Cities, Rural Migrants and the Urban Poor


Logistical Worlds : Infrastructure, Software, Labour

Concept Note


Logistical Worlds: Infrastructure, Software, Labour (2013-2016) moves between Athens, Kolkata and Valparáiso, investigating regimes of circulation and containment that connect China’s manufacturing industries to different corners of the world. This is particularly evident in processes of global production where the assembly of goods across distant sites means that objects and knowledge must continually travel between locations. Logistics has thus contributed to the production of an increasingly heterogeneous arrangement of global space and time. One sign of this is the proliferation of special economic zones, concessions, industrial parks, transport hubs and other dedicated spaces, which have provided a new geography for organizing production, attracting investment and regulating the supply of labour. But logistics is something more than a system for searching out and connecting diverse firms and labour forces on the basis of cost or other parameters. Logistics also actively produces environments and subjectivities, including those of workers and labour forces, through techniques of measure, coordination and optimization. Logistics must be seen as a set of practices that make worlds.


The focus of this research is on how infrastructure and software combine as technologies of governance that coordinate and control logistical operations and labour practices situated in select sites. Recalling the historical Silk Road of trade and cultural transmission that connected Asia to Europe, the geostrategic concept of the New Silk Road has emerged to register the logistical measures already being put in place by commercial entities and policy makers to meet the expected changes as Asia overtakes Europe as the world’s largest trading region. At stake is the forging of new trade corridors that connect East Asia to Latin America and extend across the Indian subcontinent to southern Europe, where China’s state owned shipping company, Cosco, has undertaken a major infrastructural investment in Piraeus.


How to study this China-led globalisation through infrastructural interventions? This question prompts the investigation of logistical operations that fabricate the emerging trade network known as the New Silk Road. Moving between software studies and geocultural analysis of labour regimes, the project tracks algorithmic arrangements of power across the tri-continental sites of Piraeus, Valparaíso and Kolkata. These are spaces of docking and interface, material flow and restriction, in which logistics antagonizes labour. The extraction of time and social life from populations underscores economies of measure. Whether understood through the techniques of supply chain management or the architecture of real-time computation, logistics materializes the abstractions of capital. Subjectivity and labour expose the power and vulnerability of logistical worlds.


The project is part of ARC Discovery project, 'Logistics as Global Governance: Labour, Software and Infrastructure along the New Silk Road'  led by Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney with  partner researchers from Greece, India, Chile, Italy, Canada and the UK. Calcutta Research Group collaborated as the partner in India to help develop these concepts: 

Infrastructure is matter that moves matter (Larkin). At once mundane and monumental, infrastructure enables capital’s expansion. Infrastructure is more than groundwork. Infrastructure cuts across corridors, fibres and code with imperial force. Yet infrastructure is vulnerable. Striking against infrastructure requires not just sabotage but constitutive acts of organization. Infrastructure permeates technical and algorithmic divisions to become both concrete and soft. Infrastructure is not boring. Infrastructure aestheticizes rationality.


Labour is not simply work. Labour is the name of  subjectivity under the domination of state and capital. Labour lives and is animated by energy, unrest and movement. Labour inheres in bodily and cognitive relations. Labour is subject to  processes of abstraction that seek  to reduce it to temporal measure. The tension between abstract and living labour is constitutive of political struggle. This tension crosses bodies and  souls. It also shapes global space. Logistical labour emerges at the interface between infrastructure, software protocols and design. Labour time is real-time.


Logistics is a programmer’s game. Logistical methods of  organization apply to production and patterns of mobility. The global logistics industries are key to understanding emerging configurations of the social as well as their implied technologies and labour regimes. The primary task of logistics is to manage the movement of people and things in the interests of communication, transport and  economic efficiencies. Central to logistics is the question and scope  of governance, both of  labouring subjects and the treatment of objects or things. Logistics arranges objects in space and time according to the demands of capital. Logistics puts anything, anywhere at anytime. Logistics is magic (Lyster).


Standards are everywhere. Standards assume politics. Standards assume decision. More precisely, standards assume a political economy through which power is asserted. Their capacity to interlock with one
another and adapt to change over time and circumstance are key to their power as non-state agents of governance. Standards underpin capital accumulation and political hegemony from the micro level of algorithmic apparatuses to the macro level of global infrastructures. Standards are crucial to the interoperability of protocols across software platforms and infrastructural components. The labour of creating standards never ends. Standards conflict as much as they match. The best thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from (Tanenbaum).


Protocols govern systems. Their technics and rules of organization shape the extraction and divorce of value from those engaged in logistical modes of production. The capacity for standards to hold traction depends on protocological control. But there are also standards for protocols. Protocols are the immaterial  groundwork of material infrastructures. Protocols enable soft forms of power. Protocols are the invisible servants to logistical operations that mobilize people, finance and things. By reducing the world to rules, we ruin our imagination to overthrow regimes – technological, social, economic, political. Protocols demand conformity. Protocols give no truck to contingency.


Parametric rules govern time, space and the mobility of people, finance and things. Parameters set limits that define and delimit ranges of activity and action. Logistics organizes labour as an abstraction within parameters governed by software. In computer science a parameter is a function, command or ‘formal argument’ that establishes the reference for an ‘actual argument’, which then executes the command of the parameter. A change in parameters alters the operation of a program, model or simulation. Logistical operations are specific to the values that define the functions of parameters. Yet such operations are accompanied and perhaps preconditioned by the possibility of breaking and remaking rules. Therein lies the politics of parameters.

Algorithms arrange infrastructural power. Algorithms play a vital role in calculating the material properties and organizational capacities of infrastructure. Algorithms build computational systems of governance that hold a variable relation between the mathematical execution of code and external environments defined through arrangements of data. Algorithms instruct things to do things to things. Algorithms create patterns. Condensing code and sociality, algorithms generate movement through data processing, scraping and forecasting. Algorithms drive financial markets, operate transport and communications infrastructure, connect global supply chains and allocate resources. Algorithms evaluate labour productivity and capital gains in real-time. Algorithms displace experts and transform worlds.


Chains supply. Chains connect. Chains bind. Chains link multiple units into single linear systems. Chains produce value. Chains join enterprises through relations of subcontracting and outsourcing. Chains proliferate difference within structures of economic power. Chains balance robustness against agility. Chains stimulate standardization. Chains grow gaps between rich and poor. Chains generate varied forms of hierarchy and exclusion. Chains connect diverse firms and labour forces (Tsing). Chains mobilize the political fantasy of hitting at the weakest link. Workers of the world have nothing to lose but their chains.


Zones are territories for organizing logistical operations. With historical precedents in free ports, pirate enclaves and colonial concessions, zones have multiplied their presence in the contemporary global landscape. Zones are instruments of market rationality subject to irrational proliferation. Zones generate undeclared forms of polity (Easterling). Authoritarian capitalism conjures zones as spaces where anything can happen, liberal democracy presents them as hideaways for its constitutive coercions. Neither sites of transition nor development, zones are spaces where dispossession meets exploitation. Zones are not fields for your ethnography. Keep out and don’t ask questions!


Corridors connect zones. Corridors bundle infrastructure along axes to narrow space and accelerate time. Corridors establish channels or pipelines of movement that intensify logistical organization and its accompanying tensions and conflicts. Stable regulations, well-developed communications, efficient transport systems and uniform software implementations are the basic requirements for establishing corridors. Yet corridors cross borders and negotiate variegated conditions of capitalism. Corridors string governance across gaps of knowledge and topography.  Power vacates the office. Decisions are made in the corridor.


All optimization is partial. Optimization modifies design to improve efficiency and performance. Optimization is the art and science of the tweak. Optimization drives labour hard. Optimization is clean. Optimization marshals mathematics to the ends of capital. Optimization generates externalities of time and dirt (Douglas). Linear or quadratic, unconstrained or bound, optimization embraces variables but shuns deviation. Optimization transcends heuristics. Optimization divides the world into levels or orders, selecting or finding possibilities within hierarchies. Optimization is not utopian. Optimization settles for the sufficiently good.

Contingency is the nightmare of logistics. Contingency is more than unpredictability or randomness. Contingency registers the force of material practices and events that disrupt logistical operations. Labour strikes, software glitches, inventory blowouts, traffic gridlocks – all interrupt the desire for a smooth world that animates logistical interventions and fantasies. Contingency produces variation and movement that prompt the invention of standards and protocols. Contingency demands ‘fault tolerance’ to make logistical worlds seamless. Once a normative state has been achieved, disruption and renewal can happen again. Contingency makes logistics.


The part of the project studied by CRG will revolve around the idea of shifts in logistical infrastructure of the Calcutta port in the context of development of new trade routes and implementation of the Look East policy of the Indian government. The specifics of development of a port system in Calcutta and uniqueness of its strategic location (intertwined with the port system at Haldia) will also come under scrutiny. Apart from that, the town of Siliguri, a nerve centre of military logistics, located in the northern part of West Bengal and connecting trade routes with several neighbouring states and countries will also appear in this study in the context of logistical development and generation of various forms of informality and illegality. Study the strategic position of the port of Calcutta, to look into the vision of forming of a port system taking into consideration both Calcutta and Haldia.


The first question relevant for a genealogical analysis was pointed out, namely: What made Calcutta such a major port in the past, despite its being a river port? It was suggested that here we need to explore the key question whether Calcutta being the capital of the British empire helped the port thrive or was it the other way round insofar as the port gave British power, entrenched in Bengal, a huge leverage in empire building? Following that trail the other question that was raised was: Does the old factors that made the Kolkata port such an important entrepot for trade and commerce still hold good -- if not wholly, at least partially? Or else what explains Calcutta port's survival? Is it only it is a public sector undertaking, or has it much to do with Calcutta's geo-strategic and geo-economic location?


The objective would be to underscore the linkages between calculations governed by spatial considerations and speculations insisting on space making exercises so that the material foundations of infrastructure, software and labour come to the surface. What is even more interesting in this context is the fact that KPT is still a public sector enterprise with thousands of permanent staff and millions of dollars in built-in assets – a typical case in many Asian countries. The connections between various forms of calculation about the details of pilotage and drafting, revenue and expenditure of the port system, valuation and depreciation of human and non-human assets, risk assessment and insurance technologies, etc., and modalities of financialization of space by reforms in rent structure and revaluation of land holdings with a strong emphasis on investments in creating special ‘economic’ and ‘aesthetic’ zones as part of the urbanization drives in neoliberal capitalism cannot be addressed if we do not consider the governmental apparatuses that are in operation here.


Similarly there is a need to rethink the geo-imagination of north Bengal at a time when its ideational remit is being expanded by statist defence neurosis as well as everyday practices of mobile peoples. Conjointly, is it possible to think of this reimagined north Bengal as more integrally a part of the northeast, with its border economy and its “travelling actors”, so to speak? At another level, through its rhizomic entanglement of control, crime, communication and capital, Siliguri shows us that a border economy does not remain confined to the border and borderlands but seeps and segues into the so-called mainland to bring about powerful transformations in the economies of the mainland and cities therein. Going a step forward, it may be said that the metro-polarities of Siliguri present before us the idea of what may be paradoxically called a “futuristic archetype” of a border-city. It is archetypical in the Jungian sense of being a mental image— a dream project— that is already-always present in the collective unconscious and yet, insofar as it is a mental image, it is an abstraction that is realizable only at some indeterminate and permanently deferred point in the future. In this sense, Siliguri approximates the untimely; for, as Deleuze tells usand probably fittingly for Siliguri, “there is no present which is not haunted by a past and a future, by a past which is not reducible to a former present, by a future which does not consist of a present to come."


The following points would be addressed in the study: (1) Cost of operation in the port; (2) Locating the shifts in the infrastructural network of the port, and in this context the possibilities and recent programmes of revival of the port; (3) Given that the port is considered as belonging to service sector, possibilities of introduction of fresh business areas and coming of new stakeholders which can make the port more alive; (4) Uniqueness of the geo-political location of the Calcutta port (along with Haldia port) and its hinterland; thus studying the location of Calcutta in the framework of trade routes to northern and north-eastern part of India, and the possibility of road connectivity between Calcutta and Thailand.; (5) specificity of the port in the global network of logistical connectivity, particularly in the East and the North east; and (6) pattern of crime, disaster management and security system.


Research Period and Nature


·   The research will take one year and will include one conference and one planning workshop;

·   The planning workshop should be held in the second month and the conference may be held around the eighth month of the research period, or at the end of the research;

·   The research will be part desk based (library, archives, and news analysis) and part ethnographic involving Kolkata and Siliguri

·   Desk based research should take about 8-10 months; the various ethnographic components should take about 5-6 months. In the final three months the desk and the ethnographic work can be combined.

·  The work will need one full time analyst cum investigator for one year and three part time investigators for five months (four months of field work and one month for writing the reports);

· Geographers, area studies specialists, sociologists, ethnologists, gender and indigenous peoples’ rights activists, and communications and logistics specialists will be part of the planning meeting and the conference;
·  The work will produce maps, research papers, web-entries, documents publication, and an most importantly an archive of various primary documents and new reports that will give us a long picture of a developing logistical vision as well the anomaly and conflicts in this vision.



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