THR Web Features   /   February 18, 2022

The Making of an Everyday Object in a High-Tech World

What Christopher Mims might have learned from Adam Smith

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Worker at Amazon Logistics Center in Madrid, Spain; Álvaro Ibáñez via Wikimedia Commons.)

There are some inconveniences, however, arising from a commercial spirit. The first we shall mention is that it confines the views of men. Where the division of labour is brought to perfection, every man has only a simple operation to perform; to this his whole attention is confined, and few ideas pass in his mind but what have an immediate connexion with it.

Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762–1763)

In Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy, tech columnist Christopher Mims follows “an everyday object”—a USB charger—“from the factory in which it was created, in Southeast Asia, to the front door of a home in the United States” in order to reveal “the rapidly changing ways that we buy, sell, and transport, the billions of dollars of stuff that we consume every day.” Yet the book is an intentionally wayward travelogue. At each stage of the journey, Mims strays from the dazzling array of tech that speeds the product’s passage to observe how a new technological order is reshaping our conceptions and conditions of work. Alongside chapters on robotic arms, automated vehicles, and AI, Mims chronicles the working lives—some perilous, most tedious—of those who monitor, collaborate with, and take their orders from the machines, including sailors, longshoremen, long-haul truckers, local van drivers, engineers, and the Amazon “associates” who spend hours on end “picking” items from yellow plastic bins or “stowing” them in other bins.

Mims is no technological determinist, however. He repeatedly reminds the reader that despite the ubiquity of the machines, and their autonomy in specific spheres, they are not, ultimately, programming themselves. The author attends just as closely to the management system overseeing this vast enterprise, which Mims cheekily dubs “Bezosism” after Amazon’s founder.

Arriving Today traces Bezos’s methods back to the principles of “scientific management” developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early twentieth century (a.k.a. “Taylorism”). It’s an intellectual genealogy made up of multiple management revolutions, including Fordism and the Toyota Production System, the latter of which focused on “kaizen” or continuous, methodical improvement. Bezosism represents, Mims writes, “a more perfect version of the time and motion studies of Taylorism, plus the automation of mass production [i.e., Fordism], plus techniques for continuous improvement lifted from kaizen, plus AI and robots that can work alongside humans.” This philosophy of efficiency now shapes not only how things are made but also how they are packed, stowed, shipped, picked, sorted, and delivered. In the Amazon economy, the whole supply chain—right up to, even through, your front door—has been turned into a “planetary clockwork mechanism.” “You are in a factory,” Mims writes early on, “We all are.”

In following the stopwatch-toting Taylor around the factories of Gilded Age America, Mims locates a satisfying starting point for his story. Yet Mims could have gone back further. Taylor himself drew on others’ thoughts, most obviously those of Adam Smith. In Smith’s notion of the division of labor, Taylor saw a precursor to his own efforts to break complex tasks down into repeatable steps that could be done more quickly and with less artisanal skill. Taylorism, we might say, sought the sub-sub-division of labor. A number of modern commentators concur, characterizing Taylorism as the “most developed expression” of Smith’s ideas (to use Anthony Giddens’s phrase). Based on that line of thinking, Bezosism would appear to be the great-great-grandchild of the author of Wealth of Nations, Smithism 5.0.

Smith, however, does not appear in Arriving Today, and that seems a missed opportunity. Going back to the source, we would discover that the road from Smith to Bezos was not so smooth or straight. In fact, in Wealth of Nations Smith adopts a stance that is in certain respects surprisingly like the one we find in Arriving Today. The connection lies in the shared ability of Smith and Mims to view in the world of commerce from two perspectives—what I’ll be calling the “cosmic” and the “ground-level”—and, in turn, their shared recognition that the two visions may not happily align in the case of the ordinary worker. In composing the classic account of the division of labor, Smith perhaps deserves to be recognized as the original productivity guru, but I want to suggest that he’s also an ancestor of the ambivalent tech reporter, a forerunner of Mims.

Even the premise of Mims’s book—using a single item as an entrée into the global supply chain—has an antecedent in Smith’s. The passage in question appears at the close of the first chapter of the first book of Wealth of Nations, in which Smith presents a preliminary discussion of the benefits of the division of labor. Smith’s immediate point is that specialization allows workers to produce more of whatever they make or do more of whatever they do and, as a result, have more money or goods to exchange with others. As more workers enter into such transactions, as the number of exchanges mounts, Smith argues, “a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society.” The image of “diffusion” is important because it clarifies that Smith is not imagining a “trickle down” effect; wealth, he believes, is being created throughout society as a result of numerous participants in the economy becoming more productive in their specific stations and then mingling their materials, money, and skills.

To illustrate, Smith proposes a thought experiment: “Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-laborer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation exceeds computation.” Smith is raising the same question that animates Arriving Today: Have you ever paused to consider where all that stuff you’ve been buying actually comes from? As a suitably humdrum article (an eighteenth-century Amazon bestseller), Smith proposes the “coarse and rough” wool coat commonly worn by day-laborers. Even this, he argues, is a remarkable object if one considers how it ended up on someone’s back.

At this moment, Smith rises to the “cosmic” view of commerce. As the philosopher Samuel Fleischacker has observed, Smith has a penchant for ending chapters with “dramatic flourishes that look like the exit lines of heroic theatrical characters, and surveying the entirety of economic life…in a way that no participant will normally do.” The enormous paragraph that concludes this inaugural chapter of Wealth of Nations is a case in point. Here Smith—whose job, we should remember, included the teaching of rhetoric—attempts to conjure stylistically something of the congeries of actions and transactions that brought our day-laborer his coat. Smith begins: “The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.” That’s nine trades in one sentence. The list proves Smith’s point about the coat’s symbolic significance. Clearly, it took a lot of work and coordination among workers to assemble even a run-of-the-mill item, and, as Mims shows, it still does.

But having begun to tug the thread, Smith cannot seem to resist pulling it further, and with each successive tug, he produces another line of workers and suppliers, each of which could be pursued indefinitely. All of those participants in the coat’s assembly were themselves helped along by “merchants and carriers” who transported the materials between the various parties, including the workers who “live in a very distant part of the country.” Moreover, some materials, such as the dyer’s “drugs,” had to be fetched from the “remotest corners of the world,” access to which required the exertions of ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, and rope-makers. And each of the trades requires its own set of tools and instruments. The fuller’s mill, the weaver’s loom, and even the shepherd’s shears are all the products of still other workers’ labors.

Smith marches on. He even pays a call on the source of the ore from which those tools are made, the miner, and reviews those who contribute to the shaping of the metals that miners tear from the earth—the builder of the ore-smelting furnace, the seller of timber, the worker tending the smelting house’s charcoal fire, the brick-maker, the brick-layer who built the furnace, the mill-wright, the smith. As if this great pile of data isn’t enough, Smith goes on to observe that all of the items in our day-laborer’s abode—his “coarse” linen shirt, the shoes on his feet, his bed, his kitchen utensils, plates, bread, beer, even the glass in his window (“without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation”)—have come into his keeping thanks only to “the assistance and co-operation of many thousands.”

For Smith, just as for Mims, to gaze upon the incalculably complex social networks thrown up by commerce is a mind-boggling, sublime experience. Indeed, passages like this one from Smith help to explain Mims’s insistence that we ought to be in awe of modern logistics. While Smith faced a web of commercial interactions that he reckoned beyond computation, Mims’s book is set on the other side of the transformation of the globe into an almost entirely computable space. The sublime experience of Arriving Today is not only to wonder at the commercial cosmos but also to watch machines track it in real-time.

The promise that a package will “arrive today” is predicated on the success of that tracking, because the USB charger’s delivery on time is the result of more than just speedy transport. The greater challenge is the coordination of the scores of hand-offs that Smith perceived but knew he could never enumerate completely. That challenge has only grown in the following two-and-a-half centuries. “Cod caught off Scotland are transported to China to be filleted,” Mims reports, “then transported back to Scotland for sale in grocery stores.” The “average smartphone” features “lithium from Australia transformed into batteries in Korea, microchips fabricated in Taiwan from silicon grown in Japan out of quartz harvested in Appalachia.” The story of any product now includes stops in multiple factories and ports, trips on and off multiple loading docks, passages through fulfillment centers and sorting centers, and rides in any number of floating, flying, and wheeled vehicles, some navigated by humans, others by autonomous systems. In turn, Mims observes:

The central challenge of figuring out which USB charger in which bin in which shelf atop which drive unit in which fulfillment center should be yours is that this problem includes predicting the behavior of dozens or even hundreds of people, machines, and systems whose behavior is, to one degree or another, random.

In the eighteenth century, Smith noted manifold craftspeople, merchants, and carriers, and marveled at their numerous, unruly entanglements; Mims shows us that the wonder of our age is the daily miracle of sorting it all out.

But even an awestruck appraisal of the vast size of a transoceanic vessel and its haul of standardized shipping containers, in Mims’s account, is punctuated by an examination of the solitary lives of the skeleton crews that set out for months at a time on these ships, and whose days may amount to little more than babysitting the autopilot. (Apparently audiobooks help.) Loneliness is also a theme of Mims’s exposé of the trucker’s life, along with the stresses of diminishing wages and meeting schedules determined by algorithms.

Mims’s most troubling field reports concern the Amazon associates working in fulfillment centers whose jobs are lonely, repetitive, exhausting, and hazardous. (Also, no music or audiobooks.) “When stowing,” Mims writes, an associate’s job involves standing at a workstation (no sitting or chatting with neighbors) and “grabbing as many as 400 items an hour from totes [that is, plastic bins] and stuffing them into bins on mobile shelving, over and over again, for twelve hours a day.” Meanwhile, associates’ actions are closely monitored by internal surveillance systems that track how quickly they pick and stow, their pace measured against other employees’ in order to establish who is making “rate” (i.e., who isn’t in danger of being fired) and where to channel the next pile of goods for processing.

Working in a fulfillment center is like running a supermarket checkout without the opportunity for chitchat with customers or coworkers: It’s just grab it, scan it, and drop it into a container for hours at a time. Because the pace of work never lets up—because one must continue to “make rate”—there is no mental space to think about anything else. And because the nature of the work requires no training or professional development, front-line Amazon associates gain no specialized skills that can be translated into a better job somewhere else.

Workers in Ford’s plant, Mims notes, complained of experiencing a kind of “discombobulation” after hours on the line doing the same task—“Forditis” they called it. A century later, Mims reports that working at Amazon has only made the problem worse: “the duration and intensity of tedium that must be endured by an Amazon associate is something rarely seen outside of mechanized slaughterhouses and certain kinds of factories.”

Smith’s similar observations appeared in the fifth and final book of Wealth of Nations, in the middle of a discussion of the role of public institutions in society, particularly the need for state-sponsored public education—a view that Smith was far in advance of his times in advocating. Strikingly, Smith cites the division of labor’s mental effects as an argument in support of this proposal. “In the progress of the division of labour,” he begins, “the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations; frequently to one or two.”

Work, Smith points out, is a reciprocal process: Workers form goods, and are, in turn, formed by their labors. Smith worries about the fate of people whose work, say, consists of drawing out wire, or straightening it, or cutting it, hour after hour, as in the famous first example of the division of labor, the pin factory, discussed in the opening pages of Book I. His anxieties center on “the understanding,” a broad and flexible concept in Enlightenment thought that could include a number of mental faculties, including memory, imagination, and reason. All of those faculties are on Smith’s mind here, but he is especially apprehensive about workers’ declining capacity for rational thought:

[T]he understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.

Just as Mims worries now over the unfulfilling tedium of employment at Amazon, Smith worried over the deleterious effects of monotonous work. Doing the same thing over and over, Smith argues, cannot but deaden the mind, and this seems especially to be the case in situations where someone else has already created the perfect labor-saving machine. Smith seems to be imagining what a miserable work-life would look like after Taylorism boils one’s job down to a few, efficient steps.

Smith goes further than Mims, though, in drawing out the long-term consequences of this kind of work: “The torpor of [the worker’s] mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.” But it is not just a problem of private life. The worker, Smith continues, has also been rendered incapable of weighing in on the “great and extensive interests of his country” (i.e., politics) and made unfit for “defending his country in war.” Without irony, Smith argues that the mental lives of workers in “barbarous” nations (i.e., without specialization) are superior because their work confronts them regularly with new and varied problems to solve.

What’s going on here? Is Smith contradicting himself? For some commentators, this passage is something of an embarrassment. More than one has written it off as an “afterthought” that Smith might have been better not to include. (And, indeed, some editions of Wealth of Nations for casual readers treat Book V this way, omitting it entirely.) For other scholars, there is only an apparent inconsistency, one that a deeper reading can resolve by showing that the division of labor isn’t so bad after all. The trouble with both of those approaches is that these concerns are not new in Smith’s writing. Smith had already aired this observation in Lectures on Jurisprudence more than a decade earlier, naming the cognitive consequences of the “perfection” of the division of labor as a major “inconvenience”—that word having much stronger force in Smith’s context, meaning not a personal annoyance but a significant misfortune or problem. (In another work, Smith names the following as “external inconveniences”: poverty, powerlessness, and “the contempt or hatred of those we live with.”) And even within the earlier books of Wealth of Nations, Smith makes a number of gestures in this direction, repeatedly asserting that a farmer has a more stimulating occupation, because agriculture requires one to wear many more hats than a tradesman “whose whole attention, from morning till night, is commonly occupied in performing one or two very simple operations.”

As Fleischacker has wisely pointed out, “imagining one’s self into the details of someone else’s situation” was a cornerstone of Smith’s ethical thought, as is evident in his other classic work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith believed that we could to some degree share others’ feelings “and thereby [be] able to feel true benevolence, justice, and so on toward them.” Fleischacker has revealed that Smith engages in this “phenomenology of another person’s life” earlier in Wealth of Nations. And in Book V, Smith is striving to imagine what tedium would do to you if you had no education and no way out, and his imaginative experiment leads to misgivings. Equally importantly, Fleischacker’s explanation of Smith’s intent fairly describes what Mims has attempted to do in Arriving Today: to take us inside the new conditions of work in order to see the psychological toll of the new deadline-driven distribution of labor. This book is a chance to put ourselves in the place of people inside the supply chain that brings things to our doors.

Taking a “cosmic” view of that supply chain reveals the astonishing results that flow from thousands of unknown collaborators plying their particular trades with an especially practiced hand. That was just as true in the eighteenth century as it is today. And if the good life is measured in material goods, then surely something like a Great Enrichment, to use Deirdre McCloskey's term, was beginning and has continued up to our times. Yet taking the “ground-level” view, as Smith did among factory workers in his time and Mims has done among those in the Amazon economy in ours, leaves us with no illusions about the cognitive consequences of work that has been subdivided to perfection. Certainly, those consequences worried Smith. More urgently, Mims has called those consequences to our attention as a problem of our own time. The cosmic view has only grown more glorious in the two-and-a-half centuries since Smith published Wealth of Nations, but the world on the ground still needs so much work.