Wal-Mart and China

The Day That Nothing Happened

The Wal-Mart in the basement of my building sells live frogs in a big aquarium, for eating. I don't know what surprised me more when I moved here - the frogs, or the Wal-Mart. [...] In addition to the frogs there are live turtles, plastic bar code tags threaded through little holes in their shells. [...] This being China, any employee handling food inevitably wears a gauze mask and sanitary outfit that gives the deli counter the feel of a level-3 containment facility.

There are two Chinas - a small urban China that is getting richer, and an enormous rural one that remains desperately poor. Imagine cities in the United States surrounded by rural Mexico and you have the dynamic. [...] What makes the situation exceptionally weird is that this is happening in a country that still professes to be Marxist. And the new Chinese capitalism feels like it was introduced by people whose understanding of it came solely from reading Marx: it is ruthless, exploitative, and contains the seeds of its own destruction. The only hitch is that the inevitable finale - proletarian revolution - is supposed to have already happened.

Wal-Mart's Data Center

Behind a fence topped with razor wire just off U.S. Highway 71 is a bunker of a building that Wal-Mart considers so secret that it won't even let the county assessor inside without a nondisclosure agreement.

Wal-Mart's ability to crunch numbers is a favorite of conspiracy theorists, and its data centers are the corporate counterpart to Area 51 at Groom Lake in the state of Nevada. According to one consumer activist, Katherine Albrecht, even the wildest conspiracy buff might be surprised at just how much Wal-Mart knows about its customers - and how much more it would like to know.

"We were contacted about two years ago by somebody who runs a security company that had been asked in a request for proposals for ways they could link video footage with customers paying for their purchases," Albrecht said. "Wal-Mart would actually be able to view photos and video of customers paying, say, for a pack of gum."

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40 Responses:

  1. skammah says:

    I live within the boundaries of Wal-mart owned NW Arkansas. That Datacenter is actually behind the closest wal-mart to my house. I had no idea that it even existed. Next time I go up to Jane, MO, I will have to look for it. Maybe I will get some Area 51 type pictures of it's gates.

  2. fantasygoat says:

    I was just saying today how Walmart might be destroying the entire world economy and keeping what are essentially slaves for workers, but damn, they sure do sell a mean $14.88 vacuum cleaner.

    I have friends who refuse to shop there on principle, but really, it's an empty gesture based on the numbers that place runs. For every hippie tree-hugger who go somewhere else, there's 500,000 other sad-cat-sweater-wearing suburbanite fatties buying socks and DVD players. Then the vegan assholes go shop at dollar stores, which are basically the same thing only less neighbourhood destroying, so really, they're all full of shit.

    Seriously, $14.88!

    • usufructer says:

      I'm one of the assholes, though non-vegan. I haven't been there in years. I go to HyVee (all food and home supplies) and Target (clothes and shoes) and Amazon (entertainment) instead. It is going for the lesser evils, but it's better than doing nothing.

      Saying that it's an empty gesture is like saying that voting is an empty gesture. Diebold and voting irregularities aside, (warning! truism ahead!) the only way things change is to change them.

      • daruku says:

        Voting is an empty gesture especially up here in Alaska where all the votes always goes to the Republican President candidate no matter how much of a looser he is.

      • tiff_seattle says:

        Were you aware that Target lets their pharmacists refuse to dispense certain drugs based on moral grounds?

        • emexgee says:

          and the point would be...?

          • tiff_seattle says:

            I would expect most people that are opposed to Wal-Mart would also be opposed to other big corporations that bring this kind of social agenda to the public.

        • usufructer says:

          Yes, I am. And it is stupid, and I hope they change their policy (or be legally required to dispense).

          If you'd like to point out another store in town that I could shop at for the kind of stuff people buy at Target or Walmart, please do. It's the lesser of two evils.

      • margann says:

        target is equally as bad if not worse than wal mart is. i can't seem to find a link right now but i had read on fark that the target corporation was actively developing new surveillance methods in cooperation with police forces, with little or no opposition because people just didn't know about it. the target in my town has a police station inside it. very orwellian stuff.


        i'm not going to say i'm blameless because i've shopped at both target and wal mart before, and i don't all out ban them, but if i can get around going there at all i will. i'm not so much for whole foods stores and dollar stores either, i just try to stick with family-owned small grocery shops, restaurants, hardware stores and the like. i wish that more people would make an effort to do that, even if it means paying an extra two bucks for a broom or something, because the age of the successful small business is going to become extinct soon if we all buy into 14.88 vacuums. and i don't know about you guys, but that is pretty goddamn depressing to me.

        • usufructer says:

          You're arguing that companies shouldn't have the right to try to stop theft from their stores? That's remarkably stupid.

          • margann says:

            there's a huge difference between loss prevention and what i see these corporations doing - the police station in the target in an area with a remarkably low crime rate that was there before they moed in and continues to be is a good example of that, because there is no problem to speak of and the police were the ones who approached their corporate office with the idea. sure, companies have the right to deter theft, but people also have a right to a certain amount of anonymity. target in particular is sharing all of their information on suspicious people with the cops, whther they request it or not. so they have got files on all sorts of people, which could be extremely convenient if a person suspected of something gets pulled over, and excuse for detainment or some such. the idea might be born out of good intentions, but i find it to be a serious infringement on peoples' individual rights.
            i worked for about three years at a small(er) family owned department store in my town, and the loss prevention guys did their jobs fantastically, rarely having to resort to getting the police involved in the matter.
            i don't think local, state or national law enforcement should step in on any of these matters unless it's absolutely necessary, and to give them that kind of power is a mistake. i just think that if people continue to let government do whatever they want without question, we're going to end up with martial law.

      • margann says:

        oh, duh, it says a few things related in that article i just linked to

        Perhaps Target's oddest singularity is the fact that it boasts one of the nation's top forensics labs at its company headquarters. A product of its efforts to stop shoplifting and property destruction at its stores, its mastery of surveillance and investigative technology and strategy is now eagerly subscribed to by law enforcement agencies nationwide, including the FBI. The company provides training for police and federal agents on investigation and prevention of everything from arson and robbery to smuggling.

    • bluharlequin says:

      I'm also one of those assholes, though again, non-vegan.
      What's interesting is that here in Jersey I've discovered some hardcore republican good ol boys who work construction (and in one case, own a construction company,) who also refuse to shop at Wal-mart because it's anti- small business.

    • sherm says:

      Screw principle. I refuse to shop there on the grounds that their stores are a huge clusterfuck of merchandise displays, the "slaves" are absolutely useless, and the rest of the customers are dragging around 5 screaming juvenile cretins each. I'll gladly pay $0.32 more for razor blades to avoid that nonsense.

      • margann says:

        try working 60 hours a week for minimum wage and see how helpful you feel like being to the white trash who treats you like they're doing you a favor by harassing you, hahaha

    • benediktus says:

      "what are they doing?
      why do they come here?"

      "some kind of instinct. memory...of what they
      used to do. this was an important place in
      their lives."

  3. usufructer says:

    Wow, the data center article goes on, doesn't it. Interesting that it goes into RFID as well.

    I like that the assessor "came to an agreement" with them. That doesn't sound dirty at all, no...

    • valentwine says:

      I read that as "the county assessor from Jane, MO, has never seen anything bigger than a two-story house and had no effin' clue how to value that place."

  4. I attended the spring 2006 Data Center Users Group meeting last month. Some of the engineering/facility people from Wal-Mart gave a talk on... something about working as a team to build a data center. The gist I got from their talk was that Wal-Mart has a great many data centers facilities out there... in the big blue room.

  5. whittles says:

    I have a friend who's moving to china for a year in about a month. He's studying Chinese Medicine and will be living in Beijing. I love that you've posted a lot of articles from/about there lately. I keep sending them his way.

  6. connatic says:

    I'm not sure I should be impressed by the amount of data. 460 terabytes? At work, I manage several databases in the 6-10 terabyte range, and they're not the largest we have. Just our NFS backup pool, where we stage database backups before they go to tape, is 100T; and we have a lot of non-relational data, too.

    I think the article is probably off by 1 or 2 orders of magnitude.

    • fgmr says:

      I think the article is probably off by 1 or 2 orders of magnitude.


      Based on the size of the buildings in the picture I can guess how much CPU and disk they could have available, but it'd be a lot more telling to see their power infrastructure.. how many of what type of transformers do they have at the end of the high-tension lines, and where are they drawing from.

      • tongodeon says:

        I've worked at several visual effects and computer animation companies. 100 terabytes is typical for a medium-size studio. You can fit 100TB in a few racks. 100TB is nothing.

        I have semi-reliable information that the cage (not the building, just the cage) in the facility they built a few years ago is 80,000 square feet and held 300 *petabytes* (including database indexes) at a granularity sufficient to tell you which box of paperclips an individual bought with their pack of gum and how many other people bought that particular pack of gum with that particular type of paperclip within the last 18 months. (They only keep the last 18 months of data - the rest is archived.) This was about 5 years ago.

        • Yeah, and I bet damn little of that data was pictures, moving or otherwise. Lots and lots of transaction records.

          Linking video to the register tape is easy. I worked in Target security for a bit, over every register is a camera that recordes to disk, you get a nice little simultanious display of the register tape and the video, very handy for sorting out what happend when the customer comes back and says they did not get what they paid for which was not what they wanted (in just one month I got some amazing screwups sorted out, easy enough when you have all the data, also, most people don't lie it would seem).

      • frandroid says:

        How much storage space do you need to store 6 billion credit card numbers, anyway?

  7. travisd says:

    I, or one, welcome our price rolling back overlords.

  8. transiit says:

    I keep saying that Sam Walton should be posthumously awarded the Nobel Prize in science for figuring out a way to warp time and space.

    Doesn't matter where the Wal-Mart is located, as soon as you walk inside, you'd swear you're in Oklahoma. Check out the rest of the clientele sometime, you'll know what I mean.

    Me, I figure a certain amount of Wal-Mart angst is rooted in what made us shun K-Mart 20 years ago. I go there and pick certain things up in the name of "Hey, I can purchase a new-release DVD for less than the cost of taking a date to the same film in the theater." That and having a somehwat utilitarian view on fashion, I'd much rather pick up a pair of generic jeans for $20 than some marked-up designer crap.

    As best as I can tell, Wal-Mart in this area has had no greater impact upon independent business than say, Target, Sears, JC Penney, etc. And we don't even have the Super Wal-Marts with the grocery stores, but it wouldn't make much difference. Between Albertsons (Acme, Jewel, etc.), Ralph's (Kroger, Fred Meyer, etc.), Vons (Safeway, Pavillions, etc.), the closest we get to an independent grocer is a smaller chain: Stater Brothers.

    I've been going out of my way to find alternatives, but in a place as artificial (read: strip-mall friendly) as Orange County, I suspect few ever existed to begin with.


    • margann says:

      i live in a pretty small area and four wal marts opened up in one year. surrounding suburbs that used to be dotted with cafes and hardware stores are just completely abandoned now, and it's just been getting worse. add to that whatever production plants we have had here shifting overseas. it's insane how bad it has gotten within the last ten years

  9. beezari says:

    Love your point about chinese capitalism. Still, what we have learnt in school (my education was marx-based too), that the first stage of capitalism is supposed to be like this. ruthless and exploitative. This is the phase of capital accumulation. (am I using the right terminology? :))

    • baconmeteor says:

      It's only supposed to be like this if you believe Marx. I would hope we've learned enough about how markets, economies and societies work in the last century or so to be able to industrialize without so much human misery.

      As best I can tell, the Chinese government's official position now is that capitalism is a pre-requisite for socialism, so they're going ahead and build that and then move on to Communism from there. Kind of a breathtaking do-over.

      • beezari says:

        Humm.. from what I read in ours (ex. soviet printed) history books is that the western capitalism was evolving in much the same way. IMHO this is natural route of the way things happen. You cant change the nature of human greed.
        As for moving to socialism after, this would be a weird way to go. Socialism doesn't expect any private property and no rich people in the country. I think they'd have to run another revolution in the country to move this way