Far Corners of the Earth: A Media History of Logistics

Matthew Hockenberry

“Far Corners of the Earth” narrates the media history of logistics. In so doing, it follows the transformation of early forms of logistical media in order to historicize their impact on the development of decentralized manufacture and the arrangement of the productive apparatus over the prior two centuries. This argues for an understanding of logistics as a second-order operation, the optimization and encapsulation of networks
already well understood. To this end, I examine the extent to which emergent mediators—sites like the warehouse, small shop, and factory; documents like the bill of lading, parts list, and catalogue—came to be inscribed within the pattern of production externalized by technologies of telecommunication like the telegraph, telephone, and telex.

In developing these accounts, I consider how these mediators circulated between actors as they engaged in historic debates about the nature of production. By reading media forms like advertisements, pamphlets, and reports not only as functional documents, but as emblems and spokes-things reinforcing particular patterns of association, these forms emerge as the very mechanisms defining emergent practices of manufacture and trade. They become not only the raw material for new patterns of association, but often the very means through which those associations became durable. By leveraging manufacturing networks into pathways for product distribution, some early twentieth century companies were able to marshal vast numbers of suppliers as sources for other businesses. For the readers of their supply catalogues or owners of their order books, this promised a singular point of origin for material needs.

The incarnation of modern production that has followed from these promises arose not, I argue, from some “logistics revolution,” but rather from the steady march of these communication technologies as they
formed new assemblies of assembly. Through the work of the telecommunication and electrical industries—the companies of the Bell System, electrical manufacturers like Western Electric, and nascent computing concerns like IBM—the language of logistics has, I argue, become ingrained within the mechanisms of modern mediation.