Futures are always arriving. They are never evenly distributed.
Over the past year, those of us lucky enough to hang on to our WFH jobs have lived a life that might have previously sounded science-fictional, if not paradoxical: a life of extreme isolation predicated on almost continuous connectivity.
Depending on how distributed your workplace was before, within a matter of days or weeks in March 2020, you retreated into your kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, closet, or virtual Zoom background. To become a ghost of pixels, you leaned out or in. You became or failed to avoid becoming a virtual animal. I’m here live, I am not a cat! You took what pleasure you could in the thin camaraderie of memes.
You scrambled to find relatives or professionals or impossible reserves of inner energy to keep your child, or children, remotely happy in remote school. Or you kept swiping through dating apps. Maybe you did teletherapy. Maybe you ordered groceries from Instacart or takeout from Grubhub. You almost certainly bought more things online. In 2020, as brick and mortar stores still standing in the ongoing “retail apocalypse” struggled to make ends meet, especially in the expensive urban markets where periodic lockdowns occurred, ecommerce grew by 40 percent.
Powered by the cloud, life went on. Vast machine learning systems designed to predict consumer demand at the zip code level sprang into action. City streets filled with delivery trucks as shipments that used to go en masse to big-box stores were rerouted to individual households.
Go every man unto his City. Whatever happens with vaccines and variants in the coming months, it is clear that this period has accelerated certain trends towards the decentralization of work and the concentration of wealth. In the process, it has also created an opportune moment to reconsider fundamental questions, such as: What are the best ways for a society to distribute its risks and rewards? What role do digital technologies play in the process?
In this issue, our contributors talk about distribution in many different senses. These include: the distribution of physical objects, like pieces of US mail and utilities like electricity; the use of algorithms to distribute work and wealth and risk; the distribution of computing power, including to devices not typically thought of as “smart.”
Distribution links mundane questions of logistics and lofty questions of justice. How should a society spread around life chances? Who should control information about genes that may partially predict them? In the US, education and technology are dubious fix-alls. Around the world, groups of tech workers are making new kinds of demands on how the power and wealth generated by new technologies should be distributed. We see both the global dispersal of ideas and the importance of local differences. It may look different for gig drivers in Bengaluru or Jakarta than at HQ of Alphabet.
As we closed the issue, vaccination rates in the US picked up and a container ship, having completed tracing an obscene graffito, then wedged itself in the Suez Canal. This year has been a reminder that, even as many of us have been more isolated than we would have ever thought possible, everything remains connected to everything else.
There are fish getting sick in lakes in Zhejiang, China. This is because Midwestern moms who lost their jobs during Covid have stepped up their side hustles selling freshwater pearls on Facebook Live. The pearl farmers in Zhejiang pour pig poop into the ponds to feed the algae that feed the mussels that grow the pearls. The phosphorus and nitrogen from the pig poop get into the groundwater.
There are landfills in Nigeria glittering with snow leopard necklaces because in Winter 2019 Facebook analytics told US dropshippers that in that Spring / Summer women 18-25 who liked something and something else would also like snow leopards, and AliExpress made it too easy for any dropshipper with a Shopify storefront and Oberlo integration to automate placing orders for the necklaces.
There are Bulgarians selling batches of defective suspension brakes they bought cheap from Bangladeshis through Amazon Marketplace. When those brakes fail, and a car crashes and kills not just the driver but everyone around it, will the cops called to the scene think to look for fake suspension brakes? No. They’ll just see an accident.
We are making most of this up. But we hear things like it on good authority, or what seems like it, all the time. Look at any piece of the world system too closely and it will give you the pleasurable sensation of any good conspiracy thriller. Am I going insane? Or am I the only one who grasps the secret logic of the whole?
Some uncertainties about where to draw lines are ethics. Some are cop-outs. As a new world opens or reopens, with a new will to build or rebuild, everything depends on knowing the difference.