In May 2021, satellite images of the Kentucky Speedway parking lot circulated the web showing thousands of abandoned Ford Super Duty trucks. The idle trucks were brand new but missing one essential part before they could be shipped to dealerships around the country: semiconductor chips. Semiconductors are silicon microchips that act as the “brain” for computing devices. The headline for the satellite photo depicting the graveyard of new trucks – “Now Visible from Space” – communicates the devastation of the semiconductor shortage on the Ford Motor Company. At the same time, it typifies Jameson’s concept of “cognitive mapping” that has come to define life in the pandemic as everyday consumers attempt to zoom out to secure a more totalizing view of the world system crippled by pandemic supply chain shortages and scarcity.
The semiconductor industry was one of many that weathered severe shortages throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to automobiles, semiconductors appear in just about all consumer electronics products, including personal computers, tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs. Today, the rising prominence of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ have made the entertainment industry more reliant on the semiconductor market. In the streaming era, most film and television viewing occurs on semiconductor-equipped devices. Streaming has profoundly impacted the way viewers consume media, popularizing new practices defined by online content libraries, multimedia viewing, and personalization and recommendation algorithms. In the wake of the pandemic, soaring prices of silicon and labor shortages for manufacturing and distributing semiconductor chips threatened numerous industries. At the same time, the government lockdowns and social distancing mandates that led to the surge in the consumer electronics market proved highly lucrative for the streaming economy. Throughout the pandemic, Netflix and competing platforms saw an increase in subscribers and record share prices as investors bet on streaming. Analyzing the semiconductor supply chain crisis, therefore, offers productive insights into the new entertainment economy, making visible the network of goods and labor that unite diverse industries around the world.
For readers accustomed to high-speed internet and ubiquitous broadband connectivity, streaming can feel like an immaterial practice. Personal computing devices equipped with auto-connect technology sync with Wi-Fi networks without user knowledge. Data travels across invisible frequencies, entirely imperceptible to human awareness. Streaming draws on the imagined immateriality of digital technology and echoes capitalist fantasies of endless expansion. The root of the word streaming implies that content flows continuously like a river. The seemingly limitless content associated with streaming functions as an expression of the new audiovisual culture that regards film and television as infinite. But the semiconductor supply chain crisis that swept the globe in the wake of the pandemic demonstrates how streaming is neither infinite nor immaterial but relies on a complex network of labor and raw materials.
The network has become a fundamental form of social organization that systematizes the global workforce and the distribution of goods and energy. Jack Linchuan Quin uses the term “network labor” to describe the unsustainable model of global labor that came to prominence at the end of the Cold War. Network labor describes the distribution of labor across the global market that works to dissolve traditional boundaries between state and corporate entities. The slogan, “Anytime, Anywhere,” has become the catchphrase of the streaming revolution and can be found on nearly every major platform’s website. However, the recent semiconductor shortage highlights the way promises of limitless, personalized content can be misleading. The photographs of stockpiles of unfinished trucks in Kentucky and elsewhere illustrate the shared networks of resources and labor within the world factory system of global market capitalism.
The rise of emerging economies in Taiwan, China, and South Korea as centers of the global semiconductor industry epitomizes the concept of network labor. According to reports, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the world’s largest foundry, accounting for 54 percent of the market share of semiconductor revenue. Other major foundries include United Microelectronics Corporation, also headquartered in Taiwan, Samsung in South Korea, China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, and Global Foundries, headquartered in the US. The map of Global Foundries’ worldwide locations highlights the need for new strategies in moving image studies that can grasp the complex labor networks that make film and television viewing possible.
Semiconductor chips are produced in large factories called fabrication plants. There are a variety of different microchips; some carry out functions like memory storage, whereas others are responsible for visual display or machine learning functionality. The societal turn towards streaming has sparked an expansion in internet infrastructure and personal computing devices, placing increased pressure on the semiconductor industry. Every microchip contains a tiny set of transistors, minuscule switches that can turn an electrical current on or off. Chip features are measured in nanometers. A nanometer is equivalent to one-millionth of a millimeter. For comparison, the SARS-COV-2 virus has a reported diameter of 100 nanometers, where the smallest structures on most microchips range from five to ten nanometers. Their small size makes semiconductors incredibly slow and expensive to produce. Altogether, it can take as long as six months before microchips are ready to be shipped to manufacturers. Expanding production is not a tenable solution either. Building a new fabrication plant costs anywhere between $7 to $15 billion, explains Tan Yew Kong, the Vice President and General Manager for the Global Foundries’ fabrication plant in Singapore.
In the wake of lockdowns and social distancing, the new at-home model of work and leisure led to increased subscribers and more viewing time for streaming services. According to an article in Forbes, the number of online video subscribers increased by 26 percent in 2020 to reach over 1 billion viewers worldwide. According to the Motion Picture Association, the growth in subscribers resulted in a record annual increase of more than 30 percent in digital entertainment sales with revenue figures swelling from $47.2 billion to $61.8 billion. As people spent increased time at home during the pandemic, the accentuated demand for computing devices like laptops, desktops, tablets, and smartphones grew rapidly, pushing the semiconductor industry to its structural capacity.
As the semiconductor supply buckled under the weight of the pandemic, companies like Apple and Microsoft used their enormous purchasing power to outbid competitors like Ford to secure a steady supply of semiconductor chips. The way Apple and Microsoft profited from the supply chain crisis illustrates how access to semiconductor chips is often uneven. Apple is TSMC’s largest client. In 2021, Apple saw a 33 percent increase in annual revenue, boasting records sales for its line of iPads, Apple TV devices, and Macs. The booming consumer electronics market extended to Apple’s competitors as well. Microsoft reported a 17 percent increase in annual revenue in 2021, with sales of commercial Office 365 products growing by 20 percent. Apple launched its streaming service, Apple TV+, in November 2019, just months before the start of the global pandemic. As COVID-19 ushered in a more digital world, Apple TV+ and other streaming platforms stood to gain directly from the pandemic.
Streaming has contributed to an entertainment culture that grants users unprecedented command over film and television viewing for competitively low prices. Nevertheless, promises of “Anytime, Anywhere” technology are misleading. Platform film and television rely on a global network of labor and raw materials. The worldwide shortage of chips that forced several automakers to halt production has brought attention to the model of global labor that sustains film and television viewing in the age of streaming. Furthermore, because streaming services rely on networks of human labor, streaming necessitates human rights discussions. As platform capitalism expands its networks across the globe, it is imperative that we make visible the network of labor and resources that ensures that film and television remain “just a click away” in the age of streaming.
As our world becomes increasingly networked, analysis of film and television ought to reflect the organizing logic that situates the entertainment industry within the global web of shared labor, raw materials, and resources. This essay offers one example of what insights a network analysis can reveal about the film and television industry. Crippled supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have slowed the gears and levers of the global market, making visible the contours of the world system that were previously invisible to everyday consumers. In a semiconductor-powered world, the need for a global coalition on the fair and equitable distribution of microchips emerges as one possible solution to the supply chain crisis. In our global digital economy, the distribution of microchips cannot be left to the unstable logic of supply and demand. As film and television become more reliant on computing technology, it is imperative that we come to understand the network of labor that sustains the semiconductor industry.
Tyler Klatt is a PhD candidate in English with an emphasis in Film and Media Studies at the University of Florida. His research explores new media with a focus on the rise of streaming services and the sweeping changes across the film and television industries, viewing habits, and processes of subject formation.