May 13, 2021

Brown Box

You order some stuff on the Internet and it shows up three hours later. How could all the things that need to happen to make that happen happen so fast?

 

It used to be, when you ordered something on the Internet, you waited a week for it to show up. That was the deal: you didn’t have to get off the couch, but you had to wait. But in the last few years, that’s changed. Now, increasingly, the stuff we buy on the Internet shows up the next day or the same day, sometimes within hours. Free shipping included. Which got us wondering: How is this Internet voodoo possible?

A fleet of robots? Vacuum tubes? Teleportation? Hardly. In this short, reporter Gabriel Mac travels into the belly of the beast that is the Internet retail system, and what he finds takes his breath away and makes him weak in the knees (in the worst way). Producer Pat Walters and Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store, a book about Amazon.com, assist.

*****This podcast contains some language and subject matter that might not be appropriate for young listeners******

 

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wait, wait. You're listening (laughter)...

JULIA LONGORIA: OK?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: RADIOLAB.

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JULIA LONGORIA: See?

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAT WALTERS: OK. Let me make sure this is recording.

ROBERT KRULWICH: You're going to tell me something?

JAD ABUMRAD: I think I'm going to tell you about diapers.

ROBERT KRULWICH: OK.

JAD ABUMRAD: So we order from diapers.com all the time, you know, 'cause we have these kids.

PAT WALTERS: Is that...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Of course they'd be called...

PAT WALTERS: ...What it's actually called?

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...Diapers.com.

JAD ABUMRAD: You guys don't know diapers.com?

PAT WALTERS: That's the actual name of the website?

JAD ABUMRAD: My God. It's, like, such a part of our lives that I just figure it...

PAT WALTERS: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Would be, like...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: I mean, it's, like, all the crap that you don't want to have to leave the house to get, you know, like paper towels. OK. Ugh, God, I have to go down the street to get paper towels. Well, you can get it from diapers.com. So we order...

ROBERT KRULWICH: But how would you get...

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey. This is Jad. RADIOLAB. Today I want to play you an older story that we think is still totally relevant, actually, maybe more so now than when we played it originally. There's been, as I'm sure you heard, a ton of stuff in the news over the last few years about the entire universe of companies and warehouses and people who work at these places behind the scenes to fulfill all of this stuff that we so effortlessly buy online - right? - all of these harrowing stories about working conditions and unionization efforts.

But back in 2016, we had a very unique opportunity to crawl inside the day-to-day experience of these workers. And given how ubiquitous online ordering is now, we just found ourselves thinking back on that story. So we're going to play it for you. And if you stick around to the end, you'll hear kind of an amazing update from the reporter on this story. And we'll just leave it at that for now. So back to the original conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST) 

ROBERT KRULWICH: But how would you get - like, how would you get paper towels delivered promptly?

JAD ABUMRAD: I tell you, this is exactly what - this is exactly the crux of the story. It's a simple story in that we would order these giant boxes of shit from diapers.com, and they would appear second day, three days later. And then one day Karla orders it, and it appears the same day.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The same day.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. And now every time that we click submit on this thing, it shows up, like, three hours later, a huge box of stuff.

ROBERT KRULWICH: You must be only blocks from the worldwide headquarters of diapers.com...

JAD ABUMRAD: Even if I were blocks...

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...And ties and thumbtacks.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...I just, like, if someone asked me to pick up that stuff at the corner deli, it would take me all day.

ROBERT KRULWICH: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: But somehow it shows up, like, just in a few hours. And I just - I began being like, what the hell happens after you hit submit?

(SOUNDBITE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "DANCE OF THE SUGARPLUM FAIRY")

GABRIEL MAC: It's like magic. It's so wonderful. And that's the future, dammit.

JAD ABUMRAD: So what end up happening is I was thinking about this in a sort of passive way. And as often happens, things sort of converged. And I ended up reading this article by a writer our producer Pat ended up interviewing.

PAT WALTERS: Yes. His name is Gabriel Mac, a totally badass investigative reporter, reported from war zones and natural disasters all over the world. And several years ago, he wrote a story for Mother Jones magazine where he actually got himself hired at one of these internet retailer warehouses.

GABRIEL MAC: And they're called third-party logistics contractors, or 3PLs. That's what they call them in the biz. And they basically handle all the goods that you order off the internet.

PAT WALTERS: So when you order something off the internet, you're actually probably dealing with a company that's not the company you think you're dealing with.

GABRIEL MAC: And maybe you think there's robots that just make these items show up at your house within a few hours of you ordering them.

PAT WALTERS: But as Gabriel would come to find out, a lot of the time...

GABRIEL MAC: That's not how it works.

PAT WALTERS: Not even close - and we'll start at the beginning. When you're sitting on your couch and you hit submit...

(SOUNDBITE OF DATA TRANSMITTING)

PAT WALTERS: ...Your order bounces off some servers and ultimately gets funneled...

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSHING SOUND EFFECT)

PAT WALTERS: ...To a warehouse.

GABRIEL MAC: Just a giant warehouse - if we were rounding, we would say it was a million square feet. So...

PAT WALTERS: What is a million square feet? Like, how many football fields could I fit in there? Or...

GABRIEL MAC: That would be a lot.

PAT WALTERS: About 17 - so just imagine, like, a huge airplane hangar 17-football-fields long filled with people.

GABRIEL MAC: There's thousands of us. And all I can put us regionally is west of the Mississippi 'cause we can't say for legal reasons where we were.

PAT WALTERS: Left half of the United States.

GABRIEL MAC: Yes. I was hired as a picker. And pickers' jobs are basically to run around this cavernous warehouse and find the crap that you ordered off the internet. So basically, your day is, you arrive at the warehouse, you put all your stuff in the lunchroom 'cause you can't take anything except for the clothes on your backs into the warehouse.

PAT WALTERS: As soon as they walk in, all the pickers are handed little computers.

GABRIEL MAC: We get our little scanners. You have a handheld scanner.

PAT WALTERS: And it's on the little screens of those scanners that the orders you make sitting on your couch actually appear.

GABRIEL MAC: It pops up. Like, go to this section, this region, this shelf, this unit, find a Malibu Barbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

PAT WALTERS: Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GABRIEL MAC: And it tells you how many seconds that you have to get there, like 15 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fourteen, 13, 12, 11.

GABRIEL MAC: And it counts down.

PAT WALTERS: It counts down?

GABRIEL MAC: So the minute the item...

PAT WALTERS: Like, did the little...

GABRIEL MAC: It counts down (laughing).

PAT WALTERS: Oh, my...

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah (laughter).

PAT WALTERS: ...Gosh.

GABRIEL MAC: And so it, like, pops up 15 seconds, 14...

PAT WALTERS: It's like, boop, boop... 

GABRIEL MAC: ...13, 12.

PAT WALTERS: ...Boop.

GABRIEL MAC: Right.

PAT WALTERS: Did that scanner that you used make sounds?

GABRIEL MAC: Fuck. I'm almost positive it did.

PAT WALTERS: Can you imitate it?

GABRIEL MAC: (Laughter).

PAT WALTERS: Like, what would...

GABRIEL MAC: Beep, beep, beep. It's like that.

PAT WALTERS: In any case, you're standing in the middle of 17 football fields. You got 15 seconds to find the region that has the shelf that has the bin that has the Barbie.

GABRIEL MAC: And then scan it - beep - put it in a little plastic tote. And then the plastic totes get set on conveyor belts. And they get carried away into some other magical area where people put it in boxes and send it to your house.

PAT WALTERS: And as soon as he's done that...

GABRIEL MAC: The next item will immediately pop up, and it'll say, go to this section, this region, this unit, find a dildo, let's say, because there are lots and lots and lots and lots of people ordering dildos on the internet, apparently. And so you have 40 seconds - 39, 38 - to make it to the bin with the dildos in it.

PAT WALTERS: Which could be a football field away.

GABRIEL MAC: You go as fast as you can...

PAT WALTERS: Find the dildo.

GABRIEL MAC: ...Scan your dildo.

Beep.

Put it in the tote. Next item pops up. Find an olive oil mister.

PAT WALTERS: Do you remember specific names of things?

GABRIEL MAC: There were a lot of vitamins.

Beep.

Male enhancement pills.

Beep.

Lots of iPad things.

PAT WALTERS: Really?

GABRIEL MAC: Oh, my God. There's so many things that you can put on and around an iPad, like an iPad cover...

Beep.

...To carrying cases...

Beep.

...Protective cases...

Beep.

...The stand that you could put your iPad on so it worked like a computer screen...

Beep.

...A handheld, like, iPad glove thing.

Beep.

Dildos and iPad accessories are, like, the most popular items that I picked, for sure.

PAT WALTERS: Did you ever find a dildo that goes around an iPhone?

GABRIEL MAC: (Laughter).

PAT WALTERS: That would be, like...

GABRIEL MAC: No.

PAT WALTERS: ...The perfect internet thing.

GABRIEL MAC: I'm sure it's in there, though. You know, you don't really have time to even look at what you're doing. There's just, like, a second where your brain is like, why does this product exist?

Why does this product exist? Why does this product exist? Why does this product exist?

That's sort of like a whisper all the time in the background. But for the most part, it's kind of a blur - video games.

Beep.

Baby food.

Beep.

Diapers.

Beep.

Paper towels.

Beep.

Who is ordering paper towels...

PAT WALTERS: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: ...On the internet? Like, who's the person who's doing this?

JAD ABUMRAD: Um.

(LAUGHTER)

GABRIEL MAC: And I was hired as a picker because of my youth and my fitness, which is to say that I'm not in my 70s because there were a lot of (laughter) people in the place who were in their 60s and their 70s and their...

PAT WALTERS: Really? That old?

GABRIEL MAC: Oh, yeah. This is, like, old white ladies.

PAT WALTERS: Gabriel says when he talks to people about this, most of them assume the warehouse is full of, like, young Mexican people. But in fact, he says, where he worked, it was mostly white people, and most of them were older than him.

GABRIEL MAC: I was 32 at the - 31 at the time.

PAT WALTERS: Whoa.

GABRIEL MAC: That's why they gave me a job where you run around a lot.

PAT WALTERS: Actually, on one of the consent forms he had to sign before he was hired...

GABRIEL MAC: It said that we were going to walk 12 miles a day. But going into it, I was like, yes, picker.

PAT WALTERS: (Laughter).

GABRIEL MAC: I was actually really excited. You know, you get some exercise. Right now, my job, if I'm not out, like, actively reporting, is to sit on my ass, right?

PAT WALTERS: Right.

GABRIEL MAC: And type and stuff. So I was like, score, like, (laughter) you know?

PAT WALTERS: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: I'm going to do a good job. And I didn't think I was going to be my favorite thing in the world, but I thought it would be interesting and challenging and I would do a good job. And I was so wrong about all of those things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAT WALTERS: First of all, in this warehouse - and again, we can't say which one it is - nothing was organized the way you'd expect it to be. Like, if you were looking for a dildo, it might just be in some random box...

GABRIEL MAC: This is like a bin full of crap...

PAT WALTERS: ...Thrown in with a bunch of other things.

GABRIEL MAC: ...(Laughter) you know? So there's a bunch of batteries in there and an iPad anti-glare cover. And then there's 10 CD, you know, whatever.

BRAD STONE: Products seem haphazardly stored next to each other.

PAT WALTERS: And that's by design, according to this guy, Brad Stone.

BRAD STONE: I'm the author of "The Everything Store."

PAT WALTERS: Which is a book that look specifically at...

BRAD STONE: Amazon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRAD STONE: There's actually some very sophisticated software that is governing Amazon fulfillment centers.

PAT WALTERS: What happens is, say the warehouse gets a shipment of 17 dildos in. Instead of taking those dildos to, like, the dildo section, the computer will figure out how much shelf space or bin space those dildos need and where in the warehouse those bins are. So it might say, let me put four dildos over here and three over there.

BRAD STONE: The invisible hand that orchestrates the symphony that is Amazon's fulfillment center is called the mechanical sensei.

PAT WALTERS: The mechanical sensei.

BRAD STONE: And it not only tracks, you know, where to put items, it tracks what the most efficient routes are for the pickers to go through these shelves in the shortest amount of time.

PAT WALTERS: Like, imagine you sit down and order 14 products at one time. What the computer does is it will farm that order out to 14 different pickers in different parts of the warehouse and then will coordinate the timing so that each picker is grabbing the item, putting it on a conveyor belt in a certain order so that all the products arrive to the same box at the same moment.

It'll make sure that box is just big enough but not too big. It figures out when to get those boxes on trucks and when those trucks should leave. And eventually, if you believe Jeff Bezos, the sensei will send out fleets of tiny helicopter drones that will deliver your packages to your doorstep at lightning speed, no humans involved. So, yeah, for the moment, most of the time-saving they're going to get is from making the human pickers pick faster 'cause if you think about it, once the packages get on trucks...

GABRIEL MAC: The truckers are still going to have to follow the speed limit. But there's no OSHA laws about how fast you can make people work inside the warehouse.

PAT WALTERS: And the way you make those people fast, at least in the warehouse Gabriel worked in, is by treating them like drones.

GABRIEL MAC: For example, you're digging through the bin, and you see lots of other stuff but not the thing that you're looking for. So these scanners assume you're an idiot and you just aren't seeing it. Like, you can't swear to the scanner that it's really not there. So you have to scan every item in the bin to prove that it's not there.

PAT WALTERS: Really?

GABRIEL MAC: So this - yeah - the one time this happened to me - I mean, I happen to be a bunch of times, but one of the times it was, like, 30 individually wrapped batteries in this bin. And so I have to scan every single one...

Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.

...Before my scanner will let me go on. But I'm not given extra time to do that. And my, you know, my scanner the whole time is like...

Three, two, one, zero.

Now it's counting the seconds that you're late.

Three, four, five.

PAT WALTERS: Does it go into the red or something?

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah, so you know exactly how late you are. And you're trying to scan your stupid olive oil mister.

PAT WALTERS: Gabriel says, within the first few hours of his first shift, a supervisor walked up to him, said...

GABRIEL MAC: You're only making 48% of your goal 'cause you're supposed to be picking something like a hundred and seventy items per hour.

PAT WALTERS: A hundred and seventy things an hour.

GABRIEL MAC: Yes.

PAT WALTERS: Wow.

GABRIEL MAC: It was the first time in my life - (laughter) 'cause I'm an overachieving nerd from the Midwest - I went to Catholic school, you know...

PAT WALTERS: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: ...First time in my life somebody came up to me and was like, you're doing a really bad job.

PAT WALTERS: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: (Laughter) I was like, me?

PAT WALTERS: By the third day, he says, he was doing a little better.

GABRIEL MAC: It was like 50%, 50% of my goal. I asked my supervisor at one point, you know, can I pee just, like, in the middle of the day? And he was like, of course, this isn't China, but it's going to hurt your numbers.

PAT WALTERS: So he thought, screw it.

GABRIEL MAC: You know what? I'm not going to pee. I'm going to hold it.

PAT WALTERS: Till lunch.

GABRIEL MAC: The minimum shift is 10 and a half hours. And in that 10 and a half hours, you have 29 minutes and 59 seconds for lunch.

PAT WALTERS: They tell you that...

GABRIEL MAC: If it's 30 minutes...

PAT WALTERS: ...Not 30 minutes?

GABRIEL MAC: They told us that. If it's 30 minute and one second, you get docked points. And if you get docked enough points, you get fired.

PAT WALTERS: Especially if you're new.

GABRIEL MAC: They told me when I got hired at the temporary staffing agency. They had videos about it. They had people walking around telling you, you cannot miss any time or be one minute late at any point during your first week of orientation. And so to sort of illustrate this point...

PAT WALTERS: He says that during his orientation...

GABRIEL MAC: The lady leading our training says, you know, take Brian.

PAT WALTERS: She points to a guy in the back of the room.

GABRIEL MAC: Brian used to work here. And then his girlfriend had a baby. So he missed a day. And he was fired because it doesn't matter if you have doctor's notes or baby pictures or whatever it is, there are no exceptions to this rule. And so Brian had to go back to the temporary staffing agency, go back through their application process, get hired by them, clear a new drug test and go back through the training that he had mostly, you know, already done. And now he's sitting in this group with us. And the lady's like, welcome back, Brian. You know, everybody, don't end up like Brian.

PAT WALTERS: So Gabriel says, when you finally make it to lunch, you finally pee...

GABRIEL MAC: You just shovel food into your face while you watch your watch. And occasionally in between chewing...

PAT WALTERS: People talk.

GABRIEL MAC: And everybody is asking each other, why are you here? - which is like, you know, in prison. And (laughter) we actually fact-check this because I was like, do people in prison really always ask each other what they're in for?

PAT WALTERS: Right, or is that just...

GABRIEL MAC: Or is that just in movies?

PAT WALTERS: ...A thing where you - yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: And we fact-checked it. And I asked this guy who'd been in federal prison. And he was like, it's the only conversation people are having.

PAT WALTERS: Gabriel remembers the people at his table were like...

GABRIEL MAC: I got laid off. I used to be an accountant. I used to be a store manager. I used to work in a restaurant.

PAT WALTERS: All over the place.

GABRIEL MAC: Everybody was something else in another life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAT WALTERS: Gabriel says, on one of his last days, he came back from work...

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah, I came home from work. I took a bath, trying to sort of soak out some of the soreness so that I would be prepared and ready to wake up again and do it all over and make my (laughter) numbers, which I, you know, was still failing to make. And I was Skyping with one of my friends. And he was like, how's it going? And I was like, (crying) and they fired this guy 'cause he had a baby, the people are terrible. And yeah, I cried about it a little bit. I hadn't realized really how mean the system was, not just that it was tiring and not just that it hurt your body, but that it was mean at - in every way, at every turn that it possibly could be. It kind of punched me in the face a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAT WALTERS: Coming up, I visit an Amazon warehouse. We'll be right back.

Hey, welcome back. I'm Pat Walters. This is RADIOLAB. So it used to be that when you ordered something off the internet, it would take, like, a week to show up. And obviously in the last few years, that's changed. Now you order something and it shows up the next day or sometimes the very same day, even though the shipping is totally free. And before the break, we heard from a reporter named Gabriel Mac about the cost of that speed. Gabriel embedded in one of the warehouses that ships out the crap that we order on the internet. And what he found there was pretty grim.

Hello, hello, hello.

Not too long after I talked to Gabriel, I went home for the holidays, which just happens to be near one of the biggest Amazon warehouses on the East Coast.

...Just outside Allentown, Pa.

And we should say again that Gabriel did not necessarily work at an Amazon warehouse. But talking to him had gotten me curious.

This is a warehouse that in July of 2011 made some really big headlines 'cause the temperatures inside the warehouse had gotten so hot that people had started to collapse from heat stroke. And rather than put in air conditioning or send people home, the warehouse instead just had local paramedics wait outside and cart people away. And once the news broke, Amazon did install air conditioners, but I was curious to see if things had changed. And based on the people that I met...

Do you work here?

...Like, before I got kicked out...

I'm a reporter. I'm just...

...It was kind of hard to tell.

What do you do, if you don't mind me asking?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm a picker.

PAT WALTERS: You're a picker?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mmm hmm.

PAT WALTERS: This woman who I met in the parking lot told me that she'd been working as a picker for about a month.

Can you describe what it - what the work is like?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Well, it's easy for me. Everybody has they own opinion. But I have lost a lot of weight. Like, I like it.

PAT WALTERS: You like it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, I like what I do.

PAT WALTERS: And when I went into the lobby of the building...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. It's fantastic, and then...

PAT WALTERS: ...I met this guy who told me he was the warehouse DJ. That during the holiday rush, the company would move him around to different departments depending on, like, who needed motivation.

Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

PAT WALTERS: Like, you DJ?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: These people take care of their people here.

PAT WALTERS: Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I did karaoke shows. We did dance contests.

PAT WALTERS: Wait, like, while people were at work?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. They're dancing in place. You know, I'd do the "Cupid Shuffle," or I'd do something crazy like the "Chicken Dance," if you - you know, doing stuff like that, you know.

PAT WALTERS: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I play everything from, you know, Christmas songs to funk from the '70s to Bachata and Metallica, Bollywood music.

PAT WALTERS: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know, there's some old Indian women that were packing up boxes and stuff. And then there - you know, everything - Jamaican, reggaeton...

GABRIEL MAC: That sounds awesome.

PAT WALTERS: (Laughter).

GABRIEL MAC: I mean, we did not have a DJ or a karaoke contest, which I would have won, for the record.

PAT WALTERS: (Laughter).

GABRIEL MAC: I mean, I like karaoke more than almost anyone, but that's not going to fix the main issue, which is that they're working these people like draft horses.

PAT WALTERS: Although that woman I talked to seemed to dig it.

GABRIEL MAC: Well, not - I mean, not every person that I worked with hated it. I mean, there were a lot of people who made their numbers, and they made their numbers every single day. And there were people who made over their numbers. And I don't even understand what was going on with that. But they were very matter of fact about it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Or maybe I was thinking this is a talent. Like, maybe if you try to become a lacrosse player and you're just not very speedy and you don't like physical contact, that that's not a great sport for you. I mean, you should play golf.

GABRIEL MAC: I mean, I'm from the Midwest, you know? I'm hardy work stock.

(LAUGHTER)

GABRIEL MAC: I was a mover for years and years and years. Like, when you call people and they have to come to your house and put all your crap in boxes and then load all the boxes onto trucks and then move into another place, that was my job for years. So I do...

JAD ABUMRAD: So I mean, do you order off the internet now? I mean, after having done this, do you - have you sworn off of it?

GABRIEL MAC: I try not to order anything off the - I don't actually buy that much stuff. But certainly, I mean, no, I'm not, like, ordering my paper towels off the internet, if that's what you mean.

(LAUGHTER)

JAD ABUMRAD: No, I don't know who would do that. That's ridiculous.

GABRIEL MAC: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GABRIEL MAC: (Laughter) Can you imagine that I thought that it was novel that I was fulfilling an order for online paper towels at that time? Like, I wouldn't - you - that's not the reaction you would have now. And I was like, what a jerk.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

GABRIEL MAC: Well, and even when I was working in that warehouse, it was like, who is doing this?

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

GABRIEL MAC: But of course - and I imagine this is partly why you guys are re-airing this now, right? - like, the only thing anybody does who doesn't have to go out into the world and work is sit at home and order things...

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God.

GABRIEL MAC: ...On the internet. Like...

JAD ABUMRAD: I know. Now, it's just like everybody orders everything, and it just comes.

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: I feel like we have tipped headlong into the world that we were looking at in this story. And now, that is just the world, unfortunately.

GABRIEL MAC: Where else to paper towels even come from? People don't even know.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter) No, I know. They just come from the internet.

GABRIEL MAC: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: So this is Gabriel Mac. And we brought him back into the studio for a bit of an update.

GABRIEL MAC: So, I mean, I talked to you seven years ago.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: And obviously, I did - you know, I did a bunch of stuff in the interim. But the last, like, thing - like, voice-related thing that I did was I was on "The Daily," you know, The New York Times podcast in late...

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: ...2017, which is about 15 seconds before I started transitioning.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, wow.

GABRIEL MAC: So - and that was it. So it's been 3 1/2 years, and I've been - sort of been, like - it feels like I've been in, like, voice hiding a little bit if I'm being totally honest. So...

JAD ABUMRAD: It's like - it's interesting because I was thinking about the - I mean, just to what you were saying about not just the story that we did, but, like, all these stories you've made and books and awards. And now, you're this new person with a new name. And...

GABRIEL MAC: Well actually, can I stop you there?

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: The new - that's a thing that I find people saying with some frequency...

JAD ABUMRAD: OK.

GABRIEL MAC: ...Like, a whole new person.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: It's that I'm an old person, but I'm the old person.

JAD ABUMRAD: You're the old person.

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah. It's like becoming - to me - I mean, I will only speak for myself here, although this is not, in my experience, a rare feeling about this. Transitioning isn't about becoming somebody new. It's about becoming somebody old, like, your old (laughter) iteration that you just couldn't embody before. So...

JAD ABUMRAD: No, no, no. OK. So that does make sense. But I guess I'm wondering - like, because you've done - you have all this work that you created before you transitioned - I mean, you won all these awards, and you had these, like, amazing magazine features, but that all had a different name associated with them. So do you think about having to reclaim that work in some way because it was done under a different name?

GABRIEL MAC: I mean, as this conversation totally proves, like, that work lives. Like, it still lives, and it still breathes. And it gets reissued or rediscovered...

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: ...All the time. So it's not like it's just sitting somewhere in a vault, in which case I'd be like, whatever, you know? But it doesn't. It's still alive. And this, actually - this piece that we're talking about, this RADIOLAB piece - is probably the one I think of the most often because of how I intro'd and ID'd myself, where in the first - whatever - 15 seconds of my talking, I identify myself as a lady reporter, which I frequently did.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: It's just - yeah. It's a lot. But I think about it all the time, actually, this interview specifically.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, yeah. We obviously cut that from the original, so it's not in there anymore. But what - it was telling to me that, when I was thinking back on this piece, I could kind of remember the beats of the piece, but what I really remember, for some reason, was you IDing yourself as lady reporter. For some reason that just, like, sticks in my head. I was like, oh. Well, that's - it's interesting to me that that sticks in my head, and that means something. So let's talk about it.

GABRIEL MAC: Maybe you have a trans Spidey sense that you - like, somewhere deep in your subconscious that you're not even aware of.

JAD ABUMRAD: Maybe (laughter). I don't know.

GABRIEL MAC: I'm serious. Like, maybe that stuck with you as, like, something in the universe, and your body was just like, flag that for later.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. It's, like, just - noted.

(LAUGHTER)

JAD ABUMRAD: File that away.

GABRIEL MAC: Something's happening here. I don't know what it is. But in seven years, I'll figure out why something in my bones was like, hmm.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter) I mean, it could be. I don't know.

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah. I have remembered that always - always. I actually talk about the fact that I did it in the intro to my new book. Like, that's how...

JAD ABUMRAD: No way.

GABRIEL MAC: Yeah, no, that's how much of a - because, to me, that's, like, how clear it was that I was really grasping this identity. It's a completely ridiculous answer to a perfectly straightforward question that somebody asked me - who are you? Like, saying - calling yourself a lady doctor...

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, right.

GABRIEL MAC: ...Is a commentary on the stupid patriarchy - it just is - in the shortest, most efficient way that you could possibly issue one, right? So there were layers of that happening. But, I mean, you're right. Like, the gender of the person who reported this story is not particularly relevant to the late capitalist internet third-party logistics industrial complex dystopia that we live in. That is the true story.

JAD ABUMRAD: Well, let's go ahead and have you re-ID yourself. Tell us who you are and what you do.

GABRIEL MAC: It's going to take me a minute. It's a big - I'm having a moment. You can't see me because my camera doesn't work.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. Take your time.

GABRIEL MAC: I'm sitting here having a moment.

(Whispering) Oh, my gosh, Jad.

I think I'm going to be the first person who cries through their ID (laughter)...

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: ...On your show. Would I be the first person?

JAD ABUMRAD: I think so, yeah.

GABRIEL MAC: I like that you think have to think about it, though. My name is Gabriel Mac, and I'm a writer and investigative reporter. And a human person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: Thank you to writer and reporter Gabriel Mac and producer Pat Walters. I'm Jad Abumrad.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CASEY: This is Casey (ph) calling from Fort Myers Beach, Fla. RADIOLAB is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

JONATHAN CHAN: Hi, this is Jonathan Chan calling in from Singapore. RADIOLAB was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Whack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster, with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Carin Leong. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly and Emily Krieger.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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