Earlier this month, commuters across Chicago and the suburbs, including in Austin, were relieved to hear that labor unions and railroad companies agreed to a tentative deal, averting a strike by railroad engineers and conductors that would have shut down Metra service.
The close call reminded me that the humdrum rhythm of our daily lives in this complex society is utterly dependent on people and processes that are increasingly invisible, taken for granted, and rarely cared for.
We rely on the railroads for more than just commuting. Products and materials we depend on every day get transported by rail, but this critical supply chain is deteriorating.
Time Magazine reported Sept. 14 on a recent survey of companies that rely on railroad shipping. Nearly half of the companies surveyed said rail delays and service challenges had gotten worse from the end of 2021 to July. Nearly 60 percent of companies surveyed said they had been charged higher rates.
Meanwhile, railroad workers are leaving the profession, Time reported. You don’t need a college degree to work for a railroad and the average compensation for rail workers is $160,000, according to the Association of American Railroads.
“But workers say the last two years have been very hard,” Time notes, adding that “major staffing cuts … have forced employees to take on more work.”
Time quoted a Union Pacific conductor who told the industry publication Freight Waves that “workers ‘are dropping like flies,’ in part because shifts that used to be eight or nine hours are now up to 19 hours.”
I also see the deterioration in the humdrum while reporting. We rely on safe streets for commuting and transporting. But roadway projects across the suburbs were halted while construction equipment operators were on strike for several weeks in June and July. Now that the strike has ended, projects are delayed.
And streets across the city and suburbs are in dire need of maintenance and repair.
Earlier this month, Berkeley, a suburb of about 5,000 residents and incorporated in 1924, released a Pavement Management Study showing that 74 percent of its roadways are in “poor or failed condition.”
The study estimated that it would cost the small town nearly $1 million a year over a decade to bring the majority of the town’s roads up to fair condition.
If the roadways and cost of repairs are what they are in Berkeley, a small and relatively young suburb, I can imagine what things are like in, say, Maywood — incorporated in the 1800s and with a population of around 25,000 people.
We also depend on safe sidewalks. This summer in Westchester, village board members wondered how they would salvage a critical 50/50 sidewalk program that provides sidewalk squares at half the cost for residents who request replacements in front of their homes.
The village also makes sidewalk repairs in front of properties to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires trip hazards to be replaced or repaired.
The equipment operators’ strike resulted in skyrocketing demand for workers and the cost of a single square of concrete rose from $200 last year to $300 this year, village officials said. As a result, they were forced to consider temporarily pausing the program or reducing its scope.
Consider our virtual infrastructure — the internet. We like to think that our online shopping, remote work, Netflix binging, and addictive scrolling are frictionless.
But these rely on often overlooked people and processes and places, too. For one, you need a place to power our online habits. The small suburb of Northlake has one of the highest concentrations of data centers anywhere. They have three, including two run by Microsoft.
Data centers are boring buildings full of servers, routers, cables, and racks that provide storage capacity for data processing and networking services. I’ve driven by these things all the time without realizing what they do and how we’d be screwed if, say, the employees inside them didn’t show up to work or the buildings were damaged.
“We are never forced to encounter the fact that data must also be produced; that such an ethereal, elusive substance is the result — like hardware — of human labour,” writes Phil Jones in Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism.
Besides hulking, yet ignored, data centers, there are the invisible humans who constitute data processing.
Jones points out that what we think is the work of algorithms — the policing of hate speech and pornography on Facebook and Twitter, a facial recognition camera spotting a face in a crowd, a self-driving car navigating crumbling roadways — is actually the work of badly paid and exploited people.
They make an average of $2 an hour working remotely through sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk, which facilitates the kind of labor that Artificial Intelligence is currently incapable of doing.
“A day’s work might include labelling videos, transcribing audio or showing algorithms how to identify various photos of cats,” Jones writes, adding the “work is volatile, arduous and, when waged, paid by the piece.”
There is so much hidden volatility in the world that it’s scary to even ponder. We don’t know how much we’re dependent on the things, people, processes, and institutions we know nothing about until they stop working.
And increasingly, they are jamming up. Google Jackson, Mississippi. Europe in the coming winter. Puerto Rico.
“For most of its inhabitants, the modern world is full of black boxes, devices whose internal workings remain — to different degrees — a mystery to their users,” writes Vaclav Smil in his new book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going.
Each of us is the sum of the institutions that facilitate our world — the water treatment centers and energy plants and railroads and data centers and public works departments, etc.
When I go to the polls in November and again in April next year, I’m voting for the candidate who best understands the need for those institutions to work — because we’re living in a long emergency.