June 17, 2024

I’ve just finished teaching a new class about cities, and one of the things that the experience made me think about was how the built environment of urban spaces is the outcome of a long process (or series of processes) that is itself basically invisible. That is to say, you can see what the city you live in is like right now, but you can’t see, in your day-to-day life, how it got that way. Cities are, in a pretty literal sense, built over the processes that produce them.

At the same time, one of the real advantages of living in a city is that it makes many services viable that would be impossible, or simply too inefficient, in areas of lower population density. An obvious example is a sewer, which simply can’t work in a rural area: the distances are to great, and the usage too low, to make the costs of moving and treating water (and everything else) make sense. So, one real attraction of urban life is that it makes it possible for residents not to think about things like how to get water or what to do with their waste; there’s an underlying (literally, usually) infrastructure that takes if off your hands, and off your mind.

Which means that much of life in a city rests of processes and structures and decisions that are invisible to residents almost all of the time. They become visible, in general, only when something doesn’t work the way it is supposed to— when infrastructures fail. This is the subject of “Letter of Recommendation: Fatbergs,” by Nicola Twilley, who writes about the things we send down the drain. Specifically, she writes about a London museum exhibiting a chunk of the Whitechapel Fatberg. That’s fatberg like “iceberg”— a floating mass wet wipes and other junk, bound together by fats and oils washed down the drain. These form in sewers and grow as more and more stuff sticks to them; the Whitechapel Fatberg, so called because it was found, in September 2017, was “the length of 22 double-decker buses with the weight of a blue whale.”

Beyond the sheer fascination of something so throughly disgusting, Twilley argues that the fatberg should be seen as a kind of object lesson about wasteful lifestyles,

“a negative monument to our lives, in all their monstrous, destructive convenience — the grotesque byproduct of a culture in which fat is too abundant and cheap to bother reusing and even the plushest of toilet paper is no longer worthy of our butts. Below our gleaming, modern metropolis, the city’s dirty secrets lurk, until a blockage ruptures the illusion, forcing Londoners to confront their Dorian Gray-like reflection in a lump of congealed fat and sanitary products.”

One could argue that one of the attractions of urban life, in particular, is precisely that it makes possible this submersion of critical functions— it facilitates a division of labor which removes for most people not only the responsibility for things like disposing of waste, but also the need even to think about them (most of the time). The problem with that that Twilley is concerned with is that it distances people from certain consequences of their behaviors; we use and flush wet wipes because we almost never see the consequences of doing so. Another concern is that “invisible” also generally means “unaccountable.” If we can’t see these processes, or the physical infrastructure on which they depend, we aren’t in a position to do anything when they are misused.

That’s one part of the story in “A Kingdom from Dust” by Mark Arax. This is a story about a single farmer— or, rather, a businessman who has invested heavily in farms, and the difference is in some ways the point— named Stewart Resnick. His company, Wonderful, has a near-lock on the market for pistachios and almonds, and more or less created the one for pomegranate juice. (Start looking for it, and you’ll see it all over the produce section of your grocery store). In order to achieve this, they have turned millions of acres of near-desert in California into farmland, and to do that they’ve had to get whatever water they can, wherever they can. Arax describes finding mysterious water pipes, running for many miles in the middle of nowhere, tapped into various reservoirs and groundwater sources, perhaps not always legally and in any case obscured by complex contracts and informal agreements that make it difficult to say who is using what. It’s also, therefore, a story about agriculture in the United States as a whole, about the West and what it means, about class and the very rich, about work and workers and the U.S. immigration system, and most of all about water and the ways it is used, and what happens when it is gone. (I thought continually here of David Owen’s Where the Water Goes, which I wrote about a few months ago).

The relative invisibility of even very large companies, producing the most fundamental kinds of goods— food, in this case— is startling. Technology companies, like Apple and Amazon, (rightly) get a lot of scrutiny and criticism, but a company like Wonderful, which is huge, employs many people, produces products that millions of people consume every day, and may be the single largest consumer of water in the state of California, flies largely under the radar. To do business, it relies on critical resources and infrastructure, the additional invisibility of which results in a lack of democratic oversight or debate of how they are used.

I think it’s sometimes hard to get one’s head around the scale at which big, multinational companies do business— a scale that also makes it hard to “see” what they do and how they do it, in any comprehensive way. You can get a sense of this in the video How Overnight Shipping Works, by Wendover Productions, which describes how FedEx, DHL, and UPS move stuff around the world so rapidly.


In this case, the companies are largely using privately built and maintained infrastructure— they do land at commercial airports, and we could of course ask whether the share of costs they pay at these is fair, but the core of their operations is their own facilities. What I have in mind is more the aggregate cost of all of this speed and convenience, which is hard to assess precisely because of the scale. It’s not exactly invisible, in any sense, but it’s hard to get what James Scott calls a “synoptic” view; we see only little pieces of these vastly complex operations, and a critique of those pieces is of limited value.

(On a related note, I whole-heartedly recommend John McPhee’s 2005 essay “Out in the Sort,” about UPS’s Louisville hub— sadly not available in full on the regular New Yorker site, but worth digging up.)

Digital technologies add an additional wrinkle to all of this, in that many of their advantages lie in their capacity to “dematerialize” goods and services, detaching them from physical objects and relationships. You don’t, for instance, have to buy a plastic disc with music encoded on it; you buy data— or, more and more often, access to data held somewhere else.

That weightlessness is, of course, an illusion. Digital data move around and through physical networks of glass and copper and steel: wires and cables and antennae and satellites and server farms. The latter are more and more of a business in their own right; by some estimates, Amazon only makes money because of its cloud computing services. For businesses and services that demand not only large storage capacity and bandwidth, but calculating power, as well, material factors become an even more pressing concern. “This is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town” by Patrick Cavan Brown, describes the lengths that Bitcoin miners will go to to reduce the costs of the servers and processors that make up their operations. The Mid-Columbia River basin, in eastern Washington, has four hydroelectric dams, which together produce vastly more electricity than the sparely-populated area needs. In the past, they sold this excess capacity on to cities like Seattle, but recently Bitcoin miners have begun to move into the area in force, attracted by the low cost of electricity. There are now single mining operations using 30 megawatts of power— enough, as Brown notes, “to power a neighborhood of 13,000 homes.” And, as the computational requirements for finding a single Bitcoin increase exponentially, the demand for power will only grow as well: “According to [Bitcoin miner David] Carlson, mining has now reached the stage where the minimum size for a new commercial mine, given the high levels of difficulty, will soon be 50 megawatts, enough for around 22,000 homes and bigger than one of Amazon Web Services’ immense data centers.” The nature of Bitcoin as a digital currency, and the rhetoric describing it as an alternative to currencies managed by states and so “free” from their scrutiny and bureaucracy— from their politics— obscures the material prerequisites for creating value in this form, and the complex, possibly unbalanced negotiations over access to vital resources between miners and the public who, ostensibly, own those resources.

Laura Forlano’s “Invisible Algorithms, Invisible Politics” covers some of the same terrain, reviewing three books dealing with the way digital technologies, and the ways in which we talk about them, render both their politics and their own material prerequisites (not only the physical infrastructure, but also the labor involved in producing and maintaining it) invisible. This includes everything from biases trained into algorithms by their human developers, to the way that social media companies rely on the unpaid labor of users to generate the data that they sell to advertisers. As Forlano puts it:

We have been enticed into a world in which computing has faded into the background of everyday life, effectively becoming invisible. At the same time, we have actively concealed the ways in which these networked systems of software, data, technologies, and infrastructures “have politics.” And, with promises that computers are impartial, we have removed them from the public eye, making them difficult to expose and critique.

Yet these systems can only be understood as the flawed extensions of human creation. They act on our biases by replicating them and distributing them into the background of everyday life, thereby reinforcing and even exacerbating existing structural inequalities.

At the risk of stretching my theme here a bit (like an ill-fitting jumpsuit?), I wanted to include “The Jumpsuit That Will Replace All Clothes Forever” by Heather Radke. Radke describes Project Jumpsuit, a kind of art project/business venture/social experiment with the stated goal of replacing all our clothing with a single style of one-piece jumpsuit, made in a large number of standardized sizes. The project’s originators don’t seem to see it as a serious venture, in the sense that they think they will succeed; in fact, once they’ve sold enough of the suits to buy a full-page ad in Vogue, the plan to stop. It has more to do with drawing attention to the conditions under which our clothes are made, the ways in which the fashion industry uses social anxiety to manufacture “needs,” and more generally the power of the market to equate choice with freedom.

While I can’t say I like the jumpsuits themselves, what I’m drawn to here is mainly the idea of not having to think about what to wear, or about what other people are wearing. Radke describes her experience:

Not choosing an outfit really does save time. But more than time, it saves a kind of emotional labor that I hadn’t realized I was doing. I spent so much time wondering, What should I wear? The answer seemed to lie in discerning what other people would expect, how I could impress them, what would look cool. But after a beat of contemplation, I’d remember I already knew what I was going to wear. I was going to wear a jumpsuit. I could move on to other things. I began to sleep in a little later. I actually sat down to eat breakfast and got some reading in before heading off to work. But the real freedom came from not starting every day thinking about all the problems with my body or my wardrobe.

There are, unsurprisingly, downsides, but all of that sounds like a tremendous social gain to me. I’ve been (somewhat) jokingly advocating that we all transition to wearing hospital scrubs all of the time, for exactly these reasons. Project jumpsuit is attempting to make clothing, in a sense, invisible— incapable of communicating differences in income, position, or even taste. At the same time, it also makes visible the processes by which consumer choices are made, and the options are defined and provided. As a shift in our collective attention to the world, that seems all to the good, and honestly I kind of wish they were more serious about it all.

On a somewhat related note, “What is the Perfect Color Worth?”, by Bruce Falconer, is also great; it’s a long profile of Pantone, a company whose business involves defining the color choices that will be available to consumers, based ostensibly on figuring out what they already want. That blurring between prediction and influence, between simply ratifying consumers’ taste and actively shaping it, is fascinating.

Finally, “Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories,” with by Christopher Payne and text by Sam Anderson, is not really especially related to the other pieces, except in that most of us probably haven’t given much thought to how pencils are made. Mainly, though, I’m including this just because the images are remarkable, and unexpectedly beautiful.

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