The work of precision

The word precision comes with two dominant meanings. In its more common usage, it implies exactness, accuracy, and attention to minute technical details. But the word also has a philosophical usage that deals with the practices or actions that separate ideas from one another—the drawing of mental distinctions of one fact from another. In the first usage, precision is a manifestation of technical expertise and technological detail.

In the scholarly literature about logistics, this much is evident by the explosion of research that presents the design and management of global distribution through a thoroughly rationalized lens of science and engineering. The importance of this imaginary is evident across the logistics landscape, often framed as a system of precise, just-in-time distribution is characterized by speed, a cohesive suite of technically and technologically skilled workers efficiently moving things through bright, colorful (and often technologically assisted) spaces, and cost reductions as experienced at its endpoints of consumer demand and consumer satisfaction.


Imagined this way, precision circulation is part of a fantasy world in which borders disappear, technologies seamlessly and accurately assist, and people and places are engaged in purely rational actions. They are manifestations of the neoclassical economists’ dream of a distinct economic space and economic object.

But in turning to its second definition, precision also implies a political act, the crafting of distinctions between things. Thinking about these political distinctions—the this and not thats, the inclusions and exclusions—is useful, as it pushes us to abandon the idea that precision logistical systems emerge solely or primarily through the “highly depoliticized lens of digital networks and algorithmic decision making.” These techno-fantasies often rely on the disarticulations of messy or violent bodily encounters, excess or redundant spaces, and incomplete or fragmented structures. These displacements are aspects of logistical systems that are necessary for them to function, but undercut the idea that precision is primarily a coherent, rational, technical pursuit.

What would be uncovered about the nature of precision logistics if we engage with the ways that the everyday usage of precision is at the same time a practice of cutting off, of abstraction and separation—that precision is a technical and a political act?

Empire of Cotton

I’m reading Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, and I really liked this diagram. It’s really simple, but manages to convey the key aspects of a fantastically complex story in one clear image. Must be my architecture school background rearing its head…


Beckert Sven, 2014. Empire of Cotton: A Global History.



Dumond, John, Marygail Brauner, and Rick Eden. 2001. Velocity Management: The Business Paradigm That Has Transformed U.S. Army Logistics.

Urban Infrastructure

Recycle 1 Recycle 1

Took a field trip to one of Brooklyn’s plastic and metal recycling facilities with my kid’s school today.

Visualizing the Casualties of War

Here’s an interesting project by Neil Halloran that uses datavis to help articulate the scope and scale of casualties in the Second World War:

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

Watching this reminded me of a number of Derek Gregory’s posts interrogating the difficulties that emerge from quantifying and mapping wartime casualties.

And there are indeed important complications to consider here. Where, for instance, is the limit between civilian and combatant? How do we geographically locate of a casualty of war (i.e. how far from the frontlines counts as a war casualty)? And what is the length of time after direct hostilities that a casualty can be considered a war casualty (I’m thinking here of Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’)?

Nonetheless, I think the narrative and aesthetics above produce a compelling visualization that affects the viewer in a way that text doesn’t. It would be interesting to revisit some of my archival work with the intention of visualizing it. I wonder what different directions and conclusions that methodological approach might yield.

You don't believe data

N. passed along this passage from a book she’s reading, The Water Knife, which from the way she’s described it, is clearly a book I’ll be reading when she’s done:

“This was never about believing…This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don’t believe data–you test data.” He grimaced.”If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. 2015