Monday, July 15, 2019

A Prime Day for Reckoning...

One of my favourite sections from the façade of Reims Cathedral...
Despite appearances, I am not on an Amazon-bashing mission! However, as their Amazon Prime Day is about to take place, for 48-hours of frantic shopping, I wanted to consider a few things that have led to a number of discussions here. The flood gates are set to open, and the virtual cash tills ready to rake in record amounts of money, even surpassing sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. For Amazon, there are not only huge gains to be made in revenue, but in loyalty too, with membership numbers increasing as basic customers pay a subscription fee in order to gain elite access to the prime deals. It appears to be a golden win-win situation...

Prime Days occur but once a year, but nowadays, almost on a daily basis we seem to be learning of the dire work conditions at Amazon. The end of year festive period already appears to be anything but jolly for the armies of frenzied workers who pack and parcel in order to honour everyone’s Christmas list requirements. You therefore can’t help but wonder what the peak summer-time Prime Days entail for employees, when the heat is on, in every sense.

The massive Amazon warehouses are ominously-called ‘fulfillment centres’, a term that rather recalls the Ministries of 'Love, Peace, Plenty, and Truth' in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Without a doubt, these centres enable Amazon to meet and go beyond the expectations of its millions of customers, just as it has done since 1994. Its product range, competitive pricing, delivery speed and efficiency mean that Amazon wins hands-down in online retail, across the board. But a dark-side is beginning to emerge that taints the present, and hints towards an troubling future.

Ugly stories of pressurized workers, struggling to maintain seemingly unrealistic, almost inhuman targets, timings and deadlines abound, all along the Amazon chain. Orders must be processed within a set time-limit and the momentum of this giant machine must be kept by each and every cog, in an uninterrupted manner. The storage of products and their efficient distribution requires a formidable organisation at each stage to keep this juggernaut rolling. Standardization goes hand-in-hand with optimization and productivity… Unfortunately, the work force here is largely based on fallible human capital, with its flesh, blood, foibles and feelings – for time being at least. Crushed by restrictive time-windows that open and shut with stop-watch precision, obliged to cut corners at every turn, monitored by Big Brother tracking systems, the employees inside and outside the centres feel the burn. In the drive for efficiency, warnings and terminations are swiftly issued to any worker whose performance fails to hit target after training. Curious names are given to the various task workers that start to resemble humble insects, scurrying and toiling away in a parallel universe, that feeds ours. Unloaders remove goods from the trucks arriving at the centres so that ‘water spiders’ can distribute these to the work stations. ‘Stowers’ then stock this inventory into shelving units referred to as ‘pods’ and ‘pickers’ pluck desired items from these, ready for ‘packers’ to box and load them up, for shipment. The group of workers who intervene in areas where robots are at work are sinisterly known as the ‘amnesty team’. Boxes are finally distributed by delivery men using a hand-held device known as a ‘rabbit’. Naturally, significant parts of this vast process of customer fulfillment relies on intelligent automation – robotics – and elaborate computing. In the search for increased and improved performance, and faced with the growth of scale and pace of its activities, Amazon is surely set to hand-over ever greater responsibility to state-of-the-art technology. Not only will this revolutionize the shop floor for online retaillers, but will also lead the way for their giant bricks-and-mortar competitors such as the mighty Walmart. More important still, this practice will set a pattern for industry and commerce and in general, just as ground-breaking as Ford’s assembly line in production.

 Although Amazon has not yet implemented a management by algorithm system, it is leading towards a structure that relies heavily on I.A and A.I. Indeed, Amazon has already acknowledged that the idea of a ‘lights out’ warehouse is already on the map; for the moment they must wait for high-tech to deliver the means to roll this out. At the dawn of this brave new world, job losses are to be expected, as human workers are let go - their manual tools laid down at the feet of machinery that affords incomparable speed and efficiency. Amazon need not even lay workers off, since the work conditions are already such that all but the most desperate employee would gladly leave of their own accord in many cases. Certainly, given the menial, mind-blowingly repetitive, poorly-paid, often hazardous nature of the work, it would be preferable for all concerned to hand it over to sophisticated automation. Since this work is so dehumanizing, why should a human work force be shackled in this way?

But that leads to the next question; what of the redundant workers? Technological unemployment is nothing new; already in 1930, John Maynard Keynes drew attention to "unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour". Naturally, new jobs will be created in fields that we cannot yet envisage in this unchartered territory, but will these be notably more fulfilling for the individual concerned or yield better results for society overall? For many ways yes, as technology opens up a world of exciting, challenging opportunities to facilitate work and improve conditions. Computors – however smart – cannot, as yet, do everything and will still require human intervention. But that is not the whole story….

Everything is geared towards consumer satisfaction, profit margins and boosting economies, but there is more to life than purchasing goods and services and corporate bottom lines. Society is held together by far more than the latest intelligent device – sociable or not. A small but significant example; the cash tills that are being dropped in favour of scanning decks. Give me a human cashier any day for basic shopping transactions! How is simple human contact going to be maintained through creepy digital personal assistants such as Siri, Cortana and Alexa? What satisfaction can former cashiers possibly glean from standing up all day, supervising the very scanning device that replaced them? Training and education will undoubtedly open many possibilities, but could these cater to everyone’s needs? What of those people who no amount of coaching and teaching could ever adapt to modern work expectations because they simply do not have the intellectual faculties suddenly required? What about workers who were perfectly content and suited to doing the dull, routine work that has been suppressed or is now carried out by some I.A?

No doubt Amazon will break records over the next two days, but I wonder where this will all lead us… and them. It feels as if a day of reckoning or reflection is long-since due. We relentlessly consume to excess and fail to notice that in this process we are perhaps letting humanity get sold short. Ironically, Bezos - occasionally referred to as the 'anti-Christ' of the workplace - initially wanted to name his company 'Relentless', but opted for Amazon instead. Either way, the flow is ceaseless, carrying us along, sweeping away any obstacle that slows it down, but drowning much of what is in its path too.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old....

Ever since hearing of Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary film of the life of the British soldiers on the Front in WW1, I had been very keen to see it. They Shall Not Grow Old was aired on BBC television on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. It came out in France this July…
Stunned viewers are immersed in a first-hand experience of the trenches, based on the impressions left on those who had experienced the «war to end all wars» between 1914-1918. The faded distant past is brought vividly into focus, and injected with colour, sound and lifeblood through the digital restoration and remastering of original 100-year-old footage. Film director and producer Jackson was asked to take on this project which was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK arts programme for the Great War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum in association with the BBC. From hundreds of hours of British war footage, taken from the archives of the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, this unique film emerges, captivating us as the voices sound out from the past, and the colour seeps out from the frames to swamp all our emotions.

Not intending to be a historical documentary, with set factual detail of names, dates and place, the film first plunges us into the anticipation and flurried preparation of war. This is presented in stark black-and-white, as hordes of civilians finally set off as ordered troops of soldiers.Veterans’ voices rise up throughout the film, recounting their experience in a harrowingly frank, matter-of-fact way which has not been dulled down and flattened by political correctness. The accents and attitudes vary, yet the sense of camaraderie is overwhelming, uniting a motley crew in the most unlikely manner. As the mud and horror grows in the confusion and inhuman conditions of the trenches, colour suddenly flows into the scenes so that we feel the pulse of life in all this devastation. The red of the symbolic poppies burns out of the dull backcloth of tortured landscapes, just as the blood lies vivid on mud-splattered bodies. All sense of bearings, purpose and logic is lost in the morass of warfare, with its seas of mud, stagnant water and spilt blood. In this blur of lost boundaries and identities, the soldiers start to perceive little difference between themselves and their foe. All are ultimately soldiers in the same war, «getting a job done» on different sides, yet experiencing the same hardships and thus drawing a strange humanity in the most inhumane circumstances.
Horse bust - Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Peter Jackson dedicated the film to the memory of his grandfather, but as he said, it could have been created in the name of anyone’s loved one from the Great War, irrespective of class, race or nationality. There have been a number of criticisms directed at the film – from the French public at least – claiming that the work fails to mention les Poilus (French infantrymen) and as such is too chauvinistic. However, this was indeed an English film; the numerous mentions of the nice cup of tea and sentiments towards the battlefield beasts of burden – horses, mules and dog leave the viewer in little doubt of that! It offers an account of the Tommy impressions and images of the Front within regiment, based on many voices, not just one narrator who tells his own story of the war. Yet those impressions and images were shared by all the soldiers of the 14-18 War. Furthermore, this generation which sacrificed so much largely drew the same conclusion ; the Great War had led to unprecedented slaughter and had achieved very little. The cruelty and carnage of war have been captured here in this great film, but so too has humanity and beauty, arising like the light, sound and colour under the master direction of Jackson.

                                   They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
                                        Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
                                        At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
                                        We will remember them....
                                                  For the Fallen - by Laurence BINYON  (1914)

                                                 'Mademoiselle from Armentières'

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Free Trade...

Here is part of another piece of work by the street artist Levalet - this time taking the form of an extensive installation set in the former chateau of Rouen business school. Called Libre Echange, it offers a nightmarish vision of aspects of our modern-day existence which is given over to procurement, served by globalized supply chains and fed and fuelled by 'fulfillment centres'. This might be Free Trade, but these delivery men are caught up in a cycle that is worthy of M.C Escher's staircase, and reflects the illusion of progress that has ensnared us all.

Relativity, by M. C. Escher. Lithograph, 1953.
Goods are being shipped around a closed circuit in a tidal ebb and flow that is gaining momentum as we consume ever more yet get nowhere. With this relentless, unprecedented movement of parcels and packages, it is Xmas everyday and yet the whole process has become somewhat meaningless.

    Gradually, the idea of something – anything – being delivered comes to have more importance than the actual contents of these cardboard boxes. The need to reach an elusive point of fulfilment forces us onto the hedonistic treadmill which speeds up and grows in size as the supply chain becomes a global loop. This in turn becomes a shackle or noose, holding us back while slowly asphyxiating us. Amazon meanwhile, looks on with that enigmatic smile - or smirk - and we should indeed die laughing from the irony, as the company laughs all the way to the bank alongside its stable mates; Google, Apple and Facebook.

Although initially set up as an online dealer of books in the mid-90s, Amazon was never destined to be a one-trick pony. More than merely spreading its wings into other areas of retail as an ‘everything’ store, Amazon has duly branched out into virtually every conceivable domain. It has long turned the page on the plodding, physical world of paper – to the point that few people even know the company was first built on books.

Amazon has turned to domains that would once have been the realm of pure sci-fi prior to the massive breakthrough in internet accessibility and usage in the mid 2000s; e-commerce, cloud computing, digital streaming and artificial intelligence. But even this was not enough...

It has taken on the the biggest and the best in all fields, given all competitors a wild run for their money, and generally won every game, through the sheer scope and scale of its activities. Now the 21st century titan wants to go far further still. Size provides leverage, and Amazon has already demonstrated how it can wield its power and authority in order to transform live on Earth. Today, much like a latter-day Captain Kirk, Bezos wants to steer his travel company, Blue Origin, to boldly go where no man has gone before. With his sights set on the Cosmos, he is investing billions to conquer the final frontier; Space.

Back on the Blue Planet, where is this vision of a Brave New World leading the average terrestrial ? This vast multinational tech company has transformed the dynamics of the marketplace, the highstreet, our consumer expectations and more importantly our habits in the most exciting ways. But I can’t help but wonder if that smiley Amazonian arrow has not just shot us through the heart.
Between them, the giant GAFA has brought about a seachange on every possible level of human activity and behaviour. From cradle to grave, from to A to Z, our lives are being facilitated by the Triple A Triumivirate; Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon. We all benefit from the supply of revolutionary goods and services that tech companies offer. Amazon has put customer satisfaction before profit, understanding that loyalty means growth, and scale yields power. Power means that you are accountable to no one. Amazon fights to charge less, ensuring that the ‘price is right’ and that the purchase conditions are hugely attractive. Nurturing our addiction to knock-down prices, speed and convenience, Amazon offers a deal that is simply too good to refuse. Yet ultimately these companies will get far more than they give - profitting hugely from our custom, now and in the long term. The game has already changed and powerful influences shape account-holders on every level in a world that is ever-more connected but increasingly disconnected from the basics. Most of us are now wholly or largely reliant on the internet and the tech companies behind it for the smooth running of daily life. Could that herald our making or our undoing ?

At a click, we have access to everything. Surely this should make us more more content than at any other moment in human history? The doors are open to a wealth of information, education and entertainment that was inconceivable in the past and yet we do not seem to consider ourselves any richer for it. We have the most perfect tools that seem to have been delivered into imperfect, untrained hands.This, in turn, is corrupting minds that are ill-prepared for such an onslaught of high tech and this is making us vulnerable, not invincible. Even children born with a smart device seem to pay a price that no amount of slick online thrills will ever compensate. While trying to perfect human experience through technology, mere humans are losing what has always separated man from beast, and man from automaton The thirst for convenient, cheap consumption is permeating everything – material and immaterial. Creativity, critical thinking, consciousness are being imperceptibly modified, so that our rough 3D vision of life and ourselves is being smoothed down to arrive at a flatter, photoshopped face-value, Facebook version.
Of course, the positives in this high-tech world are innumerable, offering magical possibilities. And yet, I do not envy anyone born ‘connected’. We have tripped ourselves up and tumbled on this new step of human evolution; momentarily at least….

I have occasionally used Amazon to buy second-hand books  – to my great satisfaction - but the realisation that its business model has rung the death knell for many physical book shops has soured the experience. Worse still, the fact that reading literature – physical or electronic -  has lost out all round in modern-day life is truly saddening. Ironically, it was Amazon - the trail-blazing bookseller offering their wares dirt-cheap- that set much of that process in place. Their innovative business model helped change our vision, on and off-line. Now, our all-consuming devotion to consumption and commodification in the connected universe has left us with little time for Amazon’s initial golden goose; books.

When something is sold cheap, it is ultimately perceived as worth little or nothing.

Outside the amphitheatre at the business school

Poppies along the Canals and Concrete...

Last day of the month again, and yet again a rush to finish off a few posts before midnight...
I have such a backlog of blog material - none of which has taken any form which is even vaguely 'postable'  - so I won't be respecting any real chronological order.

 As I was rowing a few weeks ago, I saw all these beautiful flowers and grasses along the paths and cycle tracks that run parallel to the canal. I went back to photograph them from the safety of dry land!

I was particularly thrilled to see some magical pavots pharmaceutiques which appear to have escaped from the industrial fields scattered around the region. These cultivated poppies are quite hard to locate so this made this encounter all the more special.

The mauve petals were offset by the more common-place red poppies, of course, and their colour was picked up by the violet vetch too. The final effect was even more striking due to the bright green of the canal water in the sunlight. The last yellow flags of Spring were still holding in there, before this week's raging temperatures set in.

Finally, a stunning wildflower field (albeit artificially sown) near the concrete complex that has grown in the most pervasive manner all around the TGV train station. Ironically, just a few years ago the whole area was just simple fields before this ambitious development project took off. Nevertheless, this vast stretch of flowers really was a beautiful sight...

Hexagon Wall-Hanging finished... At last!

Someone has been helping me throughout my crochet sessions on the wall-hanging that kicked off last autumn. This has been a long process and yet someone has taken great pleasure in settling on the wool in its various states, over the many months.

Sometimes alert...

At other moments less so...

Quite hard work, it must be said...  It now just needs to be hung correctly, in its completed state. Here's hoping that neither of the cats try to escalate it once it is finally up!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Strange Beasts...

A brooding beast to mark the end of the month. In fact, this is was one of a collection of curious creatures to be found in different exhibitions around town by the artist Mauro Corda.

Some of the sculptures are of imaginary hybrid creatures such as this snaky -headed 'cobra tiger', above, which looks as if it is preparing to strike.

Or this rather more docile camel-unicorn...

Or the 'walrus bear', above, with its impressive pair of ivory tusks, roaring at passers-by from its bank of shale.

Other figures are of real-life species, albeit in danger of extinction. Take this enormous sculpture of a perched fruit bat, hanging from an imposing stand of at least two metres in height...

Or this cluster of oil-coated mischievous meerkats that huddle together on an upturned barrel...
One of the key features of the show are the numerous sportive bas-reliefs to highlight the 2024 Olympic Games, to be held in Paris...

The following black and white portraits were part of the Chambres exhibition – Positif/Négatif – Noir/Blanc. Whilst the portraits were classic bas-reliefs, rather like traditional death masks, the white versions were concave – as if the faces were molded into the bed pillows.

The masks that I preferred were the ones of the most interesting facial traits, with less regular features. Prettiness never seems to highlight character in art in the same way that rugged, striking expressions do. All those prominent noses, craggy jaws and brows, hooded eyelids and etched skin seem to tell a story where the conventionally attractive features simply fail. Pity life cannot follow along the same aesthetic lines!

I have often noticed that modern figures in ultra-realistic sculpture do not always seem to convey an appropriate tone and mood and often look like Disneyfied pieces of work.

I didn’t initially appreciate all the Corda portraits for this reason of ‘blandness’. Many just seemed to be 3D print-outs rather than real artistic portrayals. However, once I had just focused on the more interesting faces, I really did start to enjoy the exhibition. The white portraits look better in photo than reality, I noticed, but the optical effect is lost.

Corda is a contemporary sculptor, born in 1960, who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Reims.

I am off to see an exhibition of the street artist Levalet in Rouen tomorrow! Update to follow!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

After the Rain, the Sun....

The month has been taken up by extremes of the pleasant and not so pleasant... Fortunately, troublesome legal formalities, tax declarations and hassle at work have all been offset by trips, visits and concerts. These all seem to alternate with a certain reliability, yet their rate and rhythm are difficult to foresee.

Meanwhile, as unseasonably cold weather gives way to warmer temperatures, a new passionflower plant is growing up, sending out a collection of tendrils, shoots and striking flowers. The honeysuckle that had to be cut back last year is about to burst out in bloom too... However, the vine weevil beetles are also back on the balcony, readily devouring foliage with voracious appetite, presumably priming themselves for another onslaught on my flowering treasures whilst I prepare myself..... for war.

It all seems to be swings and roundabouts and the other day I actually found myself humming this funny old school-assembly hymn which is quite soothing in its simplicity. Right, off for some nocturnal beetle-bashing!

                Glad that I live am I
                That the sky is blue;
                Glad for the country lanes,
                And the fall of dew.
                After the sun, the rain,
                After the rain the sun;
                This is the way of life,
                Till the work be done.

                     Lizette W. Reese (1856–1935)