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Posts Tagged ‘the logic of the machine’

“The phone rings and an eerie voice mimicking a woman says: “Your shift is about to start, please log in and make sure you are in your designated starting area.”

This automatic reminder to promptly start the shift was, for me, the most tangible reminder that couriers working for Foodora and similar “platform capitalism” companies operate via the control of algorithms. While getting a call from a robot urging to start your shift is uncanny, the algorithms control the couriers’ work in more subtle, and more important, ways.

Dispatching, namely the assignment of orders to couriers is done automatically at Foodora. Through the application that the couriers use to receive orders, the algorithm tracks the couriers’ location, average speed, how quickly the courier delivers the food and how much time they spend at the customer. Based on an unknown weighing of these factors, the algorithm assigns a specific order to a given courier.

The dispatcher, who distributes orders, plays probably the single most important part in a courier’s job. The courier plans their own routes, but the dispatcher gives the orders, sets the pace and provides the information the courier needs to do their job. No matter how fast a courier rides or how well they navigate the city, if dispatching does not work, nothing works. Conversely, when dispatchers and couriers work well together and communicate with each other, they deliver orders quickly and efficiently. When the dispatcher is a courier themselves, this cooperation usually works best, because the dispatcher knows what can be expected from a cyclist, how the weather, the load and distance affects the courier.

Foodora has human dispatchers, who oversee couriers in a given city. However, in the working process designed by Foodora, human dispatchers ideally don’t interact with couriers, who should get their orders automatically. Presumably as a cost-saving measure, Foodora centralized its dispatching to Berlin and the dispatchers overseeing say Helsinki know nothing about the city. Thus the dispatchers are not able to help couriers in problem cases and sometimes the results are just plain bizarre, for example when by mistake an order has registered to a restaurant that is in fact closed and the courier tries to tell disbelieving dispatchers in Berlin that the cannot pick it up, because… well, the restaurant is closed.

The biggest problem however is one of transparency. The provisions paid for the order form a substantial part of the couriers’ income at Foodora, and because of this, those who get more orders earn more. The courier however does not know how and why the algorithm distributes the orders to one courier instead of another. Apparently, the algorithm distributes orders to couriers it deems “effective”. I have seen a situation when a fast courier came exhausted with less than ten minutes of their shift remaining to the office where couriers, who had just started their shifts sat waiting for orders. Then a new order came and algorithm assigned it to the fast courier. Why, nobody knows, but in Foodora’s automatic system once an order is assigned it cannot be changed.

Similarly, the algorithm classes Foodora’s couriers into four “batches”, or groups, based on their performance (as judged by the algorithm). Shifts are made available in steps to these batches so that the first batch, with the “best” couriers, get first pick from all the shifts, then the next and those in the last batch pick any shifts that might be left. How a courier gets shifts obviously directly affects their income. If one can do only a limited amount of hours, one also earns less. Along with this direct effect, how much and how well one works affects also one’s position in the “batch” and the possibility to get shifts in the future.

In short, the algorithms directly control the couriers’ work and their income, but in ways the courier can only guess. Even if the courier was adept in reading the code and reverse-engineering the applications, the systems that manage them are proprietary and not made known to the courier.”

– Tuomas Tammisto,
“When Mr. Robot is Your Boss: Working under algorithms.” The Transnational Courier Federation (#4.2)

When Mr. Robot is Your Boss: Working under algorithms

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“Technology sits at the crossroads of all of the escape routes from ecological crisis that lay open before capitalism. Technology is not a list of inventions. Rather, it is the reproduction of human society as seen through a technical lens: the how of social reproduction. Everything about how humans relate to the rest of the planet and how we structure our internal relations is modulated by our technology. Rather than wading into the typically idiotic framing of the debate—technology, good or whack?—we have to focus on how technology as it exists in global society functions as an all-or-nothing juggernaut. The one debate regarding technology that we cannot lose, and that is left out of the dominant framing, addresses the authoritarian nature of technology as it exists today. It is presented as a consumer choice, but each new advancement becomes obligatory within a matter of years. We are forced to adopt it or become totally excluded. Each new advancement rewrites social relations, progressively robbing us of control over our lives and giving control to the governments that surveil us and the corporations that exploit us. This loss of control is directly related to the destruction of the environment.”

Peter Gelderloos, Diagnostic Of The Future – Between the Crisis of Democracy and the Crisis of Capitalism: A Forecast. Crimethinc, November 5, 2018.

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“Personally, I don’t understand the compulsion to mine history for words that might describe what’s to come. The fact is that the approaching flood has no name. Any title it might take is presently lost in the noise of its gestation, maybe just beginning to be spoken in a language that we can hardly recognize. There will be no Commune because this isn’t Paris in 1871. There will be no Dual Power because this isn’t Russia in 1917. There will be no Autonomy because this isn’t Italy in 1977. I’m writing this in 2017, and I don’t know what’s coming, even though I know something is rolling toward us in the darkness, and the world can end in more ways than one. Its presence is hinted at somewhere deep inside the evolutionary meat grinder of riot repeating riot, all echoing ad infinitum through the Year of our Lord 2016, when the anthem returned to its origin, and the corpse flowers bloomed all at once as Louisiana was turned to water, and no one knew why. I don’t call people comrade; I just call them friend. Because whatever’s coming has no name, and anyone who says they hear it is a liar. All I hear are guns cocking over trap snares unrolling to infinity.”

– Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict. Reaktion Books, 2018.

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“Where the Delaware Bridge meets the ground, there is a small patch of solar panels at the foot of a towering, blinking metal mass: the first of many oil refineries along the New Jersey Turnpike. (This quite accurately sets the mood for the rest of this bleak, depressing journey.) As for the bridge itself, there is no better testament to the triumph of man and his modernity than careening above an expansive landscape. It is a vaguely religious experience that reinforces the idea that we have agency over the natural world and its inconvenient geological impediments. (This is the high point of the trip; your faith in both man and technology will only diminish from this point on.)

The bridge diminuendos into a crime scene spanning a hundred years. It is Dupont’s Chambers Works plant, home of back-to-back industrial nightmares: the freon that ate a hole in the ozone layer; the early synthesis of Tetra-ethyl lead. TEL, the key additive in leaded gasoline, was produced in this plant’s infamous House of Butterflies, so named because the workers, who were going insane from acute lead poisoning, would swat at the annoying phantom insects interrupting their work. (Back in Baltimore, around the corner from home, a pair of swing sets wilt behind a makeshift fence. Stapled to its orange plastic is a sign saying that the park, in which children were happily playing the week before, is closed because inspectors discovered high lead levels in the soil, attributed to the remnants of leaded gasoline.)

The plant passes by at 60 miles an hour. The other passengers are buried in their headphones, unfazed. It is hard to believe that this is a road that has been written about kindly. But I am not of the generation for whom the highways were only a few decades old and a symbol of freedom. The “mother road” is an abusive parent, whose maternal envelopment transcends embrace to become smothering. Far from unloosing youthful agency, the interstate is a jute rope of mundane convenience that strangles the country and its ability to do something, anything, before it is too late.

Like all great American highways, the New Jersey Turnpike is mostly a long trek through a litany of suffering—both that of other people and of the planet, now in the twilight of its habitable years. Rest areas with the names of famous people begin with Fenwick the writer and end with Lombardi, the football coach. (This juxtaposition is rich with very obvious cultural allegory.) The early part of the route is innocuously mundane, as if recovering from the trauma of what lies at the end of the Delaware Bridge. Behind a green barrier cloaked in invasive vines, fallow farmland alternates with tree-barren exurbs. Occasionally, a cheerful little town can be made out between the foliage, passing by quickly in a moment of sonder, during which one wonders about the complex lives of the residents of such little places. These are the towns with only a single gas station, treated by Republicans and postmodern novelists alike as the center of the universe. Americana is defined by that which lacks density.

If you are plant blind, which most of us unfortunately are, the Turnpike’s bank is a mere blur of tranquil greenery. In truth, it’s a botanical trench-war, wave after wave of invasive plants out-invading each other. The bristles of the region’s white pines turn brown as they are slowly strangled by vines that will stop at nothing until they form a single hellish organism. Every hemlock has been reduced to toothpicks by foreign pestilence. The salt marshes, once proud bastions of biodiversity, are clogged with aquatic pests devouring every visible square inch of water. Far from a picturesque prelude, the first stage of the Turnpike is a stretch of ersatz nature, the kind that fills every ecologist and botanist with dread.

The main fixture of the next stage of the route sleepily seeps into the foreground from behind the vegetation. In the diverse color palette of white and beige emerge monoliths of an absurd scale—distribution centers, with dozens of tractor trailers suckling at their numbered bays like little piglets. The new logistics economy is as inscribed on the landscape as the much rhapsodized decaying heavy industry it replaced. Perhaps the centers are less written about than the old mills and factories because of their lack of interesting visual features, the epitome of un-architecture, windowless as to not expose passersby to the toil of the joyless work transpiring inside. The new economy is fractal, big boxes in which other boxes endlessly replicate, a matryoshka doll of parcels destined for other places.

By the time you reach the Molly Pitcher, the logistics landscape accelerates into one long stretch of alternating warehouses, not even bothering to hide themselves behind trees. A forest that sprang up after the completion of the road, still in its toddler years, is mowed down wholesale in the periphery. Concrete trucks pour their slurry into a collective monumental slab. So much for the hours of banally picturesque fields and churches promised in other writing. Some geese graze outside a massive tomb built solely for the dispatching of synthetic dog bones. Ah, nature.

Past Joyce Kilmer, the little towns that make you feel like everything is going to be OK start to reappear. Traces of urbanism begin to emerge out of big-box and marshland. Knotweed devours a hillside. A billboard advertises bouquets of roses that can last a whole year. Thickets of Ailanthus transform the New Jersey roadside into a nondescript jungle. What was before a languid ride begins to gather speed. An intangible sense tells you that past the embankments and fences lie other people, potentially lots of them. Mid-rise office buildings and foam-clad hotels alert you to a bleak world beyond the road. The sound barriers grow taller.

A river soars beneath your seat. Suddenly, and all at once: infrastructure.

First it is the oil tanks, which say “Drive Safely,” thereby cynically inviting you to prolong their usefulness. Graveyards of tractor trailers and a few older warehouses pepper the in-between space, a mediation between the economies of fulfillment and need. Somehow you missed the stretch in which the trees completely vanish.

A train longer than your attention span composed of tanker cars (black, the color of extraction) races you on one side. It is slow but will win in the end. The first glimpse of hell comes in the form of the hulking, cartoonish smokestacks of a power station, the PSEG Linden plant. But this is really only an appetizer for the main event: the Linden Cogeneration plant, a massive sprawling Moloch of tubes, smokestacks, scaffolding, and small smoldering lights that glow bright even in the daytime. Even in the most resilient deniers, such a scene arouses the realization that man is in fact evil. Rare are the places that promise death around every corner in their very architecture, but the Linden plant is one of them. As it billows plumes of at least three different colors into the groggy sky, the very stock image of air pollution, large letters assure passersby that it is, in fact “…Energy Efficient…”, “…Environmentally Advanced.” The ellipses imply a quote very obviously taken out of context.

Thirty-three and a half years earlier, a writer for The Washington Post gleefully details the uniquely brilliant red sunsets made possible by excess carbon and imperfectly burned material. He describes, with great cheerfulness, the intermittent marshland holding together a manmade wasteland, and how it is home to blackbirds, geese, small mammals, and seagulls, as if such creatures could not survive in a world without heavy industry. He spends more time rhapsodizing about “…a more mordant ecosystem: one extra-large 7-Eleven Slurpee cup, a mud-caked fan belt, dead sunflowers, empty cartons of Winston cigarettes, Pathmark raisins and Milk Duds, a shattered bottle of White Rock root beer, a carpet sample the color of fresh concrete, an empty quart bottle of Bud and a discarded multicolored golf umbrella that looks like a slaughtered peacock.” Somehow, a pile of trash is held to be a biting commentary, whose contents tell us more about the human condition than the great bellowing monster in the foreground responsible for a near future in which spring and autumn become mere legends. You will tell your grandchildren about the times when the leaves used to burn with colors more luminous than a million Anthropocene sunsets, in the same way your grandfather told you about the last vestiges of the American Chestnut.  

The Washington Post writer takes this time to smugly assert that his worldly appreciation for the banal ugliness of the Turnpike is the true picture of America, unlike those New Jersey-ites who “…prefer seagulls wheeling over Atlantic swells to the forest of smokestacks, gas tanks and shipping cranes rising from the northern bog. They prefer forests of pitch pines in Hog Wallow to some elephantine mound of trash and rusting refrigerators.”

He offers up that the ugliness of the “Cancer Alley” of the Turnpike is not its fault, because it only happens to run through the carcinogenic landscape created long beforehand. Somehow he relays anecdotes from Turnpike workers who may or may not be fictional describing the smell of sufuric air pollution to be not particularly alarming or bothersome, before concluding with an anecdote about two teenagers in love and how the road is their home even though it has unfairly been called ugly and mean.

In 2018, a warehouse for frozen goods featuring a cheery polar bear (oh, the devastating irony of it all) promises its own future as a simulacrum, a copy for which no original exists. Towns and their old industries, collapsing into rusted constructivist sculptures, blitz by. A freight train carrying coal cars sludges along beneath a rusting bridge. The concrete panels decorating the side of an on-ramp are fractured, shedding like scales. The only greenery is the weeds emerging from cracked asphalt beneath adjacent roadways. Trucks wait patiently in line to enter an elevated roadway seemingly colliding in the distance with towering multicolored cranes, an infrastructural pageant made blurry by haze. The air, already thick with newly fallen rain, becomes milky with smog, and the port’s endless city of containers is a welcome splash of color. On the left, planes take off from Newark Airport. You remember numbly that some airplane fuels remain leaded. Warehouses, refineries, oil tanks, trains, planes, and automobiles—the whole affair is like a Richard Scarry book co-authored by Edmund Burke. The sheer scale of it invokes the notion of the word sublime when it was used to describe the violence of the French Revolution, and the once-cold impenetrableness of the Alps; the sublime of pain and danger confused by the Washington Post writer as being truth and beauty, a mistake that could only be made by a self-indulgent cynic for whom truth and beauty are naive damsels in need of a healthy dose of masculine realism.

Railway hubs form a taxonomic diagram in the filthy mud beneath you. The bus diverges from all the action to take a brief reprieve above the marshland. This gives the Upton Sinclair in all of us time to absently wonder: Within each of these terrifying industries and infrastructures, how many have died? How many have lived stories of suffering that are too long-term and mundane to even warrant a Wikipedia snippet?

An old refinery rusts away, proud of its hard work. The whole air still reeks of sulfur. You make out the smudged silhouette of New York City, but in the foreground, smokestacks and decrepit bridges form a second skyline, a great juxtaposition of past and present. It is one of those scenes that both acts as and yet defies documentation. It is a landscape of necessary terrors, new and old. An iron bridge still carries cars and equipment across marshland, a remnant of the 19th century, like modern capitalism, bleeding out. A postmodern train depot, the Secaucus Junction, is a mordant reenactment of Old Penn Station. In order to prove that it is in fact newer and has not been replaced with Madison Square Garden, the tops of its Palladian windows are not semicircular trapezoidal, as if to say that history is worthy only of caricature.”

– Kate Wagner, “Man-Writer Against Nature.” Hmm Daily. October 2, 2018.

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“A global race to automate stores is underway among several of the world’s top retailers and small tech start-ups, which are motivated to shave labor costs and minimize shoppers’ frustrations, like waiting for cashiers. They are also trying to prevent Amazon from dominating the physical retail world as it does online shopping.

Companies are testing robots that help keep shelves stocked, as well as apps that let shoppers ring up items with a smartphone. High-tech systems like the one used by Amazon Go completely automate the checkout process. China, which has its own ambitious e-commerce companies, is emerging as an especially fertile place for these retail experiments.

If they succeed, these new technologies could add further uncertainty to the retail work force, which is already in flux because of the growth of online shopping. An analysis last year by the World Economic Forum said 30 to 50 percent of the world’s retail jobs could be at risk once technologies like automated checkout were fully embraced.

In addition, the efforts have raised concerns among privacy researchers because of the mounds of data that retailers will be able to gather about shopper behavior as they digitize their locations. Inside Amazon Go, for instance, the cameras never lose sight of a customer once he or she enters the shop.

Retailers had adopted technologies in their stores long before Amazon Go arrived on the scene. Self-checkout kiosks have been common in supermarkets and other stores for years. Kroger, the grocery chain, uses sensors and predictive analytics tools to better anticipate when more cashiers will be needed.

But the opening of Amazon Go in January was alarming for many retailers, who saw a sudden willingness by Amazon to wield its technology power in new ways. Hundreds of cameras near the ceiling and sensors in the shelves help automatically tally the cookies, chips and soda that shoppers remove and put into their bags. Shoppers’ accounts are charged as they walk out the doors.

Amazon is now looking to expand Go to new areas. An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on its expansion plans, but the company has a job posting for a senior real estate manager who will be responsible for “site selection and acquisition” and field tours of “potential locations” for new Go stores.

“Unanimously, there was an element of embarrassment because here is an online retailer showing us how to do brick and mortar, and frankly doing it amazingly well,” said Martin Hitch, the chief business officer of Bossa Nova Robotics, a company that makes inventory management robots that Walmart and others are testing.

Nowhere are retailers experimenting more avidly with automating store shopping than in China, a country obsessed by new tech fads.

One effort is a chain of more than 100 unmanned convenience shops from a start-up called Bingo Box, one of which sits in a business park in Shanghai. Shoppers scan a code on their phones to enter and, once inside, scan the items they want to buy. The store unlocks the exit door after they’ve paid through their phones.

Alibaba, one of China’s largest internet companies, has opened 35 of its Hema automated grocery stores, which blend online ordering with automated checkout. Customers scan their groceries at checkout kiosks, using facial recognition to pay electronically, while bags of groceries ordered by customers online float overhead on aerial conveyors, headed to a loading dock for delivery to shoppers.

Not to be outdone, JD, another big internet retailer in China, said in December that it had teamed up with a developer to build hundreds of its own unmanned convenience shops. The businesses put readable chips on items to automate the checkout process.

At its huge campus south of Beijing, JD is testing a new store that relies on computer vision and sensors on the shelves to know when items have been taken. The system tracks shopping without tagging products with chips. Payment, which for now still happens at a kiosk, is done with facial recognition.

JD and Alibaba both plan to sell their systems to other retailers and are working on additional checkout technologies.

Back in the United States, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is testing out the Bossa Nova robots in dozens of its locations to reduce some tedious tasks that can eat up a worker’s time. The robots, which look like giant wheeled luggage bags, roll up and down the aisles looking for shelves where cereal boxes are out of stock and items like toys are mislabeled. The machines then report back to workers, who restock the shelves and apply new labels.

At 120 of Walmart’s 4,700 American stores, shoppers can also scan items, including fruits and vegetables, using the camera on their smartphones and pay for them using the devices. When customers walk out, an employee checks their receipts and does a “spot check” of the items they bought.

Kroger, one of the country’s largest grocery chains, has also been testing a mobile scanning service in its supermarkets, recently announcing that it would expand it to 400 of its more 2,700 stores.

New start-ups are seeking to give retailers the technology to compete with Amazon’s system. One of them, AiFi, is working on cashierless checkout technology that it says will be flexible and affordable enough that mom-and-pop retailers and bigger outlets can use it. In the United States, venture capitalists put $100 million into retail automation start-ups in each of the past two years, up from about $64 million in 2015, according Pitchbook, a financial data firm.

“There’s a gold rush feeling about this,” said Alan O’Herlihy, chief executive of Everseen, an Irish company working with retailers on automated checkout technology that uses artificial intelligence.”

– Nick Wingfield, Paul Mozur, Michael Corkery, “Retailers Race Against Amazon to Automate Stores.” The New York Times, April 1, 2018.

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“Machinery Guarded to Prevent Sabotage,” Montreal Star. January 11, 1937. Page 01.

Workers Destroy Steam Shovel With Dynamite

QUEBEC, Jan. 11 – (C.P.) – Machinery of the Provincial Department of Roads is being closely guarded, it was learned here today, following the destruction of a steam shovel last week by a dynamite blast.

Other attempts at sabotage have been made, it is said. At St. Emile, near Loretteville, sugar and Maple Syrup were poured into fuel tanks of motors and the electrical systems of machinery were tampered with.

Work on the Quebec-Montreal Highway at Champigny, suspended following the dynamiting, was resumed today, said Arthur Bergeron, Deputy Minister of Roads. A new steam shovel was brought from Montreal.

Police are continuing investigation into the destruction of the shovel, allegedly by three men who held up the night watchman with a revolver. Protests against the use of machines in lieu of hand labor have been heard.

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