Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

If I've done my job, the book you're holding is a skeleton key. It should help you unlock insights into the past, present, and future of automation and work. It should provide a window into the lives of the people who are most affected by the rapidly changing ways we buy, sell, and transport the billions of dollars' worth of stuff we consume every day. And it should tell you something about your own life—why everyone remains so busy despite the conveniences and instant gratification we have created for ourselves.

These might seem like unusual topics for a book that traces the path of an everyday object from the factory in which it was created, in Southeast Asia, to the front door of a home in the United States. But it turns out that something as seemingly mundane as next-day delivery could not happen without many of the most transformative technologies developed in the past one hundred years. Explaining how tapping a button on your phone yields pretty much any consumer good you could want, at your doorstep, within twenty-four hours also necessitates explaining how all the innovations that make it possible—and the people who use them—come together in a planetary-scale clockwork mechanism whose behavior is impossible to understand without building it up from its smallest constituent parts.

The landscape of technologies and systems we'll traverse ranges from the sublime—the solution of impossible mathematical problems, the nanotechnology of microchips—to the mundane—the perfection of highways, shipping containers, the architecture of large ships, management of ports, and the speedup of all manual and mental labor.

Along the way, you'll become convinced, I hope, of this astonishing fact: You live inside a factory. We all do. And you are also a worker inside that factory. As are we all. When any one of us orders something online and has it delivered to our door, we are making ourselves the end point of a conveyance system pioneered by, among others, Henry Ford. Just as he optimized the flow of parts and automobiles through his factories, we have all optimized the flow of goods, both necessary and aspirational, into our homes and lives.

In the twenty-first century, how things get to us matters as much as how they're made. With the manufacturing of even a single object spread across ever more intermediary stages, factories, and countries, in many ways the supply chain and the factory floor are now indistinguishable. Adding you, the consumer, to the equation and molding your behavior to make it more compatible with this system, through algorithms and marketing tricks, is trivial compared to all the effort that comes before you click the Buy button.

By dumb luck, I managed to put myself at the start of the journey of an item, in a factory in Vietnam, at the very moment the global Covid-19 pandemic was just getting started in China. The pandemic stretched the supply chain described in this book to its very limit and beyond. Trends that might have taken a decade were compressed into a span of a few months. Virtually overnight, we were all checking our phones daily, looking for that little notification: Arriving Today. So, to add yet another thread to this book, you also get to see the accelerated transformation of the world's supply chains from the inside, as it happened, and as I witnessed it firsthand.

Where before the odd item here or there might have been delivered to our doors, with the onset of lockdowns, suddenly it was almost everything. From toilet paper to sweatpants, webcams to groceries, whatever we could order without going outside, we did. Simultaneously, millions of people who lost their jobs switched careers and became part of the supply chains of the next-day delivery upon which the rest of us relied. This book is the story of both sides of that equation. It explores the lives of people who make supply chains possible and of those who designed them in the first place. As such, it's also an exposition of the underlying drivers of America's growing inequality in wealth, income, and rights in the workplace.

For those of you who have enjoyed my weekly column on technology in the Wall Street Journal, there is also in the pages that follow a surplus of technology, described with an attention to detail that will thrill some and have others skipping ahead. (Please do: This is a long book, and it's my hope that some of its sections will be worth the price of entry for those of you with narrower interests than the entire saga it chronicles.)
 
You will learn what technology your cell phone has in common with spacecraft, cruise missiles, and the navigation systems of Polynesian explorers. You'll also find a (hopefully) accessible explanation of the "thinking" process of the AI (artificial intelligence) that drives an autonomous vehicle. You'll learn why automated warehouses are like microchips that process stuff instead of bits, and how the two were designed with the same principles in mind.
...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

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Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

If I've done my job, the book you're holding is a skeleton key. It should help you unlock insights into the past, present, and future of automation and work. It should provide a window into the lives of the people who are most affected by the rapidly changing ways we buy, sell, and transport the billions of dollars' worth of stuff we consume every day. And it should tell you something about your own life—why everyone remains so busy despite the conveniences and instant gratification we have created for ourselves.

These might seem like unusual topics for a book that traces the path of an everyday object from the factory in which it was created, in Southeast Asia, to the front door of a home in the United States. But it turns out that something as seemingly mundane as next-day delivery could not happen without many of the most transformative technologies developed in the past one hundred years. Explaining how tapping a button on your phone yields pretty much any consumer good you could want, at your doorstep, within twenty-four hours also necessitates explaining how all the innovations that make it possible—and the people who use them—come together in a planetary-scale clockwork mechanism whose behavior is impossible to understand without building it up from its smallest constituent parts.

The landscape of technologies and systems we'll traverse ranges from the sublime—the solution of impossible mathematical problems, the nanotechnology of microchips—to the mundane—the perfection of highways, shipping containers, the architecture of large ships, management of ports, and the speedup of all manual and mental labor.

Along the way, you'll become convinced, I hope, of this astonishing fact: You live inside a factory. We all do. And you are also a worker inside that factory. As are we all. When any one of us orders something online and has it delivered to our door, we are making ourselves the end point of a conveyance system pioneered by, among others, Henry Ford. Just as he optimized the flow of parts and automobiles through his factories, we have all optimized the flow of goods, both necessary and aspirational, into our homes and lives.

In the twenty-first century, how things get to us matters as much as how they're made. With the manufacturing of even a single object spread across ever more intermediary stages, factories, and countries, in many ways the supply chain and the factory floor are now indistinguishable. Adding you, the consumer, to the equation and molding your behavior to make it more compatible with this system, through algorithms and marketing tricks, is trivial compared to all the effort that comes before you click the Buy button.

By dumb luck, I managed to put myself at the start of the journey of an item, in a factory in Vietnam, at the very moment the global Covid-19 pandemic was just getting started in China. The pandemic stretched the supply chain described in this book to its very limit and beyond. Trends that might have taken a decade were compressed into a span of a few months. Virtually overnight, we were all checking our phones daily, looking for that little notification: Arriving Today. So, to add yet another thread to this book, you also get to see the accelerated transformation of the world's supply chains from the inside, as it happened, and as I witnessed it firsthand.

Where before the odd item here or there might have been delivered to our doors, with the onset of lockdowns, suddenly it was almost everything. From toilet paper to sweatpants, webcams to groceries, whatever we could order without going outside, we did. Simultaneously, millions of people who lost their jobs switched careers and became part of the supply chains of the next-day delivery upon which the rest of us relied. This book is the story of both sides of that equation. It explores the lives of people who make supply chains possible and of those who designed them in the first place. As such, it's also an exposition of the underlying drivers of America's growing inequality in wealth, income, and rights in the workplace.

For those of you who have enjoyed my weekly column on technology in the Wall Street Journal, there is also in the pages that follow a surplus of technology, described with an attention to detail that will thrill some and have others skipping ahead. (Please do: This is a long book, and it's my hope that some of its sections will be worth the price of entry for those of you with narrower interests than the entire saga it chronicles.)
 
You will learn what technology your cell phone has in common with spacecraft, cruise missiles, and the navigation systems of Polynesian explorers. You'll also find a (hopefully) accessible explanation of the "thinking" process of the AI (artificial intelligence) that drives an autonomous vehicle. You'll learn why automated warehouses are like microchips that process stuff instead of bits, and how the two were designed with the same principles in mind.
...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...