“The line may be drawn on the ground as clear as clear can be, but the quality of the space that it draws–what is on the inside and what is on the outside, and who or what governs either side–is alway in question (especially for thos who die on one side of the wire).” from Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. 2015, page 23
In writing my earlier post about precision, I was reminded of Donald MacKenzie’s incredible book Inventing Accuracy, in which he explores the following premise:
“This book reveals just how wrong it is to assume that missile accuracy is a natural or inevitable consequence of technical change. Nor, however, has it come about simply because governments, for good or bad reasons, have desired it. Rather, it is the product of a complex process of conflict and collaboration between a range of social actors including ambitious, energetic technologists, laboratories and corporations, and political and military leaders and the organizations they head. The invention of accuracy has fueled, and has itself been fueled by, the cold war. It has been a shaping force, but has itself been shaped.” from Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. 1990, page 3
“A technology is not just social up to the point of invention and self-sustaining thereafter. Its conditions of possibility are always social.” page 4
It seems to me that despite the increasing reliance on algorithmic thinking and automation in social and political worlds, perhaps our concern oughtn’t be solely with these technologies and technological practices per se, but, continuing MacKenzie’s thinking, with the seemingly unproblematic ways in which ideas like precision and accuracy have come to define ever-smaller aspects of daily life.
Two consecutive posts about words… There are just some words that I really like, and lineament is one of them. I have only ever come across the word used in reference to lines, specifically those tracing the body or geometric forms, so I was interested when I read Alberto Toscano’s essay “Lineaments of the Logistical State,” which begins with a brief definition of the word lineament that’s tied to geological/geophysical characteristics:
Lineament. noun. GEOLOGY. A linear feature on the earth’s surface, such as a fault.
This is the definition from the OED:
a. A line; also, a delineation, diagram, outline, sketch; pl. outlines, designs. lit. and fig.
b. A minute portion, a trace; pl. elements, rudiments.
a. A portion of the body, considered with respect to its contour or outline, a distinctive feature.
b. fig. in pl. Distinctive features or characteristics.
In narrower sense, a portion of the face viewed with respect to its outline; a feature.
I suppose the two definitions are similar enough, but the OED has no reference to land or geology. There’s something really nice about understanding lineaments as borders of sorts, but also having that meaning extended more explicitly to terrain, and understanding spatial or geographic contours as things that move, have traces, and have directionality as fault lines do. Fixed and distinct, yet fluid and mobile.
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.
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?
I’m reading Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, and I really liked this diagram. It’s really simple, but manages to convey the key aspects of a fantastically complex story in one clear image. Must be my architecture school background rearing its head…
Beckert Sven, 2014. Empire of Cotton: A Global History.
Dumond, John, Marygail Brauner, and Rick Eden. 2001. Velocity Management: The Business Paradigm That Has Transformed U.S. Army Logistics.
Took a field trip to one of Brooklyn’s plastic and metal recycling facilities with my kid’s school today.