Category Archives: LABOR

Infragraphy Volume 1, Spring 2019

This first volume of Infragraphy is a compilation of critical student writings and photo essays about media, infrastructure and the environment. These texts are outcomes from the “Archaeology of Media Infrastructures” Master of Arts course in the Spring of 2019 at the Department of Media, Aalto University Finland. The course examined media infrastructures including the concept of deep time, the materialities of the Internet, Artificial Intelligence, digital labor, water, energy, and critical infrastructure.

Download PDF: Infragraphy_Vol1_Spring2019

When Dust is Spice

Over the course of last summer I read one of the most popular science fiction novels: Dune by Frank Herbert. Written in 1965, it has inspired a plethora of other space operas, including Star Wars, a personal childhood favorite. Dune is a quintessential sci-fi novel, and not a flawless [1] one. In certain ways it is quite atypical: Herbert’s style focuses heavily on world-building and ecology of imaginary planets, as well as internal soliloquies and emotions. Both of these aspects have been hard to remediate into movie narratives [2], a format which has dominated the attention of the audiences in the recent decades. This is one of the reasons a vast majority of 80’s and 90’s kids know of the adventures of Luke Skywalker by heart—but the prophecy of Muad’Dib remains mostly unknown to those who don’t geek their way into the genre of hard sci-fi.

Recently I also saw the movie (Dune, 1984, directed by David Lynch) and a miniseries produced for television (titled Frank Herbert’s Dune, 2000), so the narrative revolving around the events of the first book is now fresh in my memory. In his essay Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism (2013) Jussi Parikka briefly mentions Dune, but does not elaborate on the connection of cognitive capitalism and the world created by Herbert. [3] In this brief post I’m drawing parallels between ecology of the desert planet Arrakis and its “smart dust” Spice, along with cognitive capitalism.

Dust, as Parikka points out, “marks the temporality of the matter” and signifies “transformations of solids to ephemeral and back”. When it comes to ecology, materials may appear stationary, but are in fact in continuous progress: decaying, eroded, moved by the elements, rock turning into sand over the course of millennia. The narrative of Dune begins when the house Atreides settles on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), a world of sand—and sole source of the narcotic Spice Melange essential to the technology and development of the world of Dune. The reader soon learns, as members of the Atreides family find out more about their new home, how the ecology and people of Arrakis have been subjected to effects of exploitation by the families who ruled Arrakis before them. One such group and the nemesis of house Atreides is the spartan and immoral house Harkonnen. Water is scarce and thus sacred on Arrakis, but the dust-like Spice is abundant.

The narrative of Dune is likewise abundant with transformations. Nearly all of the characters experience a transformation from what they used to be into something else, processes provoked by the events around the struggle for control of Spice. In Parikka’s words, dust invites us to rethink the binaries of One/many, both singular and individual in its materiality. The transformation from one to many is observed in the prophecy that Fremen—the deeply spiritual people of Arrakis—have of their messianic instructor, Muad’Dib. The Spice permeates everything on Arrakis, and even its presence is enough to notice the changes it brings. In real life, abundant dust presents a health hazard. In the world of Dune, the effects of Spice are more neutral. For example, the eyes of those who consume Spice in excess are dyed blue throughout. Spice can also be refined into Water of Life, a lethally poisonous blue liquid only to be used by those who have received the training and position to ingest and transmute it. Through the transmuted Water of Life, Muad’Dib sees the past and the present, achieving a higher state of consciousness. With this knowledge, Muad’Dib rules the universe as its emperor.

The use of Spice is potentially life-changing, and excessive use alters one’s own physique. The extraction process is also dangerous—a bit like the extraction of minerals in our world, not without psychosocial effects. Networks of labor relations exist on Arrakis, where the ruling house of the planet provides the machinery to search and collect Spice. However, the sands of Arrakis are also inhabited by sandworms native to the planet. Sandworms—and the different stages of its life-cycle—are essential for the Spice Melange to form within the sands of Arrakis. Harvesting Spice Melange would also mean to expose oneself not only to intense conditions of a desert environment, but also the threat of becoming swallowed or trampled by a sandworm, also attracted and drawn to Spice. As the Spice departs Arrakis and is transported and sold into other parts of the universe presented in Dune, the people harvesting it have little knowledge of how it is used and lead a modest life on the desert. Harvesters of Spice appear to be expendable. During a sandworm attack, instead of protecting the harvesting equipment, Duke Leto Atreides decides to protect the people. This humane act is viewed by the workers as outrageous, different than what they are used to—perhaps even foolish. Who would let the collected Spice or equipment go to waste? Some workers are ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Spice. Whether this is because of devotion to the society or caused by the addictiveness of Spice remains ambiguous.

Several substances are used in the world of Dune, Spice being overwhelmingly most precious. As mentioned earlier, Spice has many uses. Different coalitions have their own ways to use it. The Bene Gesserit is a matriarchal and ancient order interested in expanding human capabilities when it comes to control and power, as far as hosting an eugenics program; Mentat, a profession/discipline for creating advisors to replace computers and “thinking machines” in a world where they are banned; The Spacing Guild, an organization that had discovered ways of “bending space” and making space travel available at speeds faster than light. All of the groups are invested or at least interested in the control of Spice. (The Mentat utilize the juice of Sapho, the product of another planet, but addictive and increasing the abilities of mind nevertheless.)

“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.”

— Piter De Vries, a Mentat (Dune, 1984 movie)

Bending space in order to traverse it; accessing a collective consciousness and remembering the past; the prescient abilities to rule wisely; the control of one’s own mind and body to become superior in battle; using one’s own voice to bend others into their will. The powerful mental abilities presented in the fantasy of Dune are numerous. In Dust and Exhaustion, Parikka presents us the thoughts of Franco Berardi about cognitive capitalism and the concept of cognitariat, and the different areas affected by it: body, sexuality, mortality and unconsciousness. All of these areas are utilized, emphasized and controlled in Dune, by the spice and/or the schools of thought. The fiction of Dune could be a (re)vision of how cognitive capitalism plays out, with its workers dulled by a narcotic, leaders drunk with power. All human skills packaged into various schools of thought, but all thoughts bound into the purpose and study of how to control, exploit and prosper.

Millennia of development in telepathic and telekinetic powers, established hierarchies, powerful politics and cultural norms are what Muad’Dib must rise against. How does he know he is on the right path and for the actual betterment of humankind when all the other groups claim to do the same thing, or are of the opinion that the current hierarchies must prevail? Despite seeing and knowing the future, Muad’Dib carries the weight alone, loathing himself and the fate he can’t escape. He subdues the exhaustion for all and frees the people on the lowest rank of his universe, but must transcend his identity in order to do so, giving up the path before him. It could be said he experiences a sense of his (former) self—the death of an ego, albeit to be replaced by a new one. He sacrifices personal choices in favor of following the “Golden Path” that ensures the survival of the humankind.

Just like depressed minds in real life struggle to keep up with digital machinery and capitalism, the human race of Dune (and the economy they have created) struggle with the use of Spice and desire for domination of the universe. Despite the interesting combination of technology, ecology and psychology presented in Dune, descriptions of ecological impact of human actions are quite minimal, perhaps easily overlooked in the light of technopositivism of earlier decades. Nevertheless, technology changes us faster than we are able to adapt—just like Spice changes people on Arrakis. In reality however, there are no miraculous mental powers or a messiah coming to our aid—only the metaphysical horrors and blaring of our screens.

 

Notes

[1] As one could expect, a novel written in the 1960s has some issues in the way it presents its villains and female characters, for example, but in order to keep this text concise, I’m not going to write about these topics.

[2] Currently a new attempt at turning Dune into a full-feature movie is underway. The documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) also reveals a story behind a failed attempt to film it in the 70s.

[3] Jussi Parikka: Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism (2013)

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).