Humanity in (Supply) Chains

“Supply chain issues” has become a catch-all term for a lot of frustrations these past few years, but it doesn’t paint a full picture of the situation, leaving out a key element: the humans who make it function. In this episode, my guests and I explore exactly how interconnected we all are, who the people keeping the supply chain running are, and how every decision (no matter how small) has global impact. We even examine how in the end, all of us, whether we’re individuals or business leaders, have the ability to alleviate some of the pressures on the supply chain by making small changes to the way we live.

Join me as I explore how to make the future a brighter place.

Guests this week include Christopher Mims, AJ Jacobs, Charlie Cole, and John C. Havens.

The Tech Humanist Show is a multi-media-format program exploring how data and technology shape the human experience. Hosted by Kate O’Neill. Produced and edited by Chloe Skye, with research by Ashley Robinson and Erin Daugherty at Interrobang.

To watch full interviews with past and future guests, or for updates on what Kate O’Neill is doing next, subscribe to The Tech Humanist Show hosted by Kate O’Neill channel on YouTube, or head to

Full Transcript

Kate: The term ‘supply chain’ was popularized in the 1980s, and has been in use since The Independent coined it in 1905. But in the past few years, especially since the onset of the COVID pandemic, it’s become a household term. And with its growing popularity, it might be time to address something I feel is missing from that language.

Michael Gibb summarized this quite nicely in a piece he wrote for Aeon: “The image of a supply chain has…become so entrenched in our thinking that we find it hard to describe the process in any other way…The success of the supply chain metaphor is now holding us back, limiting our capacity to solve the problems plaguing the global economic system. Like all good metaphors it has pared back complexity in order to expose something fundamental, but in this case, that complexity is us. As products and their journeys have taken centre-stage, we – the people who use and make them – are recast as mere stagehands, guided by economic forces that are ultimately beyond our control.”

This may come as no surprise to followers of my work, but what’s missing from the term is the humans that make the supply chain run, and in a sense—keep it alive.

Christopher Mims: I really wanted to understand the scale of global shipping because it is the physical manifestation of the world economy…it’s weird how we have this blindness, I think, to what I would call the global industrial metabolism. If you think of the earth and human civilization as a big unified system, y’know, it’s an ecosystem. And all of that extraction of material and its transformation into physical goods, and its shipment to us, it really is, y’know it’s like… the leviathan. And this is its metabolism. And we’re a part of it.

Kate: That quote comes from Tech Humanist Show guest Christopher Mims, tech columnist at the Wall Street Journal and author of Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door — Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. We’re starting with it because the biological metaphor he makes helps illustrate the importance of the living beings that built and operate every step along the chain. It’s become too easy to think of it as just a technological marvel, or something too complex to understand, but if we think of it as a living organism, we can find our place in the greater whole. Just as a single white blood cell is part of a larger system that helps fight off infection inside our bodies, each of us is one part of an ever-moving and ever-changing whole that we impact on a daily basis.

You might think your personal decisions don’t have much of an impact on the world around you. But every decision, no matter how small, has global impact: which brand of coffee to stock your break room with, whether to print invoices or send digital copies, where you buy groceries, what brand you buy, who files your taxes—it all plays into the global-scale digital economy that animates the supply chain. As the world is increasingly digitized, those decisions become data, which is then used to code predictive algorithms that shape the future of our world.

So that’s what we’re talking about today: how you affect the supply chain, and how you can make decisions that help build the best future for both technology and humanity.

AJ Jacobs, author of Thanks a Thousand about his quest to thank every person involved in the process of making his morning coffee, came on the show to discuss what he learned about what goes into a single seemingly-simple “cup of coffee.”

AJ Jacobs: It doesn’t take a village to make a cup of coffee, it takes the world. I chose coffee, ‘cause I love to drink coffee, but I could have done the exact same thing for a pair of socks, a pen, this chair I’m sitting on…It takes an incredible amount of technology, and it takes humans! The obvious one I knew about was the barista. And I probably, if I thought about it, I was like, ‘oh yeah, there’s a farmer who grows this,’ but in-between there are hundreds of people! There’s the people who drive the truck that holds the coffee beans, and they couldn’t have done their job if someone didn’t build the road, and make the asphalt, and paint the lines on the road. And government plays a huge part in getting these products to us, ‘cause it’s the government that built the roads, and has the firefighters who will put out the fire if my coffee shop catches on fire…

Kate: Or perhaps that made the regulations that said that there should not be bugs in your coffee.

AJ Jacobs: Right, yeah! I couldn’t believe, when looking at the history of food, how disgusting it was before government regulation. And it has given me quite an appreciation, it’s made me more grateful, because you realize, every product—it’s like a story, and it’s filled with both joy and sadness. As part of my project, I thanked a thousand people, but I could have expanded it. I could have thanked 10,000, or 100,000.

Kate: 100,000 people having a hand in a single cup of coffee may sound extreme, but it’s probably not far off. Globally, almost half a billion people work in the supply chain somehow—which is a number that’s greater than the population of every country in the world except China and India. And when you have that many people involved in anything, it becomes incredibly difficult to keep track of how individuals are being treated, or the global impacts of each tiny decision being made, something AJ had to confront on his journey of gratitude.

AJ Jacobs: A huge issue that I struggled with is, not all the people on the supply chain are necessarily making the world a better place. A lot of the labor is done in developing countries where they don’t earn as much. And one entity that I had to thank was Exxon, because they provide the fuel for the coffee truck, probably for the ships that take it from Columbia to the United States… It was a little bit of an ethical dilemma because I wouldn’t have my coffee without them, but I also think that they are short-term thinkers who are doing incredible damage. I still believe that the positive effects of globalization outweigh the negative, and that it will eventually lift everyone up—’lift all boats’—but it’s… there’s no black and white answer.

Kate: AJ also points out in his book that if everyone along the supply chain was paid a living wage, a single cup of coffee would cost over $25. This is because many workers are extremely underpaid, and in some cases, aren’t paid at all—which is the case with coal miners in North Korea. There, the job of a miner is inherited, rather than chosen, and recent defectors have expressed that those workers are unpaid and aren’t allowed to leave. Those who try to escape are captured and punished at labour training camps. If that sounds like modern slavery, it’s because it is.

You may think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t order anything made in North Korea!’ but due to the complex nature of the supply chain, you may be wrong. 98% of North Korean coal exports go to China, who is one of the world’s largest coal exporters. So if you get your coal—or your electricity—from a company who gets any amount of coal from China, there’s no way to say for certain that it wasn’t provided at least in part by slave labor.

Even if you can say for certain that slave labor had no hand in anything that you buy or produce, the supply chain is rife with child labour, sexual violence, restrictions on trade unions, and often inadequate or a complete lack of job safety. This issue is a growing concern, as G20 countries account for roughly 85% of the world’s GDP and 80% of global trade, which means that while those countries may not be directly responsible for human rights violations within their borders, the vast majority of their wealth comes from the exploitation of human labor abroad.

When we look at the problems on this scale, it can be depressing, overwhelming, and seemingly impossible to make or suggest improvements without crumbling or backing up the entire chain, as Christopher Mims lamented.

Christopher Mims: Step one is really describing the problem, and what I have found again and again is, we haven’t even gotten to step one. Even people who are supposedly experts on supply chains, there can be a tunnel vision—they’re unaware of what goes on in other links in the supply chain. As we saw during the pandemic, trying these sort of ‘point’ solutions doesn’t work. Classic example, Joe Biden gets on TV, he’s like, ‘we’re gonna make the Port of LA Long Beach—where 40% of all goods imported into the US come through—operate 24 hours a day.’ Sounds great! …It doesn’t work. Because if you make that port run 24 hours a day and you want more through it, you have to find a way to incentivize all of the truckers who are taking those shipping containers out of the port to operate 24 hours a day. Then you have to get all the warehouses that they’re taking the shipping containers to to operate 24 hours a day. Also, by the way, there aren’t enough truckers or warehouse space even if you had those ports operating 24 hours a day.

Kate: This is the macro-version of a problem that exists at every stage in production and shipping. If we zoom in and look at an Amazon fulfillment center, for example, we can see the same issue cropping up at every point in the process. Part of the problem is the way these facilities are run, with every action and moment optimized for peak efficiency, turning humans into cogs in an algorithmic machine. Christopher Mims calls this trend “Bezosism.”

Christopher Mims: Bezosism, it’s like the modern-day version of Taylorism or Fordism… the bottom line is, this is how you optimize the repetitive work that people do. Amazon is the best at doing this, but every other company that can is trying to do the same thing: make workers more productive by managing them with software and algorithms, kind of whatever the consequence is. Whether it’s an Amazon warehouse, or any fast-food restaurant you can name, or a call center… all of these places are now managed by algorithm, and the workers are monitored by software. Instead of a boss telling them to work faster, it’s the software cracking the whip and being like, ‘you’re not working fast enough, you need to pick packages faster’ in this Amazon warehouse, or ‘you need to flip burgers faster’ if you work at a McDonald’s. But this is becoming the dominant way that work is organized if you don’t have a college degree, if you’re an hourly worker… we’ll just let the software do it!

Kate: If a task, say, placing an object into a box and sending that box to the next station, is designed and optimized to take, ideally, 7.6 seconds, it cannot take any more or less than 7.6 seconds. If it takes longer, there will eventually be a backup at the station. If the person working at that station sacrifices a safety protocol and takes just 7.5 seconds, the people ahead of them will have to speed up their actions as well, even if that means sacrificing their own safety or physical well-being. Even bathroom breaks are reportedly timed and optimized, with disastrous effects on other workers if someone takes too long to wash up. Put simply: even a fraction of a second multiplied a few thousand times can warp the entire system.

If it turns out that 7.5 seconds is more optimal, the algorithms that run the facility may decide that this is the new normal, and future workers at that terminal will be expected to meet this new quota, regardless of whether they can do so safely. And with Amazon operating around 2,150 fulfillment centers globally, a single person’s action can affect tens of thousands of people worldwide.

Algorithmic decision-making was designed to optimize speed and efficiency, but not necessarily human well-being. In fact, most businesses are designed to continue growing, regardless of the consequences. John C. Havens, Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, explains further.

John C. Havens: Often times, value is framed in exponential growth, right? Not just profit. Exponential Growth is an ideology that’s not just about getting some profit or speed, it’s about doing this. But when you maximize any one thing, other things by definition take less of a focus. And especially with humans, that can be things like mental health. This is not bad or evil, but it is a decision. And in this case it’s a key performance indicator decision, the priority is to get something to market, versus, how can we make innovation about mental health? The answer is outside of the technology. I think if we eschew, and give away—and when I’m saying ‘give away,’ is more like the ultimate sense of why looking at our values are so critical. But the metrics are critical here, because we tend to focus on productivity. So we ignore the now. Most of gratitude is just being able to look at what you have now and say, ‘this is stuff I really treasure and value.’ If parenting, for instance, is one of those things, well then I’m going to allocate time with my kids, even though that half an hour at dinner I could be doing more work.

Kate: Most businesses along the supply chain, at least today, aren’t driven by our values or by maximizing human well-being. They aren’t asking what humans are giving away to meet the expectation of productivity. And in a macro sense, we don’t see what we’re asking other humans to give away so that we are able to get our packages the day after we order them. Ironically, the early days of the birth of the assembly line didn’t look this way. Those days, human input was still valued, which perhaps can give us hope that it might be able to be again. Christopher Mims explains.

Christopher Mims: The Toyota production system was developed in a context of extreme worker agency, of complete loyalty between employer and employee, lifelong employment in Japan, and workers who had the ability to stop the assembly line the instant they noticed that something was not working, and were consulted on all changes to the way that they work. Honestly, most companies in the US cannot imagine functioning in this way, and they find it incredibly threatening to imagine their hourly workers operating this way. Frankly, it is just disrespectful.

Kate: While researching his book, he also had a chance to do a ride-along with a UPS driver, and got a chance to experience the importance of worker agency firsthand—and the consequences of losing it.

Christopher Mims: My host, Jenny Rosato, she’s been a driver for more than 30 years, she’s the only woman driver at her delivery station in Stanford, CT. She knows all of the methods that UPS drivers use to do the same thing over and over again but stay safe. I had this experience of just kind of doing a couple things wrong, spending the whole day with her, my knees were hurting because of the like hard steel stairs that I was kind of leaping down in the wrong way, and I was starting to get sore in other ways because I wasn’t really picking up packages correctly. So, really beginning to understand how those processes have been developed at UPS over so many years, and how much it matters that those drivers do have agency. And it’s because last model delivery is a skilled profession! If human beings are able to develop that skill and their labor is optimized in concert with them, so they have agency, they can get better and better at it, and produce the highest quality ‘goods,’ which in the end is just getting your packages from point A to point B.

Kate: But in the interest of ongoing automation and, again, exponential growth, in general businesses are looking at ways to replace humans as much as possible. Every time this happens, the methods we’ve used along the supply chain become more entrenched and harder to change. Once a machine has been designed for a specific task, that task can’t be altered without also altering everything that comes before and after it, or the new, and probably costly, machine will become obsolete.

And because of the way the system was designed, we just don’t have time for that! Today, the sequence of events that starts with the ingestion of a shipping container into a port from a barge, truck, or train happens more than a million times a day, roughly 13 times a second. That means things can’t be drastically altered without halting or slowing down the entire supply chain.

One thing that does leave room for potential change is that right now, robots are not very good at fine-motor functions, meaning there are still roles for humans. But with every day that passes, today’s status quo gets closer to becoming permanent, and rethinking the way we do things becomes less and less possible.

One thing we should all be able to agree on is that the current system of global shipping is not perfect, so locking in the way it works today will mean trapping ourselves in a system that is not only actively harmful to a good many humans, it’s also inefficient. Charlie Cole, CEO of flower delivery website, spoke to me about one of the reasons our system is as inefficient as it is.

Charlie Cole: The real interesting aspect—and this isn’t unique to flowers, it’s actually true for a lot of businesses and a lot of businesses in the supply chain experienced this during the cargo ship fiasco off of Long Beach port—the source is remarkably centralized. The New York Times did a piece, and they estimated that 90-92% of roses that are bought in America for Valentine’s Day come from Columbia and Ecuador.

Kate: When a single good that is meant to be sent everywhere on the planet comes from a single location, the amount of shipping required goes up dramatically. A famous example is cod: these fish are caught off the coast of Scotland, shipped to China to be filleted, and then sent back to Scotland to be put on the shelves in grocery stores. And yet, this wildly unnecessary 20,000-mile journey is a drop in the ocean compared to how complicated it is to build a single smartphone. A single device contains batteries, which are made in Korea out of lithium from Australia. It also contains microchips, which are first harvested as quartz in Appalachia, merged with silicon grown in Japan, and finally forged into their final form in Taiwan. The internal lasers are manufactured in Texas. The shatterproof glass comes from sand mines in Minnesota that’s shipped to Kentucky to be blown… each phone contains more than 300 components, and each of those has a journey that is just as complex and irrational, all in the name of cost saving and… efficiency?

Even the digital aspects of this business model can be convoluted, as more and more companies shipping the same products outsource to other companies to fulfill their deliveries. Charlie Cole explained how he learned this during a snowstorm, while he was hand-delivering flowers to customers to make up for weather-related supply chain delays in Seattle.

Charlie Cole: The second guy, I was holding a dozen beautiful long-stem roses, and he opens the door and he’s like, ‘wait a minute… there’s supposed to be three dozen.’ And what had happened is, he ordered from a third party that then outsourced one of the three orders to us, and the other two were coming from FedEx. And I was like, ‘woah, that’s a technological challenge.’

Kate: So now that we’ve briefly touched on how complicated the supply chain is, and how hard it can be on the individual humans working within it, let’s get back to you — and all of us. What can we do to make things better?

AJ Jacobs: All you can do is live your life but try to improve anything that you see along the supply chain.

Kate: Every purchasing decision you make has wide-reaching effects on the global supply chain. You may not be able to erase the human rights abuses happening in distant countries, but you can lessen the demand for goods and services that thrive on those cruelties. When you’re due for a phone upgrade, but your phone still works… maybe don’t replace it right away. Even delaying that purchase lessens the burden of demand throughout the supply chain. If you have something you want to buy on Amazon, maybe think about whether you actually need it ‘by tomorrow,’ or if you can wait, maybe even just until you have a few more items in your cart. These are very small changes of habit that can benefit us all to adopt. And if you’re making purchasing decisions for a medium to large sized business, have someone do research on where the products you’re buying are coming from, where their materials are sourced, and see if there is an alternative. It may cost a bit more, but if it doesn’t put as much pressure on the system and the humans that keep it moving, that’s a win for humanity.

Charlie Cole has another way he helps lessen pressure on the supply chain.

Charlie Cole: I think COVID shined a light on this: small businesses are the core of our communities. Right? They are the absolute core, and I think it was always nice to say that, but now we know it…I think to actually effectively run a marketplace which is fulfilled by small businesses, you need to invest as much in helping them win their local market independent of you.

Kate: Patronizing and helping small businesses—especially those utilizing locally-sourced products—is another excellent way to lessen pressures on the supply chain. Go to your local farmer’s market instead of shopping at a massive retail chain! Use a tax service from down the street who you know works with other professionals in the neighborhood, rather than using the massively popular firm that has optimized every step in the process.

And it doesn’t just apply to what you buy—you can also make positive changes by shifting the way you participate in philanthropy. Here’s AJ again with an example.

AJ Jacobs: I of course had to thank the people who provide water to New York City, because coffee is 98.8% water. So I went up and met some of the hundreds of people who work for—the engineers, the chemists, the people who wade out into the reservoir to test it in the middle of winter, and it made me realize just how crazy it is that I’m able to turn a little knob and get drinkable water. And I have to remind myself that this was not true for 99% of human history, it’s still not true for billions of people around the world. So I donated to a charity that provides containers that make safe water for people in developing countries. You gotta look at the big picture when giving to charity—the most effective charities are as much as 100 times as effective than the least effective.

Kate: Do your research and invest in a charity that you know will be effective. Or, if you don’t have time to do that research, AJ recommended an organization called GiveWell, which is associated with the Effective Altruism movement. Their focus is on researching charities for you to determine which ones will do the most good with your money.

When we zoom out to look at the biggest picture, we can see both how massive the system is and how we’re all connected by it. The good news there is that every one of us has the ability to take small actions in how and what we buy, and those small actions, over time, can lead to better outcomes for an awful lot of people. Being intentional about how we engage in the supply chain can also help us feel more appreciative of what we consume, as AJ Jacobs demonstrated so well, and can lead us to make choices even more meaningfully. It’s an amazing thing, this global supply chain, and even if it’s not always easy to be cognizant of it, when we are, it’s very easy to be grateful for it, and for every human being that plays a part in supplying us with what we need and want.

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