brower Center attracted a counterculture audience of about 75 people.
The evening program, offered in partnership with Empire Logistics on a day some consider the online holiday shopping kickoff, promised to scrutinize the Bay Area's "supernode" or "techie hub" self-designation in the global supply chain.
The Brower Center in downtown Berkeley aims to support the next generation of environmental and social activists.
In addition to housing dozens of resident organizations in its Allston Way building, the center dedicated to environmentalist David Brower offers exhibits and public programs designed to stimulate community conversations and cross-sector collaborations.
Empire Logistics is a mapping project whose primary goal is to illustrate the infrastructure of the global supply chain and to chart its impact on the environment and society.
In part, the panel conversation and Q&A proved that people embrace the ability to follow the cyber trail of a container ship of goods, but resent being followed in similar, detailed fashion. Charmaine Chua, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota drew an audible response with her mention of Humanyze, a company that supplies wearable sensors that she said advertises their services as "helping companies understand their people."
The "badges" track how often employees raise their hands to contribute in meetings, or divide their weekly locations into a tidy pie chart in which visits to a restroom are a slice. "It's creepy," Chua said.
Similarly, the largest customers for the Fitbit activity tracker are not sports enthusiasts, but companies tracking their workers, she added.
Chua said her purpose was to "dislodge the myths," lest anyone buy into the idea that Silicon Valley and the digital industry produces only "abstract goods."
A supernode -- your computer becomes one every time you use Skype -- decentralizes information, but requires real, tangible materials that have environmental consequences.
Society suffers additionally because the industry distributes its benefits unevenly.
"For every app developer, you need content moderators in the Philippines, call center operators in India, service and factory workers in China, truckers seafarers and dockers to transport the goods," Chua said.
Submarine cables, warehouses and rare earth minerals used in making iPhones and other mobile devices add hard infrastructure to labor needed to support the industry.
Taken into society and with capital profits distributed unevenly, Chua said the "parasitic effect of high tech on non-abstract things" has negative impacts, including environmental damage, gentrification, vast economic inequalities and public health concerns.
"Does the supply chain give us new solidarity possibilities, or does it make it more difficult?" Chua asked.
The answer to that was as complicated as the experts' explanations of Empire Logistics' tools and graphics. A simplification reveals that the "global factory" of consumer goods and services was based on military logistics that were refined during the Vietnam War, according to moderator Michael Wilson.
Today, with goods moving through warehouses in Southern California's "Inland Empire," a kind of dry shipping port, a cybernetic or organizational crucible operates.
Wilson said that tracking data is often privatized, making it difficult to access how Walmart gets a package from point A to point B, for example.
But Peter Olney, former director of organizing for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, dismissed the difficulty of mapping to focus on the cyber industry's labor effects: More goods transported, but fewer workers needed; a piecemeal supply chain that fractures workers' collective power, destroys unions, and renders strikes at individual stores and companies ineffective.
An audience member asked how Empire Logistics' project will help to organize and protect workers across the global expanse of today's marketplace.
"No one thinks we can organize the entire world, but if we organize a piece of that chain here, and another piece in Germany and another in China, they'll act in concert. That's the hope and desire," Wilson said.
For people to benefit unilaterally from the cyber world's profits and technology's promise, the panelists agreed, efforts to protect workers' rights and the environment require the same thing they've always required: solid education and hard, hands-on work.