A Shopper’s Heaven

To make ordering things feel convenient, vast landscapes must be sacrificed to logistics

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds,
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease …
These paths are stopped – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon and destroyed them all.

John Clare, “The Mores” (1812-31)


In England, the transition to capitalism was marked by a parallel process of enclosure — the transfer of common land to private hands, a practice that peaked by the 19th century. For landowners, enclosures boosted agricultural efficiency and increased their private wealth and power. But for the people who worked and walked these spaces, the seizure of land represented a “class robbery,” as the historian E.P. Thompson famously put it.

John Clare, the 19th century “peasant poet” of Northamptonshire, described this “robbery” in “The Mores,” perhaps the most well-known poem about the enclosures. In the poem, fences are the material symbols of the restriction of people’s movement and the barring of communities from land they had previously held in common. Yet for Clare, this restriction had a wider meaning beyond the economic appropriation. With the blocking of their movement, the political rights of rural communities — what Clare calls their “paths to freedom” — were diminished in favor of the landowners’ cultivation of sheep.

Today, fences are thrown up and “little parcels” of land obstructed once more, but for a different purpose. Land is emptied and human movement “stopped” not for the production of goods, as in Clare’s time, but for their frictionless circulation in an economy that revolves around consumer convenience. The more that profit depends on the acceleration of consumption, the faster the fences are erected.

Fifty miles north of London, John Clare country has now become part of the largest concentration of logistics and distribution operations in Europe. Between Northamptonshire in the south, Nottingham to the north, and Birmingham out west — a space traced by the noisy borders of the M1, the M6, and the M42, some of the UK’s busiest roads — sits the “Golden Triangle” of logistics. If you buy something online in the UK, it almost certainly passes through there.

Sites like these are where online shopping leaves its physical footprint — where capital, battling over space, inscribes itself in the landscape

The complexity and scale of the operations are impressive. Leicestershire’s Magna Park claims the title of Europe’s largest distribution center, a cluster of warehouses nearly twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. The three interchanges of the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal cover nearly a thousand acres. East Midlands Gateway, further north at Derby, is meanwhile the UK’s largest site for pure freight. Across these sites, and in the tens of smaller nodes that accumulate around villages and motorway junctions in between, the world’s biggest real estate companies —Prologis, Segro, GLP, Panattoni — do battle to provide the most convenient and efficient sites for the likes of Amazon and other global retail brands and delivery companies, as well as the UK’s supermarkets and department stores.

All this has made the Golden Triangle home to twice as much warehousing space as Greater London, Wales, and Scotland combined. It may be great for the logistics industry, but it makes for a strange place to live. Villages are overshadowed by the characterless walls of warehousing, and nature sites are bordered by the steely coldness of distribution parks and the roar of passing traffic. Residential roads change scale and warp into the thoroughfares of international commercial flows — and, as in Clare’s time, paths are stopped or redirected, channeled through fenced-off alleys between commodity storage, between sites that are intimidating and alienating by design. These are not new enclosures of public lands, but they serve as stark reminders for residents that the places where they live and walk, their “paths to freedom,” may soon become inaccessible.

The experiential inhumanity of the spaces of logistics, of course, won’t stop their proliferation. According to the real estate firm Knight Frank, every £1 billion spent online demands 1.3 million square feet of further warehousing. At current projections, that means 92 million square feet of warehousing by 2024 — almost as much as the Golden Triangle currently contains. Segro has recently started work on the controversial Northampton Gateway, a project that replaces fields with over a million square feet of warehousing and five times more in service space. Panattoni and Prologis have similar sites in development too. Investors, meanwhile, are bullish: “Twenty years ago, [logistics] was the ugly duckling,” one property fund manager told Bloomberg. But thanks to the surge in online retail, “massive amounts of capital [are] being put to work.”

Sites like these are where online shopping leaves its physical footprint — where capital, battling over space, inscribes itself in the landscape. Yet logistics sites in their vastness are paradoxically also the crystallization of speed. They manifest how the relation between consumption and its externalities has changed. It’s no longer just a matter of the more we buy, the more land is turned into warehouses. It’s a matter of how fast we do it too. To ensure the shortest time between desire and its fulfilment, spaces are enclosed, emptied, fenced off for commodities. This is the cost of frictionless shopping. The Golden Triangle is what convenience actually looks like.

Legal scholar and tech critic Tim Wu has called convenience “perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and economies.” Born out of the language of industrial capitalism, the ideology of convenience transfers capital’s sought-after efficiencies of industrial production to the personal level. As one self-help book tells us, “run your body like a business.” But if convenience once derived from the imperatives of industrial production, it is now taken as a natural, autonomous demand that consumers place on businesses. Accordingly, the internet’s capacity to circulate information is understood as no more than an expression of consumers’ demand to get what they want, instantly. “Convenience decides everything,” Evan Williams, Twitter’s co-founder, now claims. “From here on out,” says Mark Zuckerberg, “it’s a frictionless experience.”

From this perspective, convenient consumption is what the internet has always been for. Back in 1995, Bill Gates was one of the first tech titans to promise a future of absolute frictionlessness. In The Road Ahead, his first book, he laid out a vision for “friction-free capitalism,” a pure state of convenience that would be, he said, “a shopper’s heaven”: “all the goods for sale in the world will be available for you to examine, compare, and, often, customize,” he explained. “When you want to buy something, you’ll be able to tell your computer to find it for you at the best price offered by any acceptable source or ask your computer to ‘haggle’ with the computers of various sellers.” All you need to do is click. As Wu claims, “the ideal is personal preference with no effort.”

In the supply chain’s central terrain — the sea — invisibility is relatively easy

In reality, “no effort” translates into the abolition of nuisance, the destruction of any barrier to transactions. Jeff Bezos, famously, is the world leader at this game, and Amazon is the “shopper’s heaven” that Gates envisioned made real, a place where all the goods in the world seem to be for sale. Here, things we didn’t even know were hassles — entering debit card details or delivery addresses, or even confirming your CVC — are now presented as “friction,” while anything more than a day’s wait for delivery is conceived as intolerable. Amazon endlessly “gives us back our time,” something marketers claim that consumers expect from online commerce, though it might be more accurate to say that it reminds us to feel as though that time was something we had been losing.

Eventually, no doubt, “1-click” itself will become one click too many. A dystopian vision of the future sees Big Tech demanding direct access to our thoughts in order to better “fulfill” our desires. But the recent history of the internet suggests that they won’t need to demand, exactly. As Mark O’Connell has recently written, “customer ecstasy” has been the guiding vision of Bezos’s enterprise. And tech companies have been successful at ideologically conflating an “ecstasy” with an experience of efficiency or ease — as if ecstasy only ever meant instant gratification.

In their pursuit of speed, then, tech companies have tried to keep us demanding convenience — regardless of how it otherwise adversely shapes lives, economies, and spaces. Part of frictionlessness, after all, is being able to disregard the bigger picture beyond one’s immediate demands. Architect Hamed Khosravi argues that logistics responds to the “choppy flows of consumer demand in markets regulated by an economy of desire rather than need.” But that opposition between a purportedly genuine need and a frivolous consumer desire is precisely what contemporary consumerism sets out to blur. Often enough, desire is felt as need — whatever the cost may be.

“A good logistician operates out of sight,” an article on the news site DC Velocity, claims. “A great one is like the Wizard of Oz, orchestrating an amazing choreography somewhere behind the curtain.” Products move as if of their own accord; packages are delivered as if out of the void.

In pursuit of pure frictionlessness, logistics aspires to operate unnoticed. Behind the scenes, behind the curtain, the industry is fragmented, brutally competitive, with companies fighting among themselves over the trillions of dollars to be handled worldwide. Yet in its own self-image, the work of logistics is altruistic, self-effacing, heroic. As one freight company puts it, logistics is the “invisible industry,” the “silent, immense construct that ensures that all the things we take for granted work.”

In the supply chain’s central terrain — the sea — invisibility is relatively easy. As reporters like Ian Urbina and Rose George have pointed out, what stays at sea stays out of mind. Yet on land, inventive solutions are needed to draw attention away from the industry’s ubiquitous traces. For instance, at SubTropolis, outside Kansas City, thousands of acres of storage have been taken underground and out of the consumer’s eye. Industry leaders, meanwhile, have dreamed of placing distribution centers at the bottom of the ocean. In rural England, the invisibility of warehousing depends on the crudeness of “architectural camouflage”: paneled strips of lightening shades of blue or random patches of green, with which giant warehouses hope to disappear dazzle-ship-style into the fields or melt into the weightlessness of the sky. A warehouse with “good design” and “good aesthetics” that is “sensitive to place” (to use the language of Northampton Gateway) is meant to help us forget the loss of green spaces. And if that doesn’t work, invisibility is achieved by redirecting pathways and byways, ensuring no one gets close enough to see.

A warehouse with “good design” is meant to help us forget the loss of green spaces. The more we buy, the more space we need to be emptied of life

The desire for invisibility is not just a matter of sparing the public the ugliness of mass-scale warehousing, of course, or of appearing “less intrusive,” as one industrial architecture firm told the Guardian. It has little to do with aesthetics. Rather its function is obfuscation, a wager that the less consumers see, the less they care — about labor practices, environmental damage, the commodification of land. Like the inhabitants of the twin cities in China Miéville’s novel The City and the City, in which two different cities occupy the same physical space, we are brought to “unsee” the world that co-exists with us. We might register the presence of logistics — its hubs and distribution centers, fences and traffic, its delivery vans and people — but we look on ahead or back to the screen.

Only in this way can Gates’s dream be achieved: The bliss of the shopper’s heaven is premised on our “unseeing” the world behind the curtain. In Gates’s paradise, the internet would be the “ultimate go-between, the universal middleman,” he writes, and the “the only humans involved in a transaction” would be “the actual buyer and seller.” This would indeed be a paradise — of consumerism without externalities, consumption without cost, delivery without labor. It would be an amazing, automated choreography: completely, miraculously frictionless.

In the end, the purpose of “invisible” warehousing is to convince us that there is no middleman, as if convenience has overcome mediation once and for all. But this will always be a fantasy. As anthropologists Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri have pointed out, the tech industry prefers that we imagine a sci-fi world dominated by algorithms and AI, automated and robotic, than see the reality of human labor powering it. Behind the curtain of high-tech workplaces is what Gray and Suri call “ghost work”: poorly paid, low-skilled, precarious and invisibilized jobs in such areas as data entry and content moderation.

Logistics work is treated similarly. The space between click and delivery can simply move out of focus. In the Golden Triangle, hidden behind fences, the resources of whole counties are mobilized for the mediation of buyer and seller. You’re just not supposed to see.

The demand for frictionlessness is changing the landscape – and our access to it. Rural areas are slowly becoming less rural, that’s for sure. Yet, increasingly dominated by the logics of exclusion and efficiency – identified by John Clare already two centuries ago – these areas are becoming ever more anonymous too. As Deborah Cowen, author of The Deadly Life of Logistics, points out, massive swathes of the countryside now “closely resemble computer motherboards. These sterile, engineered environments are without chaos, disorder, or detritus, let alone signs of life.” Supreme efficiency demands a new kind of posthuman enclosure, a forced evacuation of the serendipities and frictions and rhythms of everyday life. Everything instead is planned, down to the warehouses’ mimicry of the sky, their vast concrete forecourts, the frail planted saplings like the sad ghosts of nature.

The visions of frictionlessness demand empty space on an unprecedented scale. The more we buy, the more space we need to be emptied of life. Convenience — the learned demand for instant gratification — voids the world of its features, turning fields into town-size circuit boards. Yet at the same time, convenience demands that we forget the material costs of our desires.

J.B. Harley, a historian of cartography, once described the places shown on maps as “socially empty space.” In “Maps, Knowledge, and Power,” he highlighted the ability of maps in colonial contexts especially to “‘desocialize’ the territory they represent” and so lessen “the burden of conscience about people in the landscape.” In the plans and marketing brochures that real estate companies draw up of their distribution centers, social emptiness is the dominant impression. Yet it is not just a representation: get closer to the sites of logistics, peer through the fence, and they remain socially empty. That’s deliberate: consumers need to stay firmly on the other side of the curtain (or the fence). Geographer Dara Orenstein quotes a corporate executive who explains that supply chains must be “self-enclosed, where the outside world doesn’t touch you.” When people are not consumers, they become friction.

If John Clare emphasized the political reality of the 19th century enclosures, what poet could do justice to the vast contemporary enclaves of logistics companies? As thousands more acres of land in the Golden Triangle pass into the hands of logistics companies and their tenants, more of our landscapes will be turned into hermetic spaces for business “where the outside world doesn’t touch you.” For all its complexity, contemporary logistics aspires to purge commerce of the kinds of connection that reveal our interdependencies, that make a political understanding of our situation in the world possible. Where goods move freely, the spaces in which we can move without friction shrink. But if we believe in a shopper’s heaven, we might not even notice.

Charlie Jarvis is a freelance writer and editor from Northampton, UK.