Author Archives: Hanna

Zooming in on infrastructure – invisible labour

While reading “Anatomy of an AI system” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, I came to think once more of the time I worked in a distribution center for groceries in a Stockholm suburb in Sweden. The main purpose of Crawford’s and Joler’s research seems to be to make three different aspects of Amazon Echo visible – Material resources, human labour and data. With a product like that, most of (if not all) labour is hidden behind its slick surface and words like “AI agent Alexa” and “the Cloud” – intangible entities that seems to effortlessly float around above or around us. They seem to take up no space, consume no energy, produce work opportunities and save time for the consumer. But as the authors describe, that’s far from the whole truth.

I think that most infrastructures, non-regarding of industry, works in a similar way in modern day society, and I will use my work experience as a means to describe this in the food industry.

The warehouse corridors in a similar distribution center, room temperature.

I got the job through a student consultancy company. The food supply chain corporation uses this type of service to fill up extra hours. That way they don’t have to constantly hire and fire people when quantities differ over time.

Before getting the job, I hadn’t paid much thought to how the food supply chain works. Just like any citizen in this part of the world, I would go to my local supermarket or mall and buy groceries. I would assume that they would always have everything in stock and that they would provide fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, grains, dairy, legumes, candy, soda, etc from all over the world. I remember one early spring when the stores in Stockholm ran out of chopped-salad bags. In the shelf was a sign stating “due to cold weather and storms in Southern Europe, we cannot provide this product”. I remember feeling annoyed. How hard would it be to get some salad on the shelf? Why couldn’t I get my salad? I realised of course that it was ridiculous to think that I could have salad every day year round, but that’s how it usually was, so why would this day be different?

I worked mostly in the freezer department of the distribution center. These centers are the last stage for the food before it reaches the stores – suppliers drive their packets of product to the center, where we fork lift drivers pack the orders that will be driven to the actual stores. There are several departments – fridge, freezer, non-temperate products such as deodorants, toilet paper, soda, and the likes. The freezer is kept at a temperature of -23 degrees Celsius. When I was employed, I got warm underclothing, boots, hat, scarf, gloves and an overall. The orders are made by a pick-by-voice system. That means that all operators wear a headset with a microphone. When I started my work shift, I turned the headset controller on, logged in and then started a new order with the words “new order”.

The type of fork lift that I drove in the center.

The headset voice, called Talkman, is controlled by a computer system, that will give me the next order in line. You can choose a male or female voice, I chose the latter. She would then emmidieatly tell me the store, order number, number of packages and number of shelves I would have to visit. Most orders are packed on EU-pallets. I confirm the order and Talkman tells me which shelf to go to by stating which corridor and which shelf number the next package is in, for example “Adam 21” (synonymous to Alfa, Beta, Charlie in English). I drive my fork lift to that location and read a number on the shelf to confirm. Talkman then tells me how many packages to pick. I step off the forklift and pick the cardboard boxes with my gloves. It’s quite clumsy to pick packages in the freezer – the gloves are thick to protect the hands. It takes some practice to get fast at picking. It then goes on like that- I confirm the number of packages, she immediately gives me the next location. An order can range from a few packages to over a thousand and can require several EU-pallets. While driving from shelf to shelf, the wind hits my face and numbs the skin that is visible. I try to cover as much as possible with my hat and scarf, leaving only my eyes, nose and mouth unprotected. After driving around for a couple of hours, my feet, nose and hands are geting quite cold. In the freezer you have the right to a short break every two hours. I used to go and sit in the locker room for 15 minutes before returning to my truck. In the first weeks, it was hard to endure working in the cold before I got used to it.

Me in my freezer outfit and pick-by-voice headset

There is almost no social contact during the work shift. Sometimes people stop in the hallways to talk to each other, but it’s too cold to stand still for more than a few minutes. There’s a radio playing in the warehouse – listening to music in headphones is forbidden due to security reasons. There is a dinner break and a short evening break when you work the evening shift, from 3pm to 22pm. In the freezer department, people use the breaks to get warm again. I hang my overall on a hanger and put my shoes, scarf, hat and gloves in the heating cabinet. The scarf is usually stiff from the vapour from my breath. There is a tv in the break room which always shows the same channel. During my year, I watched all episodes of How I met your mother almost two times. People who work in the freezer are not energetic or inspired during their work shift. They try to make the time go by. But there’s not much to think about while working, and you have to make sure you’re not hitting anything or anyone while driving and talking to Talkman. The concrete floor in the warehouse can get slippery at times. Sometimes when I turned with the fork lift, I slid a meter and almost hit the shelves. There is a demand for how much we should pick every shift, but in the freezer they don’t really bug you if you don’t reach that number. They know it’s hard work.

During my last summer there I worked full time. I got to spend more shifts in the regularly tempered department, where people were more outgoing and I didn’t have to eat as much to stay warm. But I slowly developed pain in my feet and my left hip. There was a rumour that the company suggested people to only work two consecutive years full time as a picker, otherwise the work would cause permanent damage to your body. A few people in the freezer had worked there for over twenty years. They were strong but worn out. These people have no pretence about the downsides of capitalist society. The job is, however, well paid compared to other unqualified jobs, which is probably the only way to get people in Sweden to work under such conditions today.

Researching for this post, I found out that the company I worked for is now building a huge automated distribution center that will replace most of their present day warehouses, also the one where I worked, in Sweden at 2023. Around a 1000 employees will be affected and it’s unclear how many will get to keep their jobs at this moment (a minority at best). 

Dirty mining and clean data – a story about Swedish industry

I remember very well when in 2013, Facebook opened its first data center outside of the US in Luleå, a northern city in Sweden. It was in all the big news channels. One of the largest and most impactful social media corporations chose Sweden!

For Luleå, the deal with Facebook was a great advertisement for the city. One of the world’s most influential corporations chose to put its facilities there. Data as a product has the appearance of modernity, innovation, high-technology, creativity and in this case, green energy. It goes well with the way Sweden as a nation wants to market itself. Most news articles were written in a weirdly proud manner. The primary reason stated by Facebook was the natural cooling of the servers, provided by the cold climate, and the science magazine Forskning och Framsteg wrote an article jokingly named “This is where your likes are cooling down” (1). I remember spontaneously feeling proud as well. We Swedes are raised with a hate/love relationship to the USA. We love to feel better than the Americans, to look down on them for their capitalist, openly class dividing society structure. But we also watch mostly TV series and movies from Hollywood and think that English is much cooler than Swedish. Secrectly, we all want to move to New York, LA or San Francisco and pursue the American dream. We are sold the idea of a service society, where machines do the dirty work and we can sit back and enjoy our touch screens and fancy clothes.

That dream, however, soon fades if one leaves the big cities. Up until a few decades ago, Sweden was an industrial country, with people working in factories, farms, forests and mines. And even though we are pushed to believe that the industrial society died to give birth to the service based society, Sweden’s economy is still based on those old industries. Facebook and other IT companies make a good front page, but the dirtier industries supplying them with material and energy still exist. And this is where Luleå’s history as an industry city becomes interesting.

Luleå has largely flourished because of the iron mines in Malmberget close by, where Luleå has served as the harbour for exportation of iron goods since late 1800s. The municipality now consists of 77000 people and the city hosts one of Sweden’s leading technical universities. In the meantime, the mining town Malmberget is literally collapsing. The mine has created a 200 meter hole in the ground, constantly growing and swallowing buildings and roads. This has caused the city to expand in new directions and buildings are being moved away from the hole’s edges. In the future, Malmberget will not exist in the place where it is today.

The hole in Malmberget municipality, called Gropen in Swedish.

The mine is utilised by state owned corporation LKAB, which also runs the world’s largest underground mine in the inland city Kiruna (see map below). There, the effects of the mining are even bigger. The whole city of Kiruna is now being moved to a new location since the current one is collapsing. Some buildings are moved, but most of the city will be built completely from scratch to house all the mine workers and other citizens. The new city is said to be financially, socially and environmentally sustainable (2).Kiruna’s new city center in the front, with the mine visible in the far left.

Meanwhile, the ecological impact of the mining industry next door is non-reparable. Mining disrupts the landscape and leaves open wounds in the ground. There is always a risk of toxic contamination of fresh water and lakes. The mining industry in Sweden stands for 10% of the CO2 emissions of the country. The indigenous people of the Nordics, the Sami people, have historically and in the present fought against the mining industries since the effects for them can be loss of land, contamination of fresh water and reindeer routes from summer to winter pasture land being cut off (3). Still today, Sweden’s liberal mineral laws permits foreign companies to exploit land without the owner’s permission. The UN have critiqued Swedish governments for not doing enough to protect the indigenous people and their rights to their land (4).

Kiruna at the top and Luleå at the lower right on Google Maps.

Facebook is now planning to double the size of their data center in Luleå, making it 100,000 sqm. The center is purely driven on water energy, according to Facebook. It directly or indirectly gives full time work for 400 people per year, compared to LKAB who employs around 4000 people in Sweden, with a majority working in the northernmost regions, and indirectly provides work for thousands more through related industries. Sweden’s iron mines jointly produces 90% of the iron in Europe.

Some journalists raised the concern that data centers wouldn’t be able to replace the traditional industries, such as mining and forestry, when it comes to employing large numbers of people. Others have claimed that Facebook is just the first of many data companies that will open centers in northern Sweden, thus leading the way for more work opportunities in the future. But how many jobs can this sector actually produce, and especially in relation to its high energy consumption? Will it be possible for all those data centers to run on water energy? Probably not.

As stated previously on the blog, new media infrastructures are often built on top of existing infrastructures. The data center is no exception. In 1910-1915, a large power plant was built in Lule älv, a river ending in Luleå, to be able to replace some of the coal imported from Europe. But the water flow was too high during Spring. Eyes fell on the newly inaugurated national park surrounding Stora sjöfallen, at the time one of Europe’s biggest water falls. The decision was taken from the government to exclude the water fall from the national park so that it could be dammed, with the consequence that the water flow in the river could be controlled like a tap. The Sami people who fished in the area, and who’s reindeer lands would be put under water, were not asked for permission. If the same decision was taken today, it would lead to massive demonstrations from the public (5). I have been at Stora sjöfallet myself. It is a large silent lake with a small flow of water coming down the water fall.

Surely it isn’t Facebook’s fault that those precious nature resources were destroyed a hundred years ago, and one can argue that the mining industry is necessary for providing the world with minerals. But the societal structure that killed Stora Sjöfallet at the beginning of the century is still working its magic, but now on a global scale. With a promise of work opportunities, multinational corporations are allowed to exploit land and energy resources not just in developing countries, but also in Sweden, whether they are producing minerals or data. Only a tiny portion of the capital produced goes back to the local inhabitants, and even less to the indigenous people. Those mines provide material that is necessary for computers, phones, cables, etc to exist in the first place. So Facebook’s “clean energy footprint” is not so clean after all. But perhaps, if we continue down this path of environmental destruction, the world will look much like the inside of a data center in the end. Lots of blinking machines, but no life.

Facebook’s data center in Luleå, Sweden.

Further readings in English:

http://samer.se/4623

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/02/kiruna-swedish-arctic-town-had-to-move-reindeer-herders-in-the-way

Sources (in Swedish):

https://fof.se/tidning/2017/1/artikel/har-svalnar-dina-likes

https://hallbartbyggande.com/det-nya-kiruna-en-hallbar-modellstad-tar-form/)

https://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/nyheter/gruvindustrins-gruvligaste-effekter

https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=4289211)

http://ottossonochottosson.se/blog/reportage/historien-om-ett-vattenfall/

https://www.lkab.com/sv/SysSiteAssets/documents/publikationer/broschyrer/det-har-ar-lkab.pdf

Undersea internet cables seen through art

Artist that came to mind while thinking of media infrastructure: EVAN ROTH – Landscape with a ruin

Images taken from the webpage: http://www.evan-roth.com/work/landscape-with-a-ruin/

(Photo by Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen, courtesy of the Mona Bismarck American Center)

Roth’s art piece comments on the undersea internet cables. I found his webpage maybe a year ago and Samir Bhowmik’s own work on these cables made me remember this.

This is my post commenting on the first lecture, delayed because of technical issues 😉

Deep time and Gossip

While reading the chapter on “Deep time of Media infrastructure” by Shannon Mattern, I started thinking of other texts I’ve read about how civilisation started. The traditional western way of telling history is that “civilised manners” such as advanced hierarchies and communities built of hundreds of people, were born out of agriculture and settlements. Abandoning the original way of life, Homo sapiens in several places in the world suddenly went from hundreds of thousands of years of being nomads, to settling down and starting agriculture.

However, newer research shows that people who led nomadic or half-nomadic lifestyles, could have very complex group dynamics and belief systems. Instead it might have been the other way around – humans slowly developed more and more complex societies and ways of manipulating or taking control over large groups of people, and this in turn led to the ability of developing agriculture, which in its turn led to permanent settlements.

When I was reading Harari’s book “Sapiens”, it really struck me again that the notion that humanity became complex creatures once we settled down and stopped being nomads, is completely false. The only thing that we can know for sure is that these cities and infrastructures that we have today, would not have been possible without settling down.

On the other hand – what infrastructures did and does nomadic people have, that we do not? And even more striking – has the way that we intuitively develop infrastructure over the millennia, even after the vast majority of the world’s population aren’t nomads anymore – been influenced by the way we inherently are nomads as a species?

Harari brings up something else that he sees as crucial for peaceful coexistence in large groups: Gossip. He claims that all apes are intensely interested in social information and that Homo sapiens’ way of speaking developed from gossip. Since we weren’t large and effective predators, cooperation was the key to survival even early on. It’s much more important to know who’s sleeping with who, who hates who, who is honest and who is a trickster, than in what direction the lions are.

This mean of communication – spread from person to person throughout large groups of people – must have influenced the way media infrastructure developed right from the start. Even though the word “gossip” has a bad connotation in today’s society, it’s still taking up a vast amount of space, energy and time in our lives. Gossip is often something that women are considered doing, perhaps because women traditionally have taken care of the home sphere and the relationships of the family. But if this is the force that actually holds us together as a species – why do we then despise it so much?

A large portion of today’s media is taken up by pure gossip, whether there is truth behind it or not. Most of the stories are impossible for us to fact check ourselves. News articles, social media posts and blog posts tell us the latest weird thing Trump did, what the Kardashians are up to and that Jay-z has cheated on Beyoncé again. Most of us don’t know these people personally and have no direct link to them. We have to trust the source or find other sources. This is the strength and the weakness of human societies today. Shannon Mattern again:

Overlooking the way gossip and other ways of communicating has shaped media infrastructure, is perhaps one of the reasons we’re in such a hot mess today. It’s called “social” media for a reason – its primary task is not to offer the truth, but for humans to be social, to gossip. If we took this inherent human trait into account – how would we want to change the infrastructures of media then? And how can we develop trustful ways of tracing the source of information?