Containing multitudes

The blog has been down for a few days, for which apologies.

Twitter pointed me to the fantastic visualisation of container shipping below. It’s a good excuse to revisit this obsession of mine. The ur-book on this subject is Marc Levinson’s The Box, a fascinating account of both the industry itself and the general role of standards, and the wide and permanent social consequences of technological innovations. A more recent title on the same subject is also excellent, The Container Principle by Alexander Klose – more of a cultural studies perspective on the subject. I also enjoyed Rose Geroge’s account of life on a container ship, Deep Sea and Foreign Going.

I’m immensely looking forward to reading Richard Baldwin’s new book, The Great Convergence: Informaiton Technology and the New Globalization, on what he describes as the second great unbundling, the post-1980 reorganisation of production on a global scale, splitting up supply chains to take ever-greater advantage of specialisation through trade. It couldn’t have happened without the containers.

The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Second Edition with a new chapter by the author By Alexander Klose ; Charles Marcrum ( Author ) [ Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think Infrastructures By Feb-2015 Hardcover Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything



Shipping containers redux

Regular readers will know of my interest in shipping containers. It pre-dated Marc Levinson’s excellent The Box.In fact it must date back a long way – one of my favourite TV series when young was The Onedin Line.

Recently I’ve been following these Postcards from a Supply Chain, and also read Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going (which I reviewed here). The latest in this genre is The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think by Alexander Klose.

The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think (Infrastructures)

A collection of essays, this touches on the history of the industry and the economics of transportation and trade. But it is more concerned with the wider question of the cultural impact of containerisation. “Containers play as decisive a role in the organization of people, programs, and information as they do in that of goods,” writes Klose. “They not only physically appear in every imaginable place in the city (such as subway stops and airports) and in rural areas, they also appear in such cultural domains as architecture and urban planning, psychology, philosophy, pedagogy, business administration, communications and information, film, television, theatre and art.”

And cliches. Thinking outside the box, anyone?

There are chapters that riff on various aspects of containers, of which my favourite was the one about logistics, which is largely historical. Klose argues that modernity has a logistical logical structure, making the shipping container its “most successful material object to date…. Containerization is a prevailing cultural technology of the 20th and early 21st century.” I think I buy that argument. The book has lots of fantastic illustrations. It suffers a little from critical/media studies-speak but only a little, and more than makes up for it by bringing a different lens to this very familiar object.


The invisible industry

I’m not the only person fascinated by shipping containers.

Bill Gates named Marc Levinson’s The Box as one of the best books he read last year.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Another such person is my correspondent Thomas Marnane, for the understandable reason that he worked in the industry, for Matson Navigation, for many years.

Capt. Marnane just wrote to me about Rose George’s book Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that brings you Ninety Percent of Everything, which he says is, “A very readable and enjoyable book with a different and thoughtful slant.”

Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything

“I enjoyed Ms George”s insights on her time on a container ship–especially the crew relationships (or lack thereof)–a very different experience from any of my times on Navy and commercial ships (several countries).  I think without the camaraderie, sharing of diverse and common interests and card and game playing etc. that I enjoyed I would not have liked sea duty–and I did–even submerged.  Our Matson ships of today are a pleasure to be on–albeit all US crews.  Ms George provides good observations of ship operations as well and justifiably laments the good old days when port stops were longer (but turnaround longer and productivity less also).

“I felt that the sort of “environmentally indefensible” overtones were more for book selling rather than enlightening or compelling and were overdone–especially in the publicity for the book.  I admit to a bias toward ships and the people who own and sail them but my overall experience has been that sailors for the most work to take care of the sea, their ships, their public and their customers.  They work to improve productivity by reducing waste and pollution (nobody likes anything but an “economy haze” in the exhaust from their drive engines).  To paint the maritime industry as contaminating our waters, our air and our sound signatures has merit but only in the sense that any human activity such as driving cars, flying, etc. has– on a per ton miles moved and service to the world you can’t beat it.  She acknowledges this briefly later on in her book and notes the efficient energy expended to weight carried ratio enjoyed by ship transportation.  I think a survey of the large shipping lines will demonstrate a continual bias toward the environment and productivity (which in my mind are synonymous) and I am proud of the industry for that.”

He adds:

“I have just embarked on a new reading adventure The Sea and Civilization, a Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine.  At over 700 pages and relatively small print it is an adventure which I may not complete before the book has to be returned to the library  ……   I am afraid that for “containerization” aficionados you will have to wait until page 582 for gratification.  The book is actually very well done and for a naval architect and sailor it is quite absorbing and very readable.”

The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World