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.

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.

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How to change the world

If you’re involved in your community as a school governor or in a local campaign, or if you’re planning a revolution, I can’t recommend Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution highly enough. Popovic was a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian anti-Milosevic movement, and of CANVAS, the organisation passing on the lessons of that success to others around the world.

Blueprint for Revolution does not at all gloss over the fact that every situation is different, and some are much harder to change, so the book is not a detailed ‘how to’ guide for all occasions. But the principles it describes are surely universal: above all, non-violence is vital because (a) if you choose violence you’re taking on your strongman where he is strongest and (b) most people are not violent so you have to choose that route if you want most people on your side. There is also a particular emphasis on using humour as the most effective and universal way of dissipating fear.

I also particularly like just the sheer pragmatism of the book. Start with small issues that lots of people care about – Popovic quotes the immortal line of Liz Lemon, saying most people want a quiet place to sit to eat their sandwich. Go step by step towards a clear ultimate goal (democracy, say) and have a strategy to get there but also be flexible about tactics. Identify the pillars on which your target regime rests and go after them. Plan, plan, plan. Build coalitions: a huge Lord of the Rings fan, he notes that while it was the hobbits that won it in the end, it took a group of squabbling elves/dwarves/wizards/humans/hobbits together to ensure victory. Be prepared for the long haul, and don’t think things are over when you topple your dictator (i.e. if your ultimate goal is democracy, there is much further to go after the Tahrir Square moment….)

The book tells the stories of a number of revolutions but makes it clear that the practical lessons apply to any kind of activism from this largest scale to the smallest. Read, digest, and start thinking about the practical jokes.

Curiosity without borders

Recently I got C.P.Snow’s The Two Cultures down from the shelf, to refer to for my essay with Andy Haldane in January’s Prospect. It was recently reissued with Snow’s own 1964 addition of a reflection on the reactions to his 1959 lectures, and with an interesting introduction by Stefan Collini. This week I read the whole thing again.

What people remember is the vicious personal attack on Snow by F.R.Leavis, itself seeming to be an examplar of the chasm between the scientific and literary cultures that Snow had described.The essay is more balanced than this Punch and Judy version suggests: Snow certainly does not suggest that scientific knowledge is superior in any cosmic epistemological ranking. Both frames of reference are needed: “The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures… ought to produce creative chances. In the history of mental activity, that has been where some of the break-throughs came.”

What he does say is that the culture of the humanities dominated public life at the time, in the UK more than in the US and USSR, and that people from that literary culture did not feel the need to know the basics of the culture of science and technology. He suggests the attitude descended from the “Luddite” rejection of the Industrial Revolution by writers such as Ruskin and Blake, whereas, as the essay puts it: “With singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.”

 

Snow also points to the class-bound conservatism of the English (I mean English, not British) education system. It elevated the classics and literature as the appropriate subjects for the grooming of the elite via grammar and public schools and the top universities. Science did find its place, but was looked down on – certainly where it shaded into engineering and technology. Unlike Germany, France or the US, engineering was not a subject for a gentleman to study; this was more appropriate for the lower social orders.

This seems to me largely true, of the 1950s and 60s, and even now. Why else would successive British governments still feel the need to proseletyse for the ‘STEM’ subjects, if it were not that we had such a big gap with other countries to close? When you sit watching ‘University Challenge’ on TV and shout out the answers, I’m prepared to bet that the scientists can answer a few more humanities questions than vice versa. Our education system still forces young people to specialise absurdly early and absurdly sharply in either the sciences or the humanities. We still have an education system that allows far too many people to emerge saying, “I’m no good at maths,” which is like saying “I’m no good at thinking,” when it’s just that the symbols for getting thought onto paper or screen are different.

Snow insisted that the controversy missed the main point of his lecture, which was to underline the importance of scientific culture for economic development in poor countries. Here, though, his argument is – with hindsight – naively optimistic. “Since the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed, it will be,” Snow wrote. The scientific and technical knowledge being available, all that was needed was capital – a big task but a feasible one. Six decades later, it is clear that the gap can be closed but need not be. Electricity and indoor plumbing are very old technologies, as yet unavailable to very many inhabitants of poor countries, whereas mobile phones are a relatively new technology now available to and used by almost everyone in the world.

The missing element is what Snow described in his 1964 reflection as the third culture, the social sciences, and their perspective on “the human effects of the scientific revolution”. He blamed his English education, which meant he was “conditioned to be suspicious of any but the established intellectual disciplines.” 

I think the inhabitants of the culture of the humanities are broadly speaking at least as suspicious of the social sciences as they are of the natural sciences and technology: what they like about the social sciences are the historical and literary aspects, and what they dislike are the parts that use the scientific method, i.e.confronting human society with empirical evidence to test hypotheses systematically, even using maths. They often describe economists, for example, as suffering from ‘physics envy’. Maybe some do, but equations are just symbols for a prism on the world which might permit the testing of hypotheses. Even historians have models – hypotheses about causes and consequences – but they use words as their symbols, and sequences of events as their empirical evidence.

So I’m with Snow on the importance of crossing boundaries. He writes, “Unless one knows, production is as mysterious as witch doctoring.” Not enough people understand how things get made, whether cars or software systems. Not enough people understand how radio waves work or why epigenetics is worth getting your mind around. And not enough scientists read poetry, too. Here’s to curiosity without borders!

Not waving but drowning?

“My argument, based on the experience of my years in the Chicago ghetto, is that the poor are actually more resilient and economically creative because they have much bigger obstacles to overcome,” writes Sudhir Venkatesh in Floating City: hustlers, strivers, dealers, call girls and other lives in illicit New York – in a reference back to his previous book, Gang Leader for a Day.

Well, that rings true. The illicit economy manifests countless signs of creativity, enterprise, and the resilience of the human spirit. Floating City is not just a document about the lives of low income – and higher income – New Yorkers engaged in illegal economic activities; it is about the many connections between the legal and the illegal economies. He writes: “Global cities offered new social connections that could be monetized, above ground, and below in the black market.”

Chicago in the 1990s, the subject of the previous book, was a city of local neighbourhoods and dense, localized social connections. New York in the 2000s was becoming a city of new connections crossing all kinds of borders – the boundary between legal and illegal, the boundaries between social classes, breaking down, leaving individuals navigating new social networks with unfamiliar rules. The book concludes: “In the new world, culture rules. How you act, how you dress, and how you think are part of your toolkit for success. … The ability to cross boundaries is vital. New York forces multiple social worlds on you whether you like it or not.” Hence the floating between worlds – although more often sinking. As the Stevie Smith poem puts it, “I was much further out than you thought, and not waving, but drowning.”

The book is fascinating, and anybody with an interest in the illicit economy should read it. That ought to include all economists (although it probably won’t). The public conversation we have about the economy largely ignores the scale and pervasiveness of the shadow economy. From time to time it breaks through, as when the official statisticians announced they would include estimates of illegal marketed activity such as the drugs business and prostitution in GDP. On the whole, though, we politely ignore how big the whole thing is, from the scale of the international drugs and people trafficking trades all the way to rich folks with Swiss bank accounts looking for efficient tax arrangements, or companies that are ostensibly British but have a surprising number of Caribbean subsidiaries.

What I didn’t like about the book – and its predecessor – is the prominence of the author himself in the lives he documents. No doubt it is intellectually honest to underline the presence of the social science observer in the events he is observing, but for me he ends up sharing too much. I found it very uncomfortable, and was only partly reassured by the references to the university ethics committee. Having said that, authentic portraits of life on the margins of our global cities are welcome. And it’s a well-written and even gripping read.

Reading about cities

The essays in Patrick Keiller’s The View From The Train will appeal to anyone who enjoys the psychogeography genre – Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital etc – and I do. They are more interested in the economics of cities, and particularly inequality and public space, than many of the other psychogeography books, however. There is overlap for example with Anna Minton’s Ground Control and Lynsey Hanley’s Estates. Yesterday I wrote about the observations Keiller makes on ports and on housing. Although I don’t agree with all he says, it’s very interesting.

  

I must be in a cities mood, as I picked up and have now started reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s Floating City, which is an ethnographic approach to globalised, financialised, unequal New York City. As I’ve got flights today and tomorrow, I should be able to report back soon.