The Materiality of Netflix

Netflix seems like magic. You click a few clicks on your web browser, and in a couple days, a movie appears in your mailbox.

Like Amazon, Zappos, and the other businesses thriving in the doc-com world, Netflix is a business that keeps hidden from its customers all the messy physicality fueled by our mouse clicks. Point and shoot retail.

Broadly speaking, in fact, the net — by design — hides the materiality of information. Terms like virtual communities, cloud computing, and software as a service are devices of obfuscation. Click the mouse, and things just happen.

But things actually just don’t happen in the world; they happen somewhere. Bits and bytes cannot remain hidden forever, and eventually reveal, or manifest, themselves. In the world of Web 2.0, this manifestation usually happens in a data center — a security-hardened, temperature-controlled facility filled with very few people, but many, many racks of computers. The Times recently foregrounded this largely unknown world of the data center, with an excellent piece on Microsoft’s computer storage facilities:

For companies like Google, Yahoo and, increasingly, Microsoft, the data center is the factory. What these companies produce are services. It was the increasing “viability of a service-based model,” as Ray Ozzie, now the chief software architect at Microsoft, put it in 2005 — portended primarily by Google and its own large-scale network of data centers — that set Microsoft on its huge data-center rollout: if people no longer needed desktop software, they would no longer need Microsoft. This realization brought new prominence to the humble infrastructure layer of the data center, an aspect of the business that at Microsoft, as at most tech companies, typically escaped notice…

Netflix, on the other hand, might be a service, but because they are not software-only like Microsoft or Google, there is a greater materiality at hand, contained in a factory-like setting of the Netflix warehouse. Only what is produced here is the packaging and repackaging of the same DVDs, over and over.

The process begins in an undisclosed location:

Its biggest secret remains the warehouses themselves…Indeed, one of the few things about the building that suggested it was not a meth lab was that, at sunrise, the parking lot was full — shifts begin at 3 a.m. The busiest time is around 7 a.m., but as I entered, the first thing I noticed was how silent it was. No one was chatting. The second thing I noticed was how, for a Web-based business, there were few computers — maybe seven in the building, which has towering white walls and a concrete floor. Every Netflix warehouse looks like every other Netflix warehouse, down to the same flat, bright wattage of its light bulbs. It’s not attractive, which might explain the hasty mismatch of promotional posters taped to its walls like college dorm decor — a poster for “Atonement” alongside a poster for the direct-to-video “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” alongside a horror flick poster.

There’s no there there, by design.

No computers — Netflix runs on manual work, with employees flipping through each DVD one by one:

…at the 28,500-square-foot warehouse, from which more than 60,000 discs are shipped daily in the Chicago area alone, cartons are placed at the feet of employees, who glance in two directions — down (to pick up an envelope) and up (to look at the disc), and that’s about it. This is the first, and least automated, stage of the process, performed mainly by women, including a seemingly disproportionate number of local grandparents; they have full medical benefits and a 40-hour workweek.

They inspect each returned disc. They rip open each envelope, toss it, pull the disc from its sleeve, check that the title matches the sleeve, inspect the disc for cracks or scratches, inspect the sleeve for stains or marks, clean the disc with a quick circular motion on a towel pulled tight across a square block of wood, insert the disc into its sleeve, and file the disc in one of two bins. The bin to the right is for acceptable discs, the bin to the left is for damaged discs or discs not in the proper sleeve.

To a casual observer, this all seems to happen in a single motion, a flurry of fingers.

The image of a Netflix worker, inspecting thousands of individual DVDs for scratches and cracks, dispels the utoptian notion of cyberspace, where all of our disembodied minds are floating around the net. In typical Web 2.0 rhetoric, our second lives leave our first lives behind; the truth is, though, even our second lives have to run somewhere.

There is a there there. Just no escaping it.

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