The work of precision

The word precision comes with two dominant meanings. In its more common usage, it implies exactness, accuracy, and attention to minute technical details. But the word also has a philosophical usage that deals with the practices or actions that separate ideas from one another—the drawing of mental distinctions of one fact from another. In the first usage, precision is a manifestation of technical expertise and technological detail.

In the scholarly literature about logistics, this much is evident by the explosion of research that presents the design and management of global distribution through a thoroughly rationalized lens of science and engineering. The importance of this imaginary is evident across the logistics landscape, often framed as a system of precise, just-in-time distribution is characterized by speed, a cohesive suite of technically and technologically skilled workers efficiently moving things through bright, colorful (and often technologically assisted) spaces, and cost reductions as experienced at its endpoints of consumer demand and consumer satisfaction.

Accuracy

Imagined this way, precision circulation is part of a fantasy world in which borders disappear, technologies seamlessly and accurately assist, and people and places are engaged in purely rational actions. They are manifestations of the neoclassical economists’ dream of a distinct economic space and economic object.

But in turning to its second definition, precision also implies a political act, the crafting of distinctions between things. Thinking about these political distinctions—the this and not thats, the inclusions and exclusions—is useful, as it pushes us to abandon the idea that precision logistical systems emerge solely or primarily through the “highly depoliticized lens of digital networks and algorithmic decision making.” These techno-fantasies often rely on the disarticulations of messy or violent bodily encounters, excess or redundant spaces, and incomplete or fragmented structures. These displacements are aspects of logistical systems that are necessary for them to function, but undercut the idea that precision is primarily a coherent, rational, technical pursuit.

What would be uncovered about the nature of precision logistics if we engage with the ways that the everyday usage of precision is at the same time a practice of cutting off, of abstraction and separation—that precision is a technical and a political act?