Commodity Fetishism Blues

By: Xander Fraum

I just got a job at an IT warehouse. Target sells special smartphones that have built-in scanners and my job is to set thousands of them up. There are 6 other people; each of us has a section in the assembly line. I’m the first step. I take the phones out of their boxes, remove the packaging, open a metal hinge on the back, install a SIM card, close the hinge, and move it to the next person. It’s phone after phone after phone after phone, on your feet 8 hours a day. You get so tired but you gotta to keep moving.

A few days ago on the assembly line I was feeling like trash, my body on auto-pilot while my brain got down on myself for being in this situation. After all, this is a step down from my last position. I kept sending the phones to the guy next to me. He kept taking my phones, turning them around, and then inserting the SD card. I thought that was weird, but then I realized that the SD card hinge opens in the opposite direction of the SIM card hinge. That means he’d have to rotate it or open the SIM hinge with his left hand. Plus I noticed that he keeps his fingernails really short, making it hard for him to open the hinge in the first place. After seeing that, I promised to always rotate phones for him, to make his life just a little bit easier as we assemble thousands of phones, on our feet, 6 days a week, developing muscular and skeletal issues, for this job that no one wants.

Moments like that really have me rethinking about mass production in general. I remember as a kid asking my dad where everything came from. Tables and chairs and forks and TVs and radios, we never really know where they come from. We’re too busy with our own jobs to find out. But people are people no matter where you go, they do favors for each other. It just makes me wonder how many small moments of kindness and generosity are imbedded into our everyday products, moments of kindness made in the face of inhuman, godawful assembly lines that dominate our lives.

Here’s another example. After lunch we can choose our own stations and yesterday I chose the station of the guy after me. The last steps of that station are removing the SD card, putting a cover over the hinges, putting the battery back on and then sending it down the line. I was taking the time and effort to close and lock the SD card hinge before I put the cover on, but then I realized, who am I doing this for? Do I know anybody down the line that’s going to benefit from it? No. So I didn’t and I don’t anymore. And if you ever work at Target and you open the back of your scanner and under the SD & SIM card cover you see the hinge is loose, you’ll know it was me trying to save just a little bit of energy, so I can pump out more scanners for more people who will never know who I am.

It’s made me really appreciate vegans more. Vegans understand. My friend is a vegan and she’s been inside slaughterhouses, concentrated animal feeding operations(CAFOs), and milk facilities undercover. She tells me that she has a hard time walking down an ice cream aisle in a supermarket because she knows how it was made. But she’s not crazy, she feels what we should be feeling all the time about all commodities.

So I want to fight with all my being against commodity fetishism, the cruel tendency of saying “Oh, that’s just a watch” or “Oh, that’s just a car.” It’s not just anything. Someone’s humanity went into that, and we do an injustice to the whole world when we don’t recognize the work that we do for each other. I had a bowl of pasta when I wrote this, thanks to the workers on the Barilla assembly line whose effort made it so I can write this for you.

Artist: Mike Chen

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