The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives | The New Yorker
How could I know which had been made ethically and which hadn’t?
Answering this question can be surprisingly difficult. A few years ago, while teaching a class about global labor at the University of California, Los Angeles, I tried assigning my students the task of analyzing the “supply chain”—the vast network of factories, warehouses, and shipping conduits through which products flow—by tracing the components used in their electronic devices. Almost immediately, I hit a snag: it turns out that even companies that boast about “end-to-end visibility” and “supply-chain transparency” may not know exactly where their components come from. This ignorance is built into the way supply chains work. The housing of a television, say, might be built in a small factory employing only a few people; that factory interacts only with the suppliers and buyers immediately adjacent to it in the chain—a plastic supplier on one side, an assembly company on the other. This arrangement encourages modularity, since, if a company goes out of business, its immediate partners can replace it without consulting anyone. But it also makes it hard to identify individual links in the chain. The resilient, self-healing quality of supply chains derives, in part, from the fact that they are unsupervised.
When people try to picture supply chains, they often focus on their physical infrastructure. In Allan Sekula’s book “Fish Story,” a volume of essays and photographs produced between 1989 and 1995, the writer and photographer trains his lens on ports, harbors, and the workers who pilot ships between them; he reveals dim shipboard workspaces and otherworldly industrial zones. In “The Forgotten Space,” a documentary that Sekula made with the film theorist Noël Burch, in 2010, we see massive, gliding vessels, enormous machines, and people rummaging through the detritus around ports and harbors. Sekula’s work suggests the degree to which our fantasy of friction-free procurement hides the real, often gruelling, work of global shipping and trade.
But supply chains aren’t purely physical. They’re also made of information. Modern supply-chain management, or S.C.M., is done through software. The people who design and coördinate supply chains don’t see warehouses or workers. They stare at screens filled with icons and tables. Their view of the supply chain is abstract. It may be the one that matters most.
Most of the time, the work of supply-chain management is divided up, with handoffs where one specialist passes a package of data to another. No individual is liable to possess a detailed picture of the whole supply chain. Instead, each S.C.M. specialist knows only what her neighbors need.
In such a system, a sense of inevitability takes hold. Data dictates a set of conditions which must be met, but there is no explanation of how that data was derived; meanwhile, the software takes an active role, tweaking the plan to meet the conditions as efficiently as possible. sap’s built-in optimizers work out how to meet production needs with the least “latency” and at the lowest possible costs. (The software even suggests how tightly a container should be packed, to save on shipping charges.) This entails that particular components become available at particular times. The consequences of this relentless optimization are well-documented. The corporations that commission products pass their computationally determined demands on to their subcontractors, who then put extraordinary pressure on their employees. Thus, China Labor Watch found that workers in Heyuan City, China, tasked with producing Disney’s Princess Sing & Sparkle Ariel Bath Doll—retail price today, $26.40—work twenty-six days a month, assembling between eighteen hundred and twenty-five hundred dolls per day, and earning one cent for each doll they complete.
Still, from a worker’s point of view, S.C.M. software can generate its own bullwhip effect. At the beginning of the planning process, product requirements are fairly high-level. But by the time these requirements reach workers, they have become more exacting, more punishing. Small reductions in “latency,” for instance, can magnify in consequence, reducing a worker’s time for eating her lunch, taking a breath, donning safety equipment, or seeing a loved one.
Could S.C.M. software include a “workers’-rights” component—a counterpart to PP/DS, incorporating data on working conditions? Technically, it’s possible. sap could begin asking for input about worker welfare. But a component like that would be at cross-purposes with almost every other function of the system. On some level, it might even undermine the purpose of having a system in the first place. Supply chains create efficiency in part through the distribution of responsibility. If a supervisor at a toy factory objects to the production plan she’s received, her boss can wield, in his defense, a PP/DS plan sent to him by someone else, who worked with data produced by yet another person. It will turn out that no one in particular is responsible for the pressures placed on the factory. They flow from the system—a system designed to be flexible in some ways and rigid in others.
#Algorithmes #SAP #Droit_travail #Industrie_influence