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Message in a Metal Box
The Role of Shipping Containers in Globalization
Many of the contexts I write about here are not tangible. We talk a lot about communications media, which deliver messages in electric form. This was not always the case, but today, most of the innovation in media happens without the message having a discrete physical form.
Another example of a medium shift that has stuck in my mind over the years is the lowly shipping container. I know I see shipping containers all over the place: on the backs of trucks, rail cars, near the airport, and they are all generally the same. Typically, I don’t think about shipping containers, but in the past few years, shipping and logistics have been more at the forefront due to the pandemic-era supply shortages. We all remember hearing of the extreme backups at US ports that finally dissipated about a year ago. Still, in general, the logistics of global transport faded back into the background the moment those backups stopped, allowing us to buy the things we wanted.
All of this, of course, glosses over what’s to me a most interesting question: in a world where we can’t even agree on the same units of measure and temperature, how in the world did we wind up with a standard shipping container that is generally the same all over the world?
The history of what’s called containerization, or the change from transporting bulk cargo in the hulls of ships and other transport vehicles that then had to be re-sorted at each destination, to the use of standard shipping containers that can be loaded at the source and moved from vehicle to vehicle to vehicle, starts to help us understand that question. A few years ago, a podcast on this subject piqued my interest, and if you’re looking for a dive into this subject, it contains more information than I’ll cover in my writing today.1
What I’m interested in for our purposes is thinking about shipping containers as a medium, and every medium has a message. Broadly, when we think about it, one of the shipping container's main messages is, “It should be easy to move things around.” Before the 1960s, many regional attempts at containerization had been attempted. Still, it took the US military in the thick of the Vietnam War to change that message to “It should be easy to move my supplies from North America to Southeast Asia.”
That was, of course, only the beginning—the effect of containerization went far beyond the vehicles. Ports had to change physically or were displaced by nearby ports that could be purpose-built for containers. The labor port workers provided switched from breaking and sorting bulk cargo to moving large boxes around after they arrived so they could be transported out of the dock by ship or rail. Overall, shipping costs decreased due to the global standardization of the shipping container. Where I live in the Upstate of South Carolina, the Inland Port of Greer, which is a rail extension of the Port of Charleston, is made possible by containerization. Containers may be dropped off here, 200 miles inland, and transported by rail. This reduces the need for the port to utilize expensive ocean-front real estate for cargo storage and simplifies logistics for companies looking to move things around the world.
However, the message of “it should be easy to move things around the world” is complicated. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the move towards our modern global shipping container standards immediately preceded the era of intense globalization that occurred in the following decades. Did the shipping container lead to the fall of the Soviet Union? Probably not directly, but the era of globalism it enabled undoubtedly didn’t help.
It not only became easier to move materials from the United States to overseas, it also became easier to move materials from outside the United States inside. The United States trade deficit went negative roughly 20 years after our modern era of shipping containers began, meaning that the US imports more value in goods per year than it exports, and that deficit shows no signs of ending soon despite the rhetoric of bombastic politicians.
Hopefully, what’s clear from this discussion is that the lowly shipping container is not a value-neutral enterprise. It has many messages, some contradictory and complicated, but present nonetheless. We usually don’t think about shipping containers themselves as a medium. They are just a thing. There are also many other ways to break this down: the way shipping containers reduce all of their contents, whether it’s medical supplies or tools of war, to be the same: a unit to be transported; or the way discrete containerization makes it possible to know where our goods specifically are at any time in the route from point A to point B.
My point today for us to think about is what mediums are, even if we don’t think about them like that. What are the messages of those mediums? Do those messages complement the values we articulate, or do they contradict them? What changes do we need to make in response?
And with that, thanks for reading. See you again soon.
A fun fact I learned while writing this: Chili peppers are native to North America and didn’t exist in the rest of the world before the Columbian Exchange. This means all those fun chili-spiced dishes I get from Chinese and Indian restaurants are a product of the last 500 years. I always love learning what things didn’t exist in the rest of the world before the Columbian exchange, so I hope you enjoy this fun fact, too.