I didn't grow up knowing about supply chains. It's not as if a parent sat me down and said, son, we need to have a conversation about how petroleum turned into your Boba Fett. But somehow supply chains are normal now—one of those things a reasonably sophisticated nerd is supposed to know about, like Crispr or blockchain. You can drop supply chains into a conversation and look wise. Walk around your house and pick up anything. Look at your roommate or spouse, even your dog, and say, “Wild to think how this got here, right?”
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They're out of bananas at the deli? Supply chains. Your monthly box of fancy shaving supplies is late? No matches on Tinder? Supply chains. They're always there to explain things, like little mental farm sets (every cow is a billion cows). The monomers are extracted and polymerized, until plastic oozes out of the extruder, and with some molding, your Boba Fett is born—but his journey has just begun. Journalists travel to Shenzhen to uncover supply chains in the same way that the British searched for the source of the Nile.
Supply chain worship is in many ways a modern religion. The best evidence of this is unboxing videos, the sacred communion between the humble individual box opener and the higher powers of manufacturing. It's a story so atavistic and pure that a preverbal child will watch wild-eyed in ecstasy as boxes are opened, plastic cases are separated, and finally some object, absolutely alive with newness, comes out of the box.
I always try to breathe in the air from the box at that moment, whether it's flat-pack furniture or a new six-button mouse. Consider: This object is made of dinosaurs and atoms, extracted from the earth through a variety of processes that are absolutely killing us, assembled by people who may not have many choices, wrapped in language and images produced by marketers, trundled through the world on a journey that our ancestors would have found miraculous. The last light that touched this set of screwdrivers was from a different part of the world. Sometimes I say a grace. Thank you to the people who dug this from the earth, for the people who melted it, for the people who put it together, for the people who carried it to a boat, to the people who carried it into the warehouse. I am grateful for all the labor of strangers. I've barely gone anywhere, but my stuff has seen the world.
And don't forget my organs. I've signed that little box on my non-driver's license for when I flatline. Out they come. Talk about unboxing!
Expensive things have provenance. A beautiful pricey chair is signed by its maker, maybe sold out of her workshop. She'll tell you exactly how the wood was reclaimed from old church rafters. But people are erased from mass-market things, probably because the stories are rarely so nice.
Yet you can, with Googling and poking around Alibaba, start to draw mental maps of where your things were born. You can see pictures from inside the factory. Not just commodities traders in a panic as the price of oil jumps up and down like a toddler, but actual people like you, humans with haircuts.
What becomes clear is that I, in my exalted role as American consumer, think of myself as the end-all-be-all terminus for all the world's supply chains. After all, the commercials are for me, and the products are designed to fit my hand. The world makes, I take. But supply chains are people. And I'm part of them too. I'm not merely a consumer but a producer. I'm a writer. The words I write go on pages and websites. Audiences come, so advertisers follow. Their ads stimulate desire, so orders increase. More factories come online. More container ships are built. Oil fuels the boats. Particulate matter spews into the warming ocean breeze. All because of this one teensy paragraph.
Then there's all that data I make as I click on things or tweet, all my customer intent and engagement that leads microwave vendors to chase me around the internet telling me about yet another microwave and offering to help me understand my AdChoices. And don't forget my organs—I've signed that little box on my non-driver's license for when I flatline. Out they come. Talk about unboxing! Although I doubt anyone will want this heart when I'm done with it. And there are those two fertilized eggs we left frozen at the clinic, to be donated to anyone who'd want them. We wrote a letter for whoever received them, a note to the future with very little hope of response. Off they went, those eggs, into a chain of medical custody purposefully obscured from the donors, until they grew into humans, or didn't, or maybe haven't yet.
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Trade routes never leave us. We're still pulling amphorae out of the Adriatic, tracking the path of carnelian from the Ganges to Byzantium, wishing we could ride camels along the golden road to Samarkand. And just as often those are still our trade routes. They've been testing underwater data centers—just load 'em up and drop 'em in, to save on air-conditioning. I wonder if, in the near or far future, they'll pull a container out of the rising seas, scrape off the barnacles, and boot up the ancient hard drives to find a trillion lines in a log file. They'll see us for what we were: data points inside a vast system, idly buying nonsense on eBay, watching countless Twitch streams, downloading PDFs and nonfiction we never read.
“God,” says one graduate student to the next, “they were terrible.”
You can see us struggling with this lesson in humility as the virus runs its first lap: It is an absolute insult to our self-regard. It spits on the US free market and giggles, chuckles at China's Belt and Road initiative. It coughs all over our freedoms. People march with guns to show who's boss and you can feel it putting its head back and laughing uproariously, knowing that two weeks from now some of them will be very, very sad. Ships filled with unwanted oil float off the coast, and our PPE might as well have been on the bottom of the sea. There is no vaccine to unbox. Byzantium has turned our sails away.
And yet, my spouse came home two nights ago after a rare trip out of the house and brought with her a little frozen milk treat. New food! Wonderful variety! Reading its label, I learned it came from Lithuania, a sweet frozen cheese from Vilnian cows. From there our treat traveled frozen to New Jersey (the Lithuania of America) to be packaged, then was taken by truck to a tidy little grocery in Brooklyn called Baku Store. From thence to our table and onto our fingers, sweet and cold. The world is a guest in my house, and I am the world's guest too.
Paul Ford (@ftrain) is a programmer, essayist, and cofounder of Postlight, a digital product studio.
This article appears in the July/August issue. Subscribe now.
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