CAPTCHA AT THE PERIPHERY OF LOGISTICS
During times when society's real key workers are being revealed—not the bankers, traders, or managers, but the shelf stackers, delivery drivers, nurses, carers, bin men—, research and design collective CAPTCHA (Andrea Mologni and Margherita Marri) writes about the perilous link between infrastructure, technology, and corporate logistics at the periphery.
"I owe the public nothing."
J. P Morgan, as quoted in the
New York World (11 May 1901)*
After 1989, the former USSR countries faced a disruptive switch in their political and economic organisation: the change from socialism to capitalism catapulted nations such as Poland or the Czech Republic in the global market moving towards an aggressive post-Fordist neoliberal capitalism. A system where big companies took the place of the Nation-State. From the USSR to Amazon.
Amazon has expanded ferociously on the European market in the last decade. It first landed in the Old Continent in 1998, providing its e-commerce service in the UK and Germany, but the true neoliberal occupation of the European ground has only become conspicuous since 2010. Up until now, Amazon.com has been able to ship its products to over forty countries in Europe and has eighty-six fulfilment centres and a difficult to count number of data centres (at least fourteen according to the 2015 documents released by WikiLeaks). The amount of European territory occupied by its facilities exceeded 5 millions of square metres as of November 2019, excluding web service facilities (Amazon Web Service), offices, and research laboratories. These data talk about an active form of colonisation, in which the coloniser is not only occupying spaces but is also deeply mutating the habits of those who live in Europe.
The occupation methodology of the European land follows the American one: Amazon's managers are guided by an algorithm regarding where is the most efficient location to build a new fulfilment/sorting/data centre, all facilities supporting the exchange of money, data, and goods. The algorithm takes in account different factors like the tax regulation of the region; for example, it would prioritise zones or states where the charging taxes are low, but confining with a state with a wealthier and bigger population that charges high taxes only if a company has a physical location (brick and mortar tax) in the state itself; we can summarise that through this system of tax avoidance, Amazon will always maintain a 10% discount on its already low book prices. It's for this reason that the 'Everything Store' has invaded some former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe with fulfilment centres. Countries like Poland, with seven Amazon facilities, or the Czech Republic, with two, are not necessarily attractive markets for the American company due to the lower purchasing power of their inhabitants compared to their Western European counterparts. These specific two countries don't even have a national Amazon Market Place: to buy a product on the platform, a Czech citizen, for instance, has to browse on the German Amazon (which is also available in English) in order to receive a product stored in a Czech fulfilment centre. Notwithstanding, Eastern Europe countries are highly attractive for their low wage labour (Amazon offers a quarter of the German salary to Polish and Czech workers), lower taxes, land prices, and sometimes less restrictive labour condition standards (only 12 percent in Poland and 17 percent in the Czech Republic of the workers are unionised).
It's significant that in 2019, right after a nation-wide protest during the 'Prime Day' in Germany, Amazon announced a change of its expansion strategy, planning to open a new fulfilment centre in Poland in the next months in charge of assisting German clients that were eager to buy at any time despite the ongoing riots. If the whole Europe is a new Amazon colony, Eastern Europe has become the peripheral territory of support for online costumers of the wealthier Western neighbours.
Another obvious factor that Amazon's algorithm considered when placing the logistics facilities is the proximity to already existing heavy infrastructures (for fulfilment centres) or cheap sources of energy (for data centres). No matter how remote and inhospitable the location is, the balance between the human workers' wellness and the emphasis placed on robotics is uneven. This also sometimes leads to extreme cases like in Dunfermline, Scotland, where the fulfilment centre was located so far from any residential conglomerate and so difficult to reach by public transportation that the workers started to sleep near the facility in tents or in their cars in order to avoid long journey and high commuting costs. As Frank Bsirske, head of the Verdi union representing Amazon workers during a protest across Europe in 2018, stated for The Local, in Denmark: “We have a worldwide problem, a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world.” But Amazon's conquest seems to be just at the beginning of its journey.
Apparently, Amazon's ambitions are not limited to this planet: while its owner, Jeff Bezos, is ravaging our planet with his two mammoth logistics businesses (delivery and web services) with huge environmental footprints, he’s also trying to find a way out from this very same planet. Through his most recent business, Blue Origin, Bezos aims, among other space conquests, to transform the moon in the Earth’s heavy industry production site, while leaving our planet to "be rezoned residential and light industry." As Bezos himself declared, "The reason we've got to go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth." The company is in fact testing the possibility of a moon lander that would become the primal vector of a space planet-satellite logistics system. A sort of cargo spaceship delivering to the moon. An Amazon Prime for moon citizens.
It's not dystopian to think that Amazon has already started its moon colonisation programme with some trial schemes on Earth: its facilities are way more similar to a possible moon colony than every other building on the planet. They consist of extremely simple architecture where robots, controlled by remote computing systems, are performing a restless service for the human kind. The very few men, in relationship with the size of the space, working there are robot guardians, standing and doing nothing in an inhospitable location. Both fulfilment and data centres are repelling for humans: the former have no heating because they are too big to support its implementation, and are inundated by a disturbing continuous noise produced by the roaring machines; the latter's temperatures are equally unbearable due to the heat produced by servers, that also propagate a disorientating white noise. These are human-free zones.
What results from the comparison between various Amazon fulfilment centres locations in Europe is that they are always set in the countryside, in peripheral areas close to big urban conglomerations, in places where the economic power of the administration is low; places that are eager to have a new business coming over; a place that is happy to be colonised. The peripheral condition is deeply integrated in the Amazon subjugation philosophy, in both spatial and social-economic senses. This is the periphery of Europe that today looks like the complete urbanisation, as theorised by Neil Brenner via Henri Lefebvre's notion of 'mesh'. Since everything is urban in these territories, Brenner talks of a never ending network of built artefacts, buildings, and infrastructures, where urban dense nuclei are the "bits of the grid that are part of the countryside urban continuous tissue. These bits aren’t fix, but they include some gaps in their regularity that enlarge the mesh in a support landscape, neither urban or rural." This endless form of urbanisation is like a 'glue' that trapped the periphery between heavy infrastructures, like highways and train rails, and fast new town constructions at the edge of historical urban conglomerates. The old farmstead have been transformed into centres of intensive production in the incipient stages, and more recently of distribution. Prefabricated grey concrete panels took the place of masonry and stones; dense live stocks took the place of peaceful grazes; a schizophrenic army of cargo trucks took the place of tractors. Logistics is taking control of peripheries.
What is now the less iconic, but utmost representative architecture of the ruling globalised neoliberalism is the fulfilment centre, that building where the items bought online, through the support of the computing capacity of data centres are collected, stocked, and sent to the consumers. This, spatially marginal and little-known architecture is far from being marginal in our life, since the e-commerce phenomenon has revolutionised our shopping habits starting with the late 1990s. Until then, the global image of shopping had been perfectly symbolised by the shopping mall, an architectural typology left in agony that regardless dominated the suburbs of urban conglomerates.
Even though the first shopping malls appeared in Europe right after the Second World War with the promise of the new desirable lifestyle imported from the USA, the true 'mallification' of European peripheries reached its peak in the late 1980s and 1990s with the neoliberal acceleration that completely changed the relationship between private and public realms in architecture. But despite the fact that a fulfilment centre is produced by the same neoliberalism driven economy that generated the shopping mall in the first place, the two architectural typologies seem to be poles apart.
The shopping mall, which has been first theorised and designed by Victor Gruen, an Austrian Jewish architect that emigrated to New York in the 1950s, is usually a catalyst for the middle class community, which gathers there in order to seek a much longed for public space that is lacking in the suburbs. The shopping mall reproduces, with its signs, shop windows, and decorations the variety of historical city centres, upgraded to an indoor domestic condition thanks to a series of comforts, such as escalators and non-stop air conditioning. A fulfilment centre instead is completely fenced and kept under permanent video surveillance, a seemingly neglected space, where just a few alienated robot controllers go to work. Unlike the shopping mall, these logistics centres have nothing to do with urbanity and domesticity: they are machines shaped architecture made to be ignored by their users, who are now enabled the possibility to lazily buy "everything" from their homes with just a few touches on their devices.
The fulfilment centre becomes then one of the most elemental symbols of the neoliberal post-Fordist era, one that has been spatially generated by several technological implementations such as the conveyor belt or the forklift that constrained horizontal growth. The logistics warehouse's most recent expansion, though, is depending totally on the use of autonomous machines, governed by complex system, called algorithms, coded in softwares that compute an enormous quantity of data able to design the most efficient performance of the logistics chain. One of the most famous of these machines is Amazon’s Kiva: a small orange robot with tiny wheels that frolics on the ground, marked with machine-readable codes, used within fulfilment centres in order to move shelf units, following the rules of a preset algorithm that commands the most productive disposition of the fluid layout of the movable shelves. Algorithms govern the behaviour of individual components of these systems and the functioning of their aggregations. There is not just one authority managing the movement; in fact, the “network hierarchies and nodal growth are produced by individual actors, responding to price schedules, wait times, and abstracted but physical constraints like warehouse space and dock availability.” This system transforms the ground into the only relevant surface among the architectural elements: horizontal expansion is the only possible solution.
Such a fulfilment centre could potentially expand indefinitely in the asphalted periphery ground, simply following the market's needs. It's not impossible to imagine a future where the suburbs will become a continuous fulfilment centre ground, where algorithm driven machines will perform a restless choreography of exchanges in order to satisfy the indolent urban consumers. A future where autonomous machines are the army of logistics companies marching on European land to conquer the consumers' satisfaction may not be that much of a far-fetched scenario.
As the European periphery seems to be increasingly shaped by the logistics apparatus, automatisation appears to be the ultimate maker of these marginal territories.
* J. P. Morgan was a American businessman who dominated the US finance in the late 19th century. Besides being the founder of the famous bank, he was involved in the construction of the American railroads network, basically bringing logistics to the modern era. He has been often compared to Jeff Bezos.
 Dunn Elizabeth Cullen, Privatising Poland. Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), p. 12.
 Document "AmazonAtlas_v1" released by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/amazon-atlas/releases/
 Data from http://www.mwpvl.com/html/amazon_com.html
 Data from https://formaspace.com/articles/material-handling/amazons-warehouse-strategy/
 Kentish Benjamin, "Hard-pressed Amazon workers in Scotland sleeping in tents near warehouse to save money", https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/amazon-workers-sleep-tents-dunfermline-fife-scotland-a7467657.html
 Jeff Bezos during a Blue Origin public presentation in June 2019.
 Brenner Neil, "The urban question as a scale question: reflection on Henry Lefevbre, urban theory and the politics of scale" in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, issue 24.2 (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, June 200), p. 373.
 Holmes Rob, "Unknown Unknowns" in Volume #47: The System* (Amsterdam: Archis, 2016), p. 93.
 Lyster Clare, Learning from Logistics. How Networks Change Our Cities (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016), p. 152.
CAPTCHA is a research design platform that investigates our contemporary condition through the relation between architecture, technology and ecology. Contrary to the challenge–response test it is named after, CAPTCHA tries not to tell computers and humans apart. It is run by Politecnico di Milano alumni Margherita Marri and Andrea Mologni, currently based in Milan and Berlin.