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Shenzhen to Nashville, Non-Stop

We live in the Era of Air Freight.

My new Mac Mini shipped early this morning from Shenzhen, China, via FedEx. From there it will probably fly non-stop to Nashville on a FedEx 747-400, 777, or 767, and thence be routed here. I can track the movement of the package online, and see by implication how it's travelling: It hit FedEx at 8:51pm (local time) on 1/18/2005 ("Package received after FedEx cutoff time"). It left the FedEx ramp at 7:09pm. By my reckoning it will be in the air about 12-13 hours, based on the distance from Nashville to Shenzhen. So I should be able to browse to the FedEx site and see the Arrival Scan by about 9pm EST today. I'll be able to follow it hop by hop until it goes out on the delivery truck, which will be either Friday or Monday, depending on how seriously Apple takes their delivery-date promises.

We live in the Era of Air Freight. This ecological fact is in many ways the most important practical implication of advancing technology: Computing and networking technology makes the coordination global logistics possible, and efficient long-haul cargo aircraft from Boeing and Airbus make it cost-effective to distribute directly from a factory in China to a doorstep in western NY state. And all of this allows economies to pump capital more quickly -- allows the concrete manifestations of ideas and desire to move across the globe at 700 miles per hour. Thinking of it all in terms of goods and capital seems trivial, but this kind of point-to-point distribution is really the engine that drives the global marketplace, which in turn is what drives global society, for good or ill. We can blame the idea on Sears and Ward. The transit of goods in turn subsidized the rest of our long distance mass transportation network, as the big widebodies pack the extra space in their bellies with cargo, the complex spoke-end to spoke-end routing enabled by efficiently networked logistics systems.

And yet, all we see moving are the people. We are blind to the goods in the cargo hold on all the big planes; we taxi by the big, windowless cargo-haulers, logoed-up for DHL, UPS or FedEx, and most of us probably just have a quickly-forgotten moment of "Oh, so that's how they do it..." We only think about the people.

When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, British Airways lost about 40 Concorde frequent-flyers. The impact went much deeper, though, than just the loss of 40 reliable fares. Many of those 40 were senior decision-makers at their companies. They were the people who could approve the expensive Concorde tickets, either formally or tacitly. The Concorde relied almost entirely on human passengers to pay its way, and so from "Golden Eagle", the Concorde returned to it's early-'80s status as a money-burner. So we can add the Concorde to the list of things that can be said to have been killed by 9/11.

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding the formal unveiling of the Airbus A380 "super-jumbo", many asked where Boeing's competetive product was. Boeing's answer: The A380 is a "big plane for a small market." The same could have been said of the Concorde: It's market was so small, that losing 40 passengers upset it's fare-ecology sufficiently to make the plane commercially non-viable. But the Super Jumbo won't suffer the same fate. I heard it said more than once in the news coverage that half the orders were "from Asia" -- which means, they're for air freight.

Public reaction (and amongst the "public" I include most media business analysts) to the A380 under-reports a very important point: While hub-to-hub people-hauling is important, the 580-seat luxury model and even the as-yet unbuilt 800-seat steerage special versions of the A380 are really almost red-herrings. The real target market for these aircraft is not passenger hauling, but air freight. There's big money to be saved by increasing the weight and range of the planes, even just between major hubs. This is a plane designed to fly non-stop from Yokohama to Louisville, Shenzhen to Nashville, Taipei to LA, São Paulo to London, with a really big payload of shoes and consumer electronics. Airbus's bread and butter customers for the A380 are outfits like FedEx, UPS, DHL, that won't stop using the hub-and-spoke model for the bulk of their traffic for a long, long time.

It's easy to see this as a triumph for economic models of understanding. But that would be a mistake. While all of this can be seen in economic terms, its effect is human, social, and the field on which the economic facts are cast is fundamentally ecological. And that's the reason that economists (Marx first and chief among them) fail to predict accurately: They fail to understand that economics is only ecology writ fine, and hence divorced from the larger picture. And from the fine-writ bits from other aspects of the big picture. Capital -- money -- is fuel in an ecology of commerce. But it is not, yet, the reason. For the reason, we can still, at least, look to such intangibles as desire.

Comments

Karl Marx on The Power of Money...

If I long for a particular dish or want to take the mail-coach because I am not strong enough to go by foot, money fetches me the dish and the mail-coach: that is, it converts my wishes from something in the realm of imagination, translates them from their meditated, imagined or desired existence into their sensuous, actual existence â?? from imagination to life, from imagined being into real being. In effecting this mediation, [money] is the truly creative power.

No doubt the demand also exists for him who has no money, but his demand is a mere thing of the imagination without effect or existence for me, for a third party, for the [others], and which therefore remains even for me unreal and objectless. The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between the idea which merely exists within me and the idea which exists as a real object outside of me.

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