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.
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.