- Uncommon Carriers
The technological arteries of global capitalism—trucks, trains, barges, warehouses, and ocean freighters—are the subjects of New Yorker staff writer John McPhee’s latest investigation of the social lives of obscure but essential things. Stocked with extraordinary characters like Don Ainsworth—a [End Page 801] chemical-hauling trucker with a penchant for gleaming Peterbilt tractors, for the Wall Street Journal, and for bebop jazz—Uncommon Carriers breathes life into the machinery of modern commerce, illuminating the technological innards of our distribution-driven economic world.
Not intending a comprehensive analysis of modern transportation networks, McPhee goes where his muse and his informants take him. The nature of skilled work, however, provides a common thread tying together these stories of truckers, bargemen, freighter pilots, warehouse workers, and locomotive engineers. Like Douglas Harper’s acclaimed 1987 ethnography, Working Knowledge, McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers delivers a paean to the persistence of artisanal skill in a high-tech, university degree–driven world.
On the “tight-assed” Illinois River, chain-smoking towboat captain Mel Adams careens a 1,200-foot-long string of barges around snake-bend curves and consistently maneuvers this 105-foot-wide contraption into locks only five feet wider without computerized assistance. Trucker Ainsworth expounds at length on the hierarchy of skills embedded in highway culture. Choosing proper gears to avoid brake burnouts (or worse) on mountain grades; navigating complex webs of tolls, taxes, regulations, and “smokeys”; and avoiding “four-wheelers” driven by “civilians” who disregard the laws of physics—these are the skills that keep Ainsworth alive and remunerated. Ocean pilots spend weeks maneuvering scale-model freighters on a lake in the foothills of the French Alps to develop the “feel” of navigating enormous ships through “bow cushions,” Bernoulli effects, and wind forces that cannot be replicated via electronic simulators. By contrast, the five thousand workers who staff the United Parcel Service sorting facility in Louisville, Kentucky, are “de-skilled” to the point that their work consists of assuring that packages are placed label-side up on their journey into a maze of computer-automated conveyor belts. The only unionized workers in the book—who guide a 1.5-mile-long coal train between Wyoming and Georgia—are confronted by railroad managers who would replace them with computers at once if not for the unions’ continued resolve to preserve decent jobs.
Devoid of explicit argument, Uncommon Carriers nonetheless delivers a subtle rebuke to postindustrial capitalism in a chapter retracing a five-day 1839 trip of Henry David Thoreau and his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack rivers. While the chapters on truckers, bargemen, railroaders, and freighter pilots are replete with awe and wonderment at the workings of modern technology, the Thoreau chapter sings mournfully of proto-industrial rural landscapes replaced by Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, cell-phone towers, and roaring interstate highways. McPhee places the “uncommon carriers” of modern commerce in the nonconformist lineage of the famous hermit, while simultaneously implying that Thoreau’s nineteenth- century objections to technological enthusiasm have gone unheeded. [End Page 802] The water of the Illinois River is tainted brown and filled with pesticide runoff despite the Clean Water Act of 1972, while the Clean Air Act of 1970 has led miners to unearth enormous quantities of low-sulfur coal previously considered exceedingly inefficient. Truckers’ idling engines burn six billion gallons of diesel per annum to maintain air-conditioned cabs. The barges that ply the Illinois River are twice as fuel-efficient as trains and nine times as efficient as trucks, but they ship coke up and down the same routes, defying economists to explain the logic of an ever-expanding economy so dependent on limited fossil-fuel resources.
Scholars will note that McPhee’s book provides little insight into the political structures that have established this highly fragmented world of transportation. The common carriers of old—centralized, regulated, unionized railroads that accounted for 7 percent of the GNP of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century—have been replaced by a decentralized, unregulated, deunionized, globally interwoven transportation system for reasons that...