2021 Workshop

Fulfillment: The Gamification of Logistics

Screenshot of the Locus Robotics website, August 18, 2021. [Alex Kim]

When an M. Gemi package arrives at your door, you receive more than a mere pair of shoes. Inside the shipping box is another box, its linen-like surface finely embossed with the company logo. The lid of this box is just snug enough that it glides up as it’s lifted, and the underside is labeled with your name, written by hand. Inside that box is yet another container — a suede dust bag also personalized with a nametag. In that bag, at last, you find your new M. Gemi shoes.

This enterprise of logistical capitalism ostensibly transforms the labor of order fulfillment into a ‘horse race.’

This overrefined unboxing experience suggests that the shoes have been personally prepared by an Italian artigiani. This is, of course, untrue. The handwritten note and nested containers are packaged by a warehouse worker employed by Quiet3PF, a third-party logistics company that specializes in delivering premium e-commerce brands like M. Gemi. Between the click of “Add to bag” and the parcel’s doorstep arrival is a complex system of logistical infrastructure that employs thousands of workers, occupies several million square feet of warehouse space, and operates an ever-growing fleet of autonomous robots. For an enterprise of logistical capitalism like Quiet3PF, efficient, invisible fulfillment is the core goal. Scholars Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe the unrelenting nature of the industry:

It is not the product that is never finished but the production line, and not the production line, but its improvement. In logistical capitalism it is the continuous improvement of the production line that never finishes, that’s never done, that’s undone continuously.1Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Mikey the Rebelator,” Performance Research, Issue 20, No. 4 (August 2015), 141.

Logistical enterprises that pursue such improvement, such as Amazon, have been heavily criticized for their alienating labor practices. Amazon continues to be plagued by reports of overheated warehouses, insufficient breaks, and intimidation and propaganda against worker unionization. Meanwhile, Quiet3PF claims to be a positive alternative, a company that delivers seamless, high-quality fulfillment without abusive practices. Quiet3PF ostensibly accomplishes this by transforming the labor of fulfillment into a game.

Developed by Quiet3PF’s sibling company and former subsidiary, Locus Robotics, Quiet3PF’s autonomous robotics system uses a “gamified” worker-management interface.2Locus Robotics, “Gamification,” company website. Where most robotics systems continuously tether a robotic unit to a human worker, or operate without any human intervention at all, Locus robots and human workers move freely around a shared warehouse floor fulfilling their tasks in loose collaboration. A robot receives an order, moves to the shelved product, and pings a nearby worker. The worker uses a tablet interface attached to the robot to identify the requested product and place the item on the robot. When the task is complete, the robot locates the next product in its queue and the worker is pinged by another robot elsewhere.

Diagrams included in the Locus Robotics patent application “Robot Gamification for the Improvement of Worker Performance.” Drawings show the autonomous robotic unit (top left and right); a worker and robotic unit in a warehouse setting (bottom left); and examples of the performance meter, trophy system, and “horse race” rankings-and-rewards system (bottom right).

Throughout this process, Quiet3PF’s workers are surveilled, graded, and ranked. An essential part of the free-navigating organization is a live-updating performance meter displayed on each robot’s tablet interface. A biometric-like reading tracks various data points: how quickly workers respond to pings; how many robots they’ve assisted; how their productivity compares to that of colleagues; and an overall performance score. The performance meter borrows its visual language from competitive video games, conveying information with icons of trophies, stars, and a colored meter.3Michael Charles Johnson, et al., “Robot Gamification for Improvement of Operator Performance,” U.S. Patent 20190217478A1, filed January 21, 2019, issued July 18, 2019, 2. All of this information is simultaneously visible to the worker and to management. Locus’s own patent documentation dehumanizingly refers to this system as a “horse race,” and shows how workers’ rankings can be tied to rewards like paid time off and gift cards.4Johnson, “Robot Gamification,” 7.

The system generates a uniquely competitive workplace, which is viewed within the industry as a success. Quiet3PF is now being leased to other firms, such as UK-based retailer Boots. As Senior Operations Manager Caroline Oxborough reports, Boots installed “quite a number of screens up around the warehouse where colleagues can see how we’re doing. It becomes a little bit addictive.”5Locus Robotics, “Boots.co.uk – Omni-Channel Solution,” company website video. Gamification is presented as a way to free the worker from the monotony of logistical labor, though it also controls the worker under an ableist spatial order tethered to reductive analytics of mobility and neoliberal metrics of individualized success.

Gamification is presented as a way to free the worker from the monotony of logistical labor. It also controls the worker.

Other implications of gamification are worrisome as well. By so overtly rewarding competition, gamification technologies potentially undermine the cooperation required for unionization efforts. A second barrier to worker solidarity is the fact that the interface is available in multiple languages. Although this makes jobs at Quiet3PF more accessible, Glassdoor reviews suggest that workers often cannot communicate with one another. More ominously, Quiet3PF is continuously building a massive data repository about worker behaviors. Under the guise of smart, efficiency-centered practices, this surveillance repository will likely inform decisions around promotions and firings, as well as being used to “improve the line” of Locus’s autonomous system, thereby reinforcing the system’s ableist biases.

Quiet3PF is a fitting name. Compared to the notoriety of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, Quiet3PF has enjoyed a relatively low profile in the logistics industry. It’s not widely known that the company has its own billionaire owner — Stephen M. Ross, the founder and chairman of the real-estate development firm Related Companies. Ross acquired Quiet3PF in 2019. The acquisition builds on a densely entangled financial network operated by Ross and Related. Notably, Related was the primary developer of the controversial New York City development Hudson Yards, which urban anthropologist Shannon Mattern has pointedly criticized for its extractive exploitation of visitor and pedestrian data.6Shannon Mattern, “Instrumental City: The View from Hudson Yards, circa 2019,” Places Journal, April 2016, https://doi.org/10.22269/160426.

Not coincidentally, M. Gemi’s only brick-and-mortar location is at Hudson Yards, right next door to another of Quiet3PF’s clients, the menswear brand Mack Weldon. In fact, many Hudson Yards tenants are financially tied to Ross and Related, including Equinox Hotels, SoulCycle, VaynerX, Fuku, and Mercado Little Spain. Related has also financed the nearby Moynihan Train Hall development in exchange for a 99-year lease on its retail spaces. Related’s growing infrastructural arm includes a car-rental agency and a railroad operator.

This is not merely the usual capitalist narrative of diversified assets, but the assembling of an autopoietic urban enterprise with Related at its center. It points toward a new, more amorphous kind of monopoly where Ross controls not a singular industry, but an entire lifestyle for the Related consumer. The Related consumer lives in a Related apartment, uses Related transportation services, eats at Related’s restaurants, exercises at Related’s fitness center, buys their life from Related’s businesses, and packages that life with Related’s own logistics services — one box at a time. That life is extracted from the gamified labor of unseen workers, locked in a horse race of pick rates and order fulfillments, competing to swing their performance meter to “Excellent.”

Notes

  1. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Mikey the Rebelator,” Performance Research, Issue 20 No. 4 (August 2015), 141.
  2. Locus Robotics, “Gamification,” company website.
  3. Michael Charles Johnson, et al., “Robot Gamification for Improvement of Operator Performance,” US Patent 20190217478A1, filed January 21, 2019, issued July 18, 2019, 2.
  4. Johnson, et. al., 7.
  5. Locus Robotics, “Boots.co.uk – Omni-Channel Solution,” company website video.
  6. Shannon Mattern, “Instrumental City: The View from Hudson Yards, circa 2019,” Places Journal, April 2016, https://doi.org/10.22269/160426.

About the Author

Alex Whee Kim

Alex Whee Kim is a spatial practitioner and writer from California. His current research examines the participatory demands of social media, performance, and games, and particularly the way in which these practices both foster commonality and are instrumentalized by late capitalism. He holds a B.Arch from Syracuse University, a Master of Environmental Design from Yale University, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Yale’s History and Theory of Architecture program.