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Alone with Machines
Tales of technology and work from Ben Judah's This Is Europe
One purpose of this newsletter is to chronicle a world that is increasingly saturated with technology. In no other era have machines had such an intimate presence in human life, or such a pervasive one.
Inevitably though, I give a skewed picture of this reality. I’m interested in the cultural impact of technology, and today culture is almost synonymous with the appeal of various kinds of media and consumer products. So I tend to thinks of us as users of gadgets and platforms, as targets of advertising and design decisions. But what about all those activities, and especially those forms of work, that are not visible in consumer culture?
Despite the constant creep of automation, people are still needed to dig and build, to make and move things, and to perform all sorts of menial roles. More often than not, they are interacting with machines. Yet when I write about these industries that underpin modern society – and I’m far from alone here – I often treat them as impersonal systems, rather than sites of human experience in their own right.
A valuable corrective comes from a new book by Ben Judah, This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now. It is an original and beautifully written work of reportage, giving a snapshot of a rapidly changing continent through the stories of twenty-three people. The cast includes a shepherd, a porn star, an air steward and an imam, to name just a few. This is not the Europe we know from newspapers, history books or tourism; it is what Judah calls “the lived Europe.” And one of its most striking features is the entanglement of people and technology in the hidden corners of society.
Our first glimpse of Europe, in Judah’s opening chapter, reveals an unfamiliar, mechanised landscape. We are looking through the eyes of Jelle, a harbour pilot, guiding container ships into Rotterdam. As we approach, we behold the port in the distance “like a city of coiled lights, like a space station, like a semiconductor.” Then
you begin to see it.
The chimneys. The windmills. The blinking red.
Houses. Landing bays.
“The beginning of Europe.”
And then, over them, those huge machines.
The imagery only becomes more surreal as Jelle contemplates the purpose of this place, the destination of supercargoes from around the world. He imagines the continent as a vast metabolism: “We’re feeding the mouth of Europe. Full of little parcels. Filling it with little pieces of crap.”
This opening introduces a number of important themes. The first is the fragmentation of society into a multitude of different settings, unseen and unimagined spaces whose character is determined almost purely by economic efficiency. Another is the domination of humanity by machines within these settings, as people find themselves little more than cogs in a global circulation of goods, resources and data.
Several of Judah’s subjects compare their places of work, explicitly or implicitly, to prisons. This is not just because they feel trapped there, but because these spaces have their own punitive logic, seemingly detached from normal society. A Romanian lorry driver, alone with the “constant groaning” of his engine for months at a time, sees Europe as
The same thing over and over again: endless dual carriageways, perpetual warehouses, more perimeter fences. The same colours. Concrete. Dark tamac. Metallic grey. Corrugated green. Endless passing cars. The same panic.
Another man works on a gas field in Russia’s remote north. This is a barely habitable world, where workers lose their minds and disappear into the tundra, where an accident can involve being pulverised by an industrial drill. He too pictures Europe as a giant corporeal process – “like blood vessels, he thought, the pipelines coming in from Russia” – and describes his environment as “more like prison than anything else.”
In other cases, technology is the tool of exploitation. The limitless reach of digital networks makes them adept at finding the vulnerable. A twelve year-old Latvian girl, desperate for money to fund her education, starts working as a camgirl for anonymous foreigners. (“Panties down BB,” they demand. “Show PUSSY.”) A Syrian refugee in Germany, not wanting to lose his wife’s access to medical benefits, takes a black market Amazon delivery job, contracted out by the local mafia. His manager is a logistics app that tracks his movements relentlessly, hounding him if he takes a wrong turn or falls behind schedule.
The most striking similarity among all of these workers is constant, visceral stress, accompanied by a conscious sense of dehumanisation. A number of them remark that their work has physically and mentally bent them into a different shape. As the aforementioned lorry driver puts it: “I think we only endure this because the organism adapts… it has to.”
It is tempting to compare these individuals with those who bore the brunt of an earlier phase of mechanisation, in the factories of the industrial age. The parallel is no doubt misleading in all sorts of ways, but it does draw attention to one significant aspect of technology and labour today. For all the brutality of their conditions, industrial workers in earlier generations were visible to each other and to the rest of society. They gathered in large numbers on a daily basis, in settings that formed an unmissable part of the urban landscape.
In the Europe of today, by contrast, much of the work involved in our supply chains is defined by isolation. Drivers are solitary, recruited and managed by software. Logistics centres and industrial facilities are spatially and experientially removed from the everyday life of the majority. The most gruelling jobs, moreover, are often filled by migrant workers with little cultural connection to each other or the societies where they toil.
Of all the ways that technology facilitates this isolation, perhaps the most insidious relates to the screen where you are reading this now. Enveloped in our media cocoons, swaddled by advertising and entertainment, it is all too easy to disassociate from the people whose work sustains our way of life, even when they routinely deliver products to our doors.
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