Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media. Durham: Duke University Press (2021) (Download)
Assembly Codes examines how media and logistics set the conditions for the circulation of information and culture, documenting how logistics—the techniques of organizing and coordinating the movement of materials, bodies, and information—has substantially impacted the production, distribution, and consumption of media. At the same time, physical media, such as paperwork, along with media technologies ranging from phone systems to software are central to the operations of logistics. In charting the specific points of contact, dependence, and friction between media and logistics, Assembly Codes demonstrates that media and logistics cannot be understood apart from each other.
“Cellular Capitalism: Life and Labor at the End of the Digital Supply Chain,” Digital Work in the Planetary Market (2022)
This chapter considers the place of the mobile phone in contemporary logistical networks, taking last-mile logistical service Amazon Flex as a case study for theorizing the phone as an interface to the ends of the global supply chain. The economic structures of the gig economy, I argue, have emerged in response to the integration of the interfaces common to the mobile phone. Here, all supply chains are digital supply chains.
“‘Every Man Within Earshot’: Auditory Efficiency in the Time of the Telephone,” Assembly Codes (2021)
There is something strange about the recent ascendance of speech as a means for the remote operation of these large-scale systems of global supply. The electric age has been rife with new sorts of interfaces, from buttons on keyboards to the movement of mice and gestures drawn on glass. But speech has rarely proven to be the most reliable. And yet, here it is, with its old-fashioned and purportedly more human qualities of interaction presented to privileged consumers as a more accessible and, consequently, more approachable kind of communion than prior forms of connection. But in this suggestion the voice is not really a vehicle for communication. It is a signal of demand. It builds on a logistics of operation that has long figured speech not only as a more convenient interface but as a more efficient one.
“The Supply House: Catalogues and Commerce,” Thresholds 49 (Spring 2021) (Download)
Merging visual representation with textual listing, the mail-order catalogue brought the anticipation of availability to the work of supply. As it did, it crystalized the expectations of capitalism for contemporary consumer culture. This essay surveys some examples of this form around this moment of transformation: as the catalogue form gave way to the catalogue function, and the raw stuff of supply transformed into an operative relation—an ontological object defined not by material presence, but by the potential for supply.
“Redirected Entanglements in the Digital Supply Chain,” Cultural Studies 35, no. 2 (2021) (Download)
This article interrogates the emergence of the supply chain, and the logistical modes of operation it entails, as metaphor for managing the digital distribution of data – adapting approaches from the critical study of logistics in order to re-incorporate the political, social, and environmental attachments that ‘digital supply chains’ attempt to obfuscate. To this end, it considers discourses around power and cultural politics that mirror critiques of traditional logistical infrastructures. Instead of conflict minerals, for example, conflict domains; in place of security concerns around cargo containers, data containers; rather than workers on the factory floor, labourers in a digital network of ‘sweatshops.’ These comparisons reveal differences between traditional supply chains and their digital counterparts – the most troubling of which is their infrastructural instability. With components that can be replaced while retaining their essential shape, those who depend on digital platforms can find themselves open to all sorts of redirected entanglements.
This article examines the techniques that constitute logistical operation, suggesting the application of the chaîne opératoire to the abstract structure of the supply chain. Building on a German media theoretical approach to “cultural techniques” and the idea of “logistical media,” it argues for assembly as an ur-mediative technique, one produced both before and beside attendant mediative functions of storage and transmission. Long before its instantiation in contemporary logistical systems, assembly emerged as a cultural technique in the ancient storehouse. In time, the abstract forms of mediation it produced made sites accessible as a virtual assembly—a development of critical importance to the instrumental operations of the global supply chain.
“A Time of Disassembly,” Supply Studies (April 24, 2020)
Our supply chains groan, creak, and—potentially, eventually—snap under the weight of the current crisis. They are victims of a seemingly sudden sickness. But this is not just the empty space on store shelves. The supply chain is an act of assembly, but now is the time for something else. As this brief coda to “Techniques of Assembly” suggests, it is a time of disassembly.
“Production Marks (and the Signs of Stuff),” The Prepared (August 14, 2020)
The history of a product is told by the marks of its making. The stamps and seals of an object once encoded an originary identity connected to an individual craft hall and craftsperson, promising that an object had been “made in” Sheffield, for example, or Solingen. But beyond these obvious indications was the language of assembly itself: The unfinished sides, unraveled threads, and slips of hammer and chisel that until recently marked our manufacture. Heavily accented and regional, this was a kind of communication visible to all but comprehensible only to craftspeople. These were the human signs of production.
“Telephone, Color Chart, Napkin: Logistical Legacies of the Bauhaus,” in Bauhaus Futures (2019) (Download)
This chapter engages with the logistical legacies of the Bauhaus and their implications for the future of remote production in artistic practice and industrial manufacturing. Taking the Bauhaus as a site of investigation into the possibilities of distribution, mobility, and assembly, it argues that its legacy is a form of design that is both obfuscating and instrumental.”
“The Place of All Things: Shenzhen, Alibaba, and the Oriental Bazaar,” in Lo Squaderno 51 (2019) (Download)
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.
“Material Epistemologies of the (Mobile) Telephone,” Anthropological Quarterly, 91(2) (2018): 485-524. (Download)
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.
“The Social Network of Stuff: On Media, Logistics and Supply Chains,” Public Seminar (August 1, 2018)
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.
“The Making of Made In,” Supply Studies (July 26, 2017)
Despite the sometimes underdetermined discourse surrounding it, there is nothing particularly new about the identification of a product with its place of production. But given the archaic attachment of some of these labels, it is remarkable how many of them still convey a certain productive purchase in the contemporary context—and how few still stand, as far as their material manufacture is concerned. Especially as the imaginative inscription of casual claims has given way to far more technical definitions for production. In some cases these were adopted by merchants and marketers; in others they were forced upon them. In either case, the application of “made in,” over the course of the nineteenth century, became a specific designation—a legal mark—detailing not just the circumstances of a product’s trade, but the meaning of its making.
- “Shopping for the System,” Supply Studies (April 21, 2017)
- “The Matter of Concern: Replicator as Logistical Utopia,” In Media Res (January 5, 2017)
- “Inkonvensional Pathways: Soldered Supply Chains From Indonesia’s Tin Islands,” in Objects In Motion: Globalizing Technology (2016).
- “Manifest of the Standing Reserve,” Supply Studies, (May 3, 2014)
- “Supply Chain Epistemologies,” Supply Studies (September 16, 2013)
- “The Meaning of Made In: The New Reality of Manufacturing,” Supply Studies (July 22, 2013)
- “Demands of Supply: the Illicit Pathways of Global Supply Chains,” Journal of International Affairs, 66(1) (Fall/Winter 2012)
- “Supply Chains as Civic Media,” Supply Studies (September 2, 2011)
- “Faced with an App, What Can You Do?,” MIT Center for Civic Media (September 15, 2011)
- “Small Business Applications of Sourcemap: A Web Tool for Sustainable Design and Supply Chain Transparency,” SIGCHI (2010)