The Shipping Container

A Cyber Monday paean to the unsung hero of consumer capitalism

Busan New Port, South Korea (Reuters).

At the world’s ports, rows of stacks of shipping containers in an array of colors create a rich metallic vibrancy. On construction sites they are used as storage boxes. They can be seen lying prone and rusting in abandoned plots. They perch on the back of trucks speeding down the motorway. On flatbed cars they trundle through railway stations, box upon box upon box.

As a child living in relatively close proximity to a port, the sight of these large metal boxes offered a sense of wonderment, both an aesthetic joy at their geometric simplicity, and bafflement at what was in there behind those heavy doors. The geographer David Harvey has argued that these objects play a critical role in the changing nature of our cities, our politics, our labor, as well as our shopping habits. Without the container, cities like the Port of London would not have changed in such a dramatic manner. Harvey calls this process deindustrialization—the removal of a region’s heavy industry. Likewise, without the container and deindustrialization, the availability of cheap imports from China and other emerging economies would not have been possible.

Such claims might seem somewhat farfetched given the apparent simplicity of the shipping container: a standardized steel box in lengths of 20, and 40 feet by approximately 8 feet square. But consider the number of these boxes circulating the globe (let alone those lying abandoned in yards): in early 2011 there was a global fleet of nearly 5,000 container ships each carrying roughly 14 million containers. We take shipping container for granted precisely because of the sheer quantity of them moving around us. They are so common as to disappear. And as with similar objects, it’s only when things go wrong that we begin to recognize their presence.

Flooded harbor at Riesa, Germany (Reuters)

One such incident occurred on January 18, 2007 when the container ship the MSC Napoli was damaged in a storm off the South coast of England. The ship, capable of holding more than 4,000 containers, was towed towards a safe harbor. However, fearing it would break up authorities beached the vessel in sheltered waters. Of the 2,318 containers on board, fifty were washed up on beaches along the coast. The sight of overturned automobiles, bumper packs of diapers lying strewn next to dog food, or tins of spaghetti nestled alongside boxes of expensive French perfume alerted the British public to the contents of these containers. This surreal juxtaposition of goods that had previously been neatly hidden behind metal shrouds sparked a momentary media interest in the logistics of how these products arrive in our retail spaces. It also seemed to trigger a primordial spirit of looting, as some Britons were seen wheeling off expensive motorcycles under cover of darkness.

The shipping container has been associated with other forms of illegality, both in reality and fiction. The Port of Baltimore was the backdrop for season two of The Wire, and there viewers bore witness to Port Security Office Beadie Russell’s macabre discovery. Her interest triggered by the sight of a damaged security seal on the container doors, she maneuvered the handles. The door slowly opened, and we, the viewers, were permitted entry into a space that is typically sealed tight. Russell navigated her way through an assortment of packaged computer equipment. This darkened, windowless space, led her to a horrific discovery: in a partitioned section of the shipping container she discovered a pile of dead bodies, suffocated by lack of air.

Reality turns out to be starker than fiction. Containers are often used for illicit practices such as human trafficking, narcotics and tobacco smuggling, and as hopeful holds for stowaways hoping to breach national borders. Their ubiquitous, taken-for-granted nature has meant that containers are often the vehicle of choice used by smuggling gangs. In December 2001, thirteen Kurds were ushered into a supposedly sealed shipping container at the Port of Zeebrugge in Belgium by a smuggling gang. Having made their way through Europe via different routes, the group had each paid approximately £5,000 to travel onto the United Kingdom. But nine of the thirteen Kurds would die from suffocation en route.

Whilst much of the discussion surrounding containerization focuses on the efficiencies of the system, in this case a series of inefficiencies led to the deaths. In particular there were a series of fatal errors: the journey from Zeebrugge to the Port of Dover was scheduled to take eight hours, but it actually took five days. The container in which the group was stowed was incorrectly picked from the stacks at Zeebrugge and loaded onto a ship bound for the Port of Waterford in Ireland instead of Dover. Upon arrival at Waterford, the container met an automated unloading system on the dockside. Though the occupants’ cried for help, the machine couldn’t hear them. From there, the container in which the group was stowed was scheduled to be loaded onto a lorry, but once more the wrong container was loaded. It was only on December 8, some five days later, that the group was eventually discovered by the lorry driver conveying the crate to its next destination. Imagine the sound of human hands banging desperately at your truck from the inside.

Of course, these illicit uses never occurred to of the industrious inventors of the 1950s who initially developed the idea for a sealed container that could move goods door-to-door. In fact, one of the recognized advantages of the nascent designs for these early containers was the potential reduction in import/export theft by dockworkers. In 1953, the U.S. truck operator Malcom McLean first proposed the idea of transporting truck trailers on ships rather than on the congested highways of the American East Coast. Until this time, the road and maritime freight sectors had been entirely separated; the container would connect them, increasing efficiency and reducing cost for transport.

There were limitations to the idea. The irregular shape of the truck trailers meant that space was wasted under the trailer chassis. But if the trailer wheels were removed, the containers could be stacked. In hindsight this doesn’t seem like a particularly radical change, but it was. The reformulation of how containers were arranged on board ships, alongside the redesign of a system for attaching containers to each other and to other forms of transport such as trains and trucks meant that the containers could be moved across land and sea without needing their contents to be unloaded and reloaded at each stop.

Tokyo (Reuters)

McLean understood that a transition to container shipping would require the complete redesign of the entire freight transport infrastructure: rail cars, ships, trucks, cranes, dockyards, everything. As a starting point, he commissioned the container engineer Keith Tantlinger to design a new aluminum container, and to reconfigure a decommissioned tanker vessel, the Ideal-X, to accommodate the new containers. Tantinger also developed a further piece of equipment, the container spreader bar, which enabled the container to be lifted without the need for stevedores to attach roping. As the economist and historian Marc Levinson has noted, the design of the spreader bar meant that “once the box had been lifted and moved, another flip of the switch would disengage the hooks, without a worker on the ground touching the container.” Container freight was all about increasing the speed of movement and reducing the cost of labor. Although the Ideal-X sailed for the first time as a container vessel in April 1956, it was not until 1970 that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) agreed on the standardized sizes and certain fixings for containers (or ISO Containers as they are formally named).

From the nascent designs of the 1950s, through the roll-out phase of the 1960s, to the standardization of the 1970s, the container became central to the burgeoning growth of consumer capitalism, particularly the move of manufacturing to traditionally peripheral economies. The shipping container models the fundamentals of late capitalism even as it facilitates it: a standardized, reproducible structure that looks and functions the same everywhere.

But just as much as it has amplified the practice of consumer capitalism, the shipping container also underwrote an aesthetics of capitalism as well. The geometric simplicity of the container’s design echoed the uniformity of high modernist architecture of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the serial arrangement of tract housing, or in the standardized, modular architectural designs of Buckminster Fuller and Le Corbusier. What better way to fill the rows and rows of housing blocks in a booming suburbia than with baubles and gizmos delivered by rows and rows of shipping containers on a nearby dockyard? While dreams of affordable mass-produced housing may not have come to fruition, in a strange twist of fate shipping containers have become relatively commonplace as architectural forms: from individual living units such as those refurbished by the Atira Women’s Resource Society in Vancouver, to office complexes like Container City in London.

A simple metal box. It’s not an object that immediately strikes one as radical or even revolutionary. But without it we would not have had the huge changes to maritime cities. Without it, the massive reductions in maritime labor would not have happened. Without it, we would not have the consumer logic of late capitalism, the ready availability of cheap, throwaway goods. Without it, the logistical complexity of organizing a war in Afghanistan would not have been possible. Selfishly, without it, as a child I would not have been able to sit marveling at them out of the back of my parents’ car. And, I have to admit, I still have a sense of wonderment every time I see one.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things