Animated Illustration by Naomi Veenhoven
In the Netherlands, package delivery workers depend on a cluster of digital systems that function via precise calculations of the package’s expected handling time and speed of movement. To keep to this regulated tempo, most of the workers use handhelds, mini-computers with scanners that they refer to as “The System”. “The System” is supposed to help maintain the smooth transition from link to link in the supply chain. But Covid-19 is a disruptor that defies these “neat” calculations of time.
As a package delivery driver on the last mile, Jade is dependent on “The System”. It tells her exactly when and where a package should be delivered. “The System” gives her one minute to deliver a parcel, excluding driving time. This target is barely possible to make if there is any type of delay, such as an encounter with a chatty customer or a broken doorbell. To make her targets, Jade is chasing seconds—saving time wherever she can to make up for the time she has lost or might lose. In her pursuit of seconds, there is no time for Covid-19; she simply ignores measures that could potentially slow her down, such as sanitizing her hands after ringing a doorbell. But Jade realizes that the pandemic offers new opportunities to save more seconds. Placing the parcel on the doorstep and walking away before the customer answers saves time walking back to the van. Extra physical distance also limits possibilities for conversations.
“The System” lays a generic beat over all other rhythms of moving or being; forcing them either to march in sync or to fade away. Here, Covid-19 becomes another suppressed rhythm, one that can be manipulated or utilized by the worker in their struggle to save time to keep up with the rhythm of “The System”.
Naomi Veenhoven is a student of the Research Master Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. She is currently working on her thesis on logistic chains of parcel delivery in the Netherlands as sociotechnical assemblages. She is also a (graphic) designer and is fascinated by multimodal anthropology.
Tina Harris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. She currently works on issues related to aviation, automation, time, and borders; she also plays the drums and likes to read a lot of speculative fiction.