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Algorithmic Spectacle

Part I  Algorithmic 

“ ‘Two minutes have disappeared from the system.’ ( a leading Chinese food delivery platform) delivery rider Zhu Dahe distinctly remembers the day in October 2019 when, gripping the handlebars of his scooter with sweaty hands, he saw the delivery time set by the system: ‘Two kilometers, delivery within 30 minutes.’ He had been working delivery in Beijing for two years, and before that day, the shortest time he had ever been given for that distance was 32 minutes. From that day forward, he never saw those extra two minutes again.

This was not the first time that time ‘disappeared’ from the system.”


- Excerpts from “Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System”, Renwu Magazine (人物,'People'), Sep. 2020. 



Express couriers, frequently seen darting through traffic on their scooters, have become a common fixture in urban landscapes. This investigative article by Renwu Magazine sheds light on the paradox of food delivery platforms: while boasting of efficiency and consumer convenience, they often subject food delivery workers to precarious employment conditions and hazardous work environments.


To outdo competitors and increase market share, platforms heavily subsidise orders and relentlessly shorten delivery times to win consumer loyalty. While consumers’ expectations for faster delivery are moulded, the lofty goals set by algorithms for delivery workers are often realistically unattainable. Speeding, running red lights, and driving against traffic, along with essentially emotional labor—such as fulfilling consumers’ particular demands, ingratiating oneself with consumers for a 5-star rating—are common practices among workers attempting to accomplish the impossible missions set by the algorithms. The disciplinary power of these stringent algorithms is manifested through severe financial penalties for late deliveries and negative evaluations, along with a reward system based on gamified performance ranking measures that link worker self-worth to capitalistic management techniques.


Despite facing these challenges, delivery workers, omnipresent in every nook and cranny of urban areas, embody the connection between disparate urban scenes and individuals. They weave a spectacle of instant gratification that reflects a broader societal shift towards immediacy in consumer experiences.


To gain a closer understanding of the delivery worker’s experience as they swiftly cut across the city on their scooters, I embarked on a bike ride from the financial district’s skyscrapers in the city centre to the quieter outskirts where migrant workers reside. Recognizing the cellphone as an indispensable tool for delivery workers for navigation and as the centrepiece of their virtual workspace, I similarly used my phone to capture the urban scenery encountered along my route, aiming to produce a series of images that could echo the daily visual experiences of delivery workers. These images encompass a variety of urban features—such as shops, restaurants, traffic lights, residential complexes, and office buildings—and, most crucially, the delivery workers I met along the way.


Initially taken as ‘live photos’ on an iPhone, these images were later enhanced using the iPhone's “long exposure” post-production effect. This technique algorithmically transforms a ‘live photo’—essentially a 1.5-second video at 15 frames per second—into a still image that evokes the aesthetic of analog long exposure photography. These images are intended to invite contemplation on how, through algorithmic logic, aspects of social interaction are similarly condensed through the ‘disappearance of time’? What elements of our personhood and social fabric are distilled or lost in this process of time-spatial compression facilitated by the interplay of technology and capitalism?

Part II  Spectacle


In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.


Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-­world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialization of images­ of­ the­ world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-­life.


The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.


The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.


― Guy Debord, Society Of The Spectacle

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