When Western eyes follow the snaking path of the supply chain to its distant ends, they find there surprisingly familiar things. In what should be a diverse and many-faceted site, there is a reliable regularity. They sometimes find factory floors, rows of workers, hands gloved and faces masked, and they attempt, then, to offer an unmasking. But the site I am concerned with is the one comprised of massive markets filled with endless items, stored in booths and boxes waiting in preparative purchase. It is here that we find the liminal site of global logistical assembly. In the space of the Shenzhen markets in southern China and the digital designs of Alibaba, we find a history of Western fascination with the “Oriental bazaar” that has produced the imagination of a logistical territory which promises an approach to the otherwise inaccessible landscape of global supply.
This article examines the ways of knowing that govern public constructions of knowledge in the manufacture of the mobile phone—its cultural meaning, sociality of labor, and environmental consequences. It does so to consider the “material epistemology” of the mobile phone, the way in which one comes to know these devices, especially through the devices themselves. In modern manufacture, the incorporation of corporate supplier audits and investigative reporting into public discourse reveals an epistemology of production that is primarily imagined, rather than historically and ethnographically realized. Although the public epistemology of the mobile supply chain is built from the model of the telephone and telegraph, these networks were themselves mystified, displaced, and obscured. This is illustrated by examining material and conceptual differences between the historic supply chain of the telephone manufacturer Western Electric, and those imagined for contemporary companies like Apple.
This conversation between Matthew Hockenberry and Kenneth Tay marks the beginning of a series of dialogues on the subject of logistics. No longer a mere subject of business management schools or an exclusive expertise of the military, logistics has become a significant presence in recent scholarship, particularly in the humanities, and is now frequently talked about in fields such as geography, information studies, international relations, and media studies.
Supply & Command is a wrap. I wanted to make this post to thank all of the presenters and attendees for joining us to share their wonderful work, and for thinking with us on the relationship between logistics, labor, and media. It was an incredibly motivating and intellectually invigorating two days, full of insightful discussions […]
Happy to announce a conference on supply chains and logistics we are organizing this Spring at NYU. Full details here.
British Empire Marketing Board, 1927 [via]. Despite the sometimes underdetermined discourse surrounding it, there is nothing particularly new about the identification of a product with its place of production. One the earliest examples can still be found preserved in the ruins of Pompeii, on amphora inscribed with the word “Vesuvinum”—wine, from Vesuvius.1 But despite this […]
This is a draft of a talk I delivered at the Maintainers II: Labor, Technology, and Social Orders Conference on April 6-9, 2017 as part of our telephone panel, “Dial M for Maintenance,” with Shari Wolk, Joshua Bell, and Fabian Prieto-Ñañez. The telephone may seem to be the pre-eminent emblem for the history of innovation. There […]
From the Western Electric News for September 1927.
I have to confess to being something of a phone nerd (I am a telephone historian, after all). I love watching shows and seeing people talk, type, and text. While most of the time these phones are of the mobile variety, period pieces let us see a telephonic landscape that doesn’t really exist anymore. Stranger […]
In the 1920s Western Electric put out this fascinating “material series” of advertisements to narrate the material (and men) that went into the Bell telephone. The campaign appeared in a whole host of magazine and periodicals, from mainstream fare like Life, Forbes, and Time to popular technical publications like Scientific American and The Technology Review. […]