Grounding UPS: An Infrastructural Ethnography of a Logistics Corporation
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AbstractUnited Parcel Service Inc., universally known as UPS, is the largest shipping company in the world. Holding one of the largest cargo airlines, continental ground networks, and oceanic freight forwarding systems across the globe, UPS is one of the key players in commercial and industrial logistics, globally. Crossing over two hundred countries and territories, and passing through all climate zones, UPS operations navigate terrestrial, oceanic, and fluvial spaces of the earth into a practically seamless and thickened landscape of logistical movements. Through an aggressively integrated process of incorporation and diversification of products, services, operations, and modes of transportation, UPS has become a vastly incorporated spatial system of adaptation, whose primary function is, as the company claims, “synchronizing the world of commerce.” In this sense, this incorporated state of logistics can be understood as a centralized organizational mechanism of contemporary global trade and internalized computational platform of a globalized supply chain of third-party agents, where geospatial arrangements and configurations follow temporal forces of an ever-expanding transnational trade space.
Enabled by and engaged in a range of urban territories, regions, and spaces, UPS not only ships goods according to an ever-growing electronic market place, it actually responds to and shapes processes of urbanization through a calibrated process of mobilization of resources, systems, services, cargo, and labor. Building upon a range of empirical, analytical, and observed sources, this study purposely and necessarily engages multiple fields of expertise at the intersection of geography, landscape, and territorial studies, and the fields of political economy, science and technology. Through text, image, and mapping, this infrastructural ethnography thus depicts, and potentially redefines, the world according to UPS.
Rethinking the conventions of corporate case studies, this dissertation formulates an understanding of urbanization through the infrastructural and ethnographic lens of UPS Inc. drawn by an emerging series of processes, including manifold processes of technological mobilization and the grounds they require for the largest logistics systems company in the world to operate, expand, and adapt. Avoiding the positivism of techno-logistical narratives, this dissertation seeks to establish a much-needed discourse on both the nascent territorial agencies and spatial limits of logistical states of incorporation beyond the flattened fiscal, financial, and legal space of corporate and industrial entities.
Exposing the intensively-material grounds of these logistics systems, this dissertation seeks to untangle the messiness of movements and flows of goods in an otherwise globalized supply chain by revealing the deep and multi-layered organizational intelligence of geographic, spatial, and biophysical interdependencies that is often masked by the simplicity of synchronized, apparently smooth, and so-called seamless systems of commodity circulation. Proposed as a set of large, integrated infrastructural systems, the organizational ecology of UPS can therefore be understood far beyond its economic calculus of balance sheets and minute signals of barcodes, but through its realization and manifestation as territorial agent and political force whose forces are simultaneously planetary as much as they are bodily—a countermap to metropolitanization.
How then can corporate systems be understood as spatial and geographic? How do technical demands invoke new and existing territories? How do market pressures and logistical demands transform urban space?
Adopting an ethnographic approach to studies in industrial planning and scientific management, this dissertation is therefore organized in three case studies to address these questions by analyzing three different dimensions and layers of this complex of logistical incorporations—sites, systems, and standards—through the lens of the world’s largest shipping company. Titled UPS Worldport: from Port to Plot, the first chapter delineates the geospatial and geohistorical extents of UPS logistics bases that originate from its central operating headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Beyond and between these sites, the second chapter titled UPS Freight: from Fleet to Fuel traces the geopolitical and biotechnological interdependencies that support and secure its operational fleet and attendant mobile infrastructures in response to market demands, globally. And finally, the third chapter titled UPS Supply Chain Solutions: from Box to Barcode reveals how UPS system of standards—from containerized packaging to controlled spaces to monitored environments—not only regulate environmental conditions of logistical movements but also shape consumer demand through attendant infrastructural imperatives. Taken together, these case studies not only break down the complex footprints of port-hub-outpost that characterize this corporate logistics complex but redraw their territorial imprints that have been adapted and re-adapted over the past century. Seen across time, these case studies delineate and decode the intricate temporalities that are registered, inscribed, and embedded within these ecologies of operational and organizational logistics. Working in between and across the space of nation-states, the lens through which UPS operates can then be understood as an emergent spatial strategy, a state of territorial adaptation, whose sustainability uniquely and exceptionally depends on perpetual techniques, technologies, and methods of adaptive, minute-by-minute management and large scale, systemic synchronization. In other words, UPS not only manages time but it also draws and designs time, as its contingent, operational territories continually transform, move, and change.
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