As We May Buy

In LeCavalier’s article “The Restlessness of Objects” he details several modern inventory logistics systems used in retail distribution centers. One of these systems, called Kiva, distributes small robots into warehouse spaces to retrieve items from locations defined by a grid of barcodes laid out across the ground of the warehouse.

While reading about this, I was reminded of a new library system constructed at the University of Chicago several years ago. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library has a massive underground storage space divided into a grid-like system of bins the can collectively store millions of books. Each book is designated to a specific bin, and then each bin is given a unique barcode. When someone wants to retrieve a book from this library, they enter a request on the library’s website that automatically triggers a machine to fetch the bin and bring it to a librarian who pulls the specific book from that bin. From the time that a request is made, supposedly the process of retrieving a book takes about five minutes.

In his 1945 essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush calls on scientists to consider their research prospects as the war draws to an end, since a majority of developments in science and technology was fueled and funded by wartime needs. In the case of logistics systems, it’s clear that a similar trajectory of development is occurring, with commerce driving advances in place of war. This seems to be the dominant model for innovation and development today, and it makes me think what kinds of advances we would see if the driving force wasn’t rooted in driving sales.

From the example of the Mansueto Library one can see how a commercially-driven field of research like logistics can benefit non-commercial areas like education and research. Clearly the model for the Mansueto Library is derived from commercial inventory systems like Kiva, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it begs the question of where society’s current set of priorities will lead us down the road. By the time marketers have developed advanced technologies to further maximize profits, public schools will still be using outdated technologies that keep their students one step behind the people selling to them.

Though public universities and other non-commercial groups provide funding for research and development that spawn great technologies like that of the Mansueto Library, I can’t imagine the amount equals a fraction of the funding from corporations and the military industrial complex. We’ve discussed some of the implications of this in class, but I can’t help but wonder further what the future will look like as more and more technologies are controlled and fueled by commerce and war.

Vannevar Bush ended his essay from 1945 with a quote that both encompasses these concerns and still holds true almost 70 years later.

“The applications of science…. may yet allow [man] truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good.”