We’re excited to share an extensive interview with Ingrid Burrington, NYC-based artist, writer, and researcher whose work explores the materiality of our networked world. Our wide-ranging conversation touches on the power of Amazon, supply chains and surveillance capitalism, the limits of DIY medical equipment, going to the moon, and resistance in a time of isolation.
This interview was conducted on April 30, 2020. The transcript has been lightly modified for clarity and edited for length.
You’ve been working around Amazon a lot right now and how they are responding to the crisis. What are your thoughts on their power and influence within society and the economy, but also the pushback they’ve received and the worker organizing going on at this time?
If you had told me at the beginning of this year that Amazon would be a real flashpoint of labor organizing right now, I would have said that was extremely optimistic. There has been effort building for a very long time to challenge the working conditions that Amazon places upon its workers. Not just in its warehouses, but also in other parts of its company. They have a terrible reputation as an employer, and have for quite a long time, in many different sectors. White collar workers hate it too – but they get stock. There’s a lot of things you’ll put up with for a stock worth as much money as Amazon’s.
One of the things the pandemic is making really apparent is just how centralized of a power Amazon is, in way more ways than I think is being recognized. The warehouses are a really legible focal point for the public, but also AWS [Amazon Web Services] is the biggest cloud services provider on the planet. The majority of the means by which “business as usual” is allowed to continue remotely happens because of their infrastructure.
One of the extraordinary things to me about a lot of the worker organizing that is happening is their main demands are – and I’m not saying this is as a criticism – honestly not that radical. No one is calling for Amazon to cease to exist. I might be happy about that, but that’s me.
Warehouse work is hard work. People want to do work with dignity, with a basic acknowledgment of their humanity. That’s the main thing these demands from the warehouse workers are asking for. They’re not extraordinary requests. Given how high Amazon’s stock price is right now, they absolutely have the resources to respond to them. The single best thing they could be doing right now is throwing money at this problem – and they won’t. One of the things that’s extraordinary about it is the extent to which Amazon has refused. Probably because they rightly realize if they cede ground on the bare minimum, people might realize they could ask for so much more.
It is really encouraging. I hate the reason that it’s happening, in the same way that a lot of really inspiring things that have happened during this pandemic emerged because of the sheer threat to people’s lives or just the gravity of the situation. It would be nice if the reason that everyone was galvanized wasn’t so fucking dire.
Amazon really has no problem using surveillance technology, worker tracking, these types of things. I’m sure you saw this story just yesterday – they’re contracting with some firm in China to get thermal imaging cameras to deploy on their workforce, which is the same company that’s using the same technology to mass imprison Uighurs, et cetera. How do you see their deployment of these techniques, which might not even be that new?
One of the things that Amazon does by being one of the biggest players in the market – being a monopoly power, really – is they lower the standards for everybody else. There was a report about working conditions in warehouses in New Jersey. In 2009-ish, whenever Amazon’s same-day delivery launched – because that was prototyped in New York City – e-commerce related warehouses and fulfillment exploded through the New Jersey metro area, primarily to serve the NYC market. Every company competing with Amazon was trying to meet the speed that Amazon works at. And the speed that Amazon works at is fundamentally unsafe. They create conditions where other companies and other warehouses are putting higher expectations on people, not paying them well, and potentially putting them in unsafe conditions by not training them enough.
I think the same can be said for workplace surveillance methods and for general modes of operating. Even their approach to content. They just did something where they are going to exclusively broadcast a football game. What the fuck is that? Also, how is anyone thinking of football right now?
Within the realm of working conditions and workplace surveillance, Amazon might also be an avatar or the arbiter of supply chain capitalism, as it’s been called, and the way in which the economy has been reorganized around logistics. The economy has been logistical for a long time, but we see a new wave of it and Amazon seems to be at the forefront of that.
Amazon is certainly very good at it. They’ve also learned from the best. When Jeff Bezos started Amazon and was starting to build the company out from people he personally knew and recruited, he poached Walmart executives. That was on purpose. The big picture of who is the best at running a very large, complex supply chain – that’s who you look to, that’s who you’re emulating.
A thing I mentioned in that supply chain capitalism blog post is that very early paper about predictive policing that was framed as “What can we learn from Walmart and Amazon about fighting crime in a recession?” This weird comparison of public safety and having enough Pop-Tarts in your inventory as the same problem. It’s so perfectly emblematic to me of the place where supply chain capitalism and surveillance capitalism start to make a lot of sense together. In some ways I like supply chain capitalism a lot more as a framing device than surveillance capitalism, but that’s also partly because I think surveillance capitalism doesn’t exist without supply chain capitalism. There’s sort of an absence of material critique in surveillance capitalism that I find a little disappointing. But that’s because I’m a grubby materialist and like thinking through the world through objects and stuff.
A lot of your work is focused on exactly that – the grubbiness of the world, the materiality of the infrastructure that makes this planet what it is these days. Thinking through the example of the pandemic, how do you see supply chain capitalism being challenged, breaking down in certain ways but gaining strength in others?
One of the things that Anna Tsing talks about is the ways in which the deeper you get into the layers of the supply chain, they are weirdly malleable or flexible. She elaborates on this more deeply in The Mushroom at the End of the World where the mushroom pickers think of themselves as extremely free. They don’t think of themselves as beholden to capitalism in the way a wage laborer is. Yet the work that they do is bundled and brought into these other markets and then sells for hundreds of dollars in a fancy Japanese restaurant.
One of the things that’s interesting in watching certain supply chains break down in this moment is looking at where there is actually flexibility and where there isn’t, where things are adaptable and where they aren’t. One of the things that is really central from a western, American perspective on the supply chain is that the inability to really, truly trace where things come from is a necessity by design. The premise of supply chain transparency is an idea that means well and is fundamentally in contradiction with everything a supply chain is optimized to do. They’re not designed to be transparent, they’re designed to be efficient. Part of that efficiency involves flexibility – No, I don’t know the name of the mushroom picker who got this particular mushroom in this particular forest. Fuck you, why do I have to know that?
I’m wary of making predictions like “What does it mean?” This is still phase one. It’s only going to get weirder.
One the ways in which the breakdown has been very clear and has impacted people has been in medical manufacturing, PPE in particular. The just-in-time logic in the medical industry is having clear detrimental health impacts. That’s an obvious lesson of this crisis. On one hand, you have this amazing grassroots response of people making masks and hand sanitizer. On the other hand, as you have looked into, how the fuck do you make a ventilator? It seems like this separate category of thing.
I think one of the really hard things in this moment is that there’s confusion about how to be useful. There’s so much public rhetoric that is comparing what is happening to a war – we have “frontline workers.” Other people have written about this metaphor pretty extensively. But it’s a war where for the majority of people the best thing they can do is stay home and do nothing.
That’s very unsatisfying, right? Because people want to be helpful. People want to contribute. I think the impulse to want to contribute in a crisis is very good and, at this present moment, some of the unique qualities of this crisis really limit how people can contribute. During Hurricane Sandy, it’s like – I don’t have that many skills but I can serve food, I can move blankets around, I can manage a spreadsheet. The work of dispatching donations to people who’ve lost everything in a hurricane is hard, but it’s something that requires minimal training and minimal expertise. You can give lots of different kinds of jobs to people.
Ventilators are not that. I felt very ambivalent working on that ventilator story, about the outcome, because in some ways what it comes down to is a sharp divide in medical ethics. On the one hand, you want to have every tool available to help someone. If you can’t get the high-end, $50,000 ventilator, but you can get this automated manual resuscitator bag, or this modified BiPAP – it is a tool, and it’s more than having nothing. On the other hand, you have doctors for whom the idea of using untested technologies, or technologies that are fundamentally not going to be enough, that they know are not enough, is itself… You don’t know if it will hurt the person and you absolutely know it will not save their life. One respiratory therapist I talked to at one point said to me, half of the people on ventilators are dying anyway. The instinct to create something that is not as good, because it’s faster, is really missing the point.
There are things about the way in which certain high-end complex medical equipment is manufactured and distributed that would benefit from changing. The way a lot of this is closed-source, which means it’s harder for other people to manufacture them quickly. The fact that they have weird, complicated warranty stuff and it’s harder to repair them independently. That’s on medical device manufacturers. That’s on an industry that’s built on IP law. But ultimately it is a specialized tool and it is a very specialized product. It can take two years from initial design to even get one of these approved by the FDA and then another two years to get it on the market.
So the idea of making something that meets the bare minimum of what that tool can do… I do get sad, because I understand people really want to help. But their coping strategy of trying to contribute – we don’t know if it’s going to cost someone their life, but it’s very unlikely it’s going to save a life. There’s also the risk of overpromising. It is a weird one where again the main thing people need to do is literally nothing. Just stay inside. I mean, I struggle with it too. I don’t feel particularly useful right now. But I also think recognizing where you can and can’t be useful is really important.
I share this hope that one would be able to rapidly prototype a 3D printable whatchamacallit that would help people but it seems, if not technically impossible, somehow quite unlikely and not the right aspiration. This kind of conundrum reveals our dependence on certain technical organizations of the world but, at the same time, some of the limits in what we’re actually able to do on a scale that isn’t global industry. We see the system is failing, but we’re not ourselves at the scale to be able to replace it in an adequate way.
Where I see a big gap is most of the tools used for sanitizing materials. The kind of non-woven polypropylene that’s used to make N95 masks – a similar kind of fabric material is used in things like disposable wipes, in diapers, in tampons. It’s plastic, right? At some point the standard for something that can be used as a sanitary material for human beings became this item that is going to take generations upon generations to actually break down in the earth. That’s probably going to end up in the oceans somehow. And we can’t come up with anything better. We can’t come up with anything biodegradable. That’s one where I don’t know how to change that.
One of the things we have tried to do has been to reframe political problems as questions of the material and the technical, to view things from a more systemic perspective. If you’re serious about changing the world, we have to change the food system in a very literal sense. This whole crisis has been about the grubbiness, just how recalcitrant things and systems are, and how many of the things that must be done in the next decade are huge engineering problems.
Everyone should have weird feelings about the Financial Times, but sometimes they have useful things. [In] this op-ed by John Thornhill, he mentions this book by this economist, Richard Nelson, who wrote this book in 1977 called The Moon and the Ghetto. The premise is trying to take seriously the question of why, in 1969, could we put men on the moon but we can’t solve the problem of the ghetto, of poverty, of inner city crime? Part of the answer to that is politics. The problem-solving skillset you need to put someone on the moon is very different from the skillset you need to redistribute resources equitably or pay reparations to people.
One of the things I found really funny reading this FT op-ed that was invoking this paper about the moon and poverty is that we are literally trying to go to the moon right now. There is a plan – supposedly they are still trying to keep moving forward – to send people to the moon by 2024. A lot of it is political bluster. Trump, or every president, wants to say, We’ll be on the moon by the time my second term is over! Initially I was kind of grouchy about it, like how dare all this space stuff keep happening. But it’s also that space just thinks at a different timescale than normal people. Don’t be mad at ISS researchers because they have an experiment in space that needs to be taken care of by an astronaut. They’ve been doing that experiment for a decade and they really can’t just have it be on hold for a year or two years. I don’t really begrudge the pursuit of science.
Somebody I interviewed for a story I’m doing about the space stuff, Erika Nesvold, who is the cofounder of the JustSpace Alliance, pointed out that people at this present moment who can think on the timescales of long futures and think about things like what we’re going to do when we have a fucking moon base – usually they have the resources to not be panicking right now. I guess Elon’s panicking because of some other stuff in his life. I don’t know. That man needs help and is not well. But fundamentally, that dude’s not gonna die of the ‘rona. So of course SpaceX is still doing tests for some Starship project down in Boca Chica, TX, because they can think on that time horizon. Well, relative to the decades it’s going to take for us to go to Mars, we can work around this year of chaos!
This is a long way of getting at [this]. Part of the work of trying to restructure these really complex systems you’re talking about, that currently feel quite intractable and recalcitrant, is finding the wherewithal to think on that longer time horizon. Which feels very out of reach for a lot of people right now. Certainly it’s hard for me. I also think it’s understanding what are the tools you actually need. Engineering new systems, in this case – some of them are about technical problems, but most of them are political problems. The reason it’s apparently easier to go to the moon than to address poverty is because nobody in power has to give anything up to send someone to the moon. You finish the moon mission and it’s like Ah, we’re still rich! Cool!
You’ve cast your lot for the stay home crowd, which is very reasonable. Unfortunately some of our fellow countryfolk have decided that the better place to be is on the steps of the capitols with their AR-15s and various goodies to protest the government shutdown, to reopen the economy – or at least to send some people back to work, if not them. Can we imagine a different form of protest? There’s webinars… although I can’t go to another webinar. There’s car demos. There’s all sorts of different ways people are creatively thinking about resistance. If the goal is a certain redistribution of the world, how do we do that in a time when we can’t physically manifest in public?
Within the context of essential workforces, work stoppages are really powerful. Slowdowns. Things that suspend business as usual are really important. So much in my experience of whatever “the left” is has been about very embodied action, so there is this bizarre disconnect. Among the things I think are really valuable to do right now, as far as building out resistance or building out systems, is that coalition-building stuff. Finding ways to connect to other groups. I think webinars are the absolute worst way to do that. I think we should bring back letters. I think this is going to be a beautiful time for zines. Finding other channels that are not videocalls would be a really good idea.
There is also something about the idea of everyone going inside – refusal and stopping as a form of protest. Johanna Hedva wrote a really beautiful essay about this recently. The other joke I made very early on in the pandemic: all these people who were suddenly like Wait, I don’t have to be productive? You just outed yourself as someone who bought How to Do Nothing last year and Instagrammed it and didn’t read the book. One of the things that Jenny Odell gets across very well is that doing nothing is not about actually just stopping, or being useless or being lazy. It’s about being really clear about what you actually want and doing that thing instead of the thing you think you’re supposed to do, or the thing that meets someone else’s expectations. Being really grounded in yourself and your surroundings rather than having to perform some version of yourself.
I don’t have a good answer for what exactly protest looks like. Maybe we can bring back fax-bombing. Maybe we can bring back DDOS attacks. (Be careful – don’t get in trouble!) Bring back mail art. There are things that can be done that remind people that others are still here and we are still with each other, although we are not in exactly the same spaces.
I feel like if everyone at 7 o’clock was yelling something about what a fucking crime it is that we are sacrificing all of these essential workers’ lives… I think if we treated it more like a primal scream, I’d be a little more into it. What I think it actually is about, it’s more about reminding other people that we’re all still here. We’re not actually all entirely isolated.