I did my Christmas shopping last year in under an hour thanks to a century worth of technological innovation, supply chains that stretch around the world and a legion of industrial athletes.
While we were in the thick of a global pandemic, the gifts starting arriving on my front porch the next day. How that happened was a miracle and a mystery that journalist Christopher Mims reveals in his book Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and Why we Buy.
Mims acts as an international tour guide, inviting us to follow a USB charger from a factory in Vietnam to a front porch in the United States.
“Along the way, you’ll become convinced, I hope, of this astonishing fact: You live inside a factory,” says Mims. “We all do. And you are also a worker inside that factory. As are we all. By the time you finish this book, I hope that you will never again be able to take a package from your front step without feeling a tiny shiver at the gobsmacking effort and complexity behind its delivery to your home.”
Mims’ tour starts at Cai Mep International Terminal, one of the largest container ports in Southeast Asia. “Manufacturing in the twenty-first century isn’t material in, finished products out, as it was in the days of Bethlehem Steel and Henry Ford,” says Mims. “Today’s manufacturing is waypoints on much longer supply chains, a string of factories transforming raw materials into parts and subassemblies before final assembly in some other facility.”
Mims then boards a cargo ship that’s the length of four football fields and carries up to 6,600 shipping containers. It’s about half the size of the world’s largest cargo ship, which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall.
“If you look around the room you’re in now, it’s almost certain that all or nearly all of what you can see came by ship.”
Once back on shore after a 22-day crossing of the Pacific Ocean, Mims takes us through the Port of Los Angeles, the cab of a fully wired long-haul semitruck and into an Amazon fulfilment centre. “Graft Willy Wonka’s sense of whimsy onto Henry Ford’s pragmatism, hire M.C Escher to decorate and Rube Goldberg as chief engineer, then crib the scale of the place from the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which a warehouse of crates stretches to the vanishing point. Make the ceilings snow white, the floors polished concrete, and fill the guts of the thing – miles of curving stainless-steel conveyor – with tens of thousands of daisy-yellow plastic totes.”
Mims’ tour ends with us riding shotgun in a UPS truck. Delivery drivers are industrial athletes, averaging 135 stops a day during a 10 or 12-hour shift.
“In the twenty-first century, how things get to us matters as much as how they’re made,” says Mims. “With 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.”
Mims delivers on his promise of leaving us gobsmacked by the technology, logistics and networks of factories, ports, ships, barges trains, planes, trucks and warehouses that deliver the world to our front door.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the Dec. 17th Hamilton Spectator.