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).