May 26 2009

nails and networks

by at 4:46 pm under Uncategorized

As I was stacking boxes and stocking shelves yesterday morning, I thought about the webs of production and distribution that all the brightly packaged products had to follow to reach the store where I work. In order for me to sell, say a box of nails to a customer, that had to travel a long way first. Working backwards, I noted the cases into which the nails had been packed for shipping, on a tractor-trailer that had woven its way into the city from our warehouse in Virginia.

At the warehouse, these boxes of nails had arrived by the caseload, transported by other big trucks, or by trains, across the majority of the continent (along those funny weak links called interstate highways, or rail lines). Before that, the boxes had arrived in even larger containers, aboard a super-tanker that had made port in Los Angeles, perhaps, or Seattle, by way of the Pacific Ocean. Each of these tankers could carry the equivalent of forty thousand tractor-trailers’ worth of goods.

But even before the nails had reached the US ports, they had been loaded onto those ships at a similar port in China. There, they had arrived (by the caseload) from warehouses that served to channel these products to the shipping yards from their manufacturing plants, also in China. In those plants, the nails had been boxed together by the pound, in English-lettered packages. Perhaps in the same factory, these nails had been drop-forged and cut and shaped and smoothed, out of the steel and iron smelted in giant industrial ovens. To accomplish this, the raw ore had to have been mined, perhaps in Africa, and sent to the refineries in massive vehicles, maybe even on some of the same trucks and trains and ships that later brought the finished nails to the US.

Then I thought about design — who had decided what size, shape, and materials were right for these nails? Where were they developed, tested, and patented? When had their basic structural specifications been approved, and why? This was the weak link tying back these products to my own hands, setting them onto the shelves. Their purpose, as nails qua products, was not just to be sent all around the globe in these various permutations and combinations and stages of development. Their journey was still incomplete as I stocked them, and later, as I recommended them for a customer’s project. Thus enamored with my object of thought, I bought myself a box of nails yesterday, and used some of them in my apartment. Some went into a loose piece of furniture; others, I drove into my walls to hang new artwork, and I took two into my kitchen to hang up a mop and a broom. I was finally putting these generic little nails into use.

Box O Nails, by Elizabeth Burns

Box O Nails, by Elizabeth Burns

As I thought about how many nails I have seen discarded and rusting after a construction project is wrapped up, and then about how many nails my old hammer has driven into myriad substrates, I managed to make the connection between this admittedly trivial case of capital flows, and the more detailed portrait of development for which it could serve as an analogue. Thinking of the nails as development instruments, like aid, their fundamental insufficiency became clear. There is no implicit value in aid (nails/money) without the proper tools to produce, distribute, and use it. Just like these nails needed my hammer for their final usefulness, aid needs institutions and norms that enable its efficient and humane deployement. And just as these nails took a long and convoluted journey during their design, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and sale, so does aid move through the networks of finance, diplomacy, advocacy, and administration, towards its injection into markets. Finally, the very existence of aid does not guarantee that its final use will be ideal, intended, or even relevant to its design – or even that it will be used at all, and not left to rust. These are risks based on the unpredictability and complexity of the interdependent networks within which these products are embedded. However, they are not insurmountable risks. They can be addressed and overcome if those who wish to use the products can keep all these elements of production, distribution, connection, and chance in perspective as they work towards concrete goals.

No responses yet | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.