Monday, 31 March 2014

The biggest, quietest revolution of the last century in The Box

From The Week of March 24th, 2014

Our world is defined by revolutions, slivers of time in which long-standing norms are upended by new ideas. Often, these upheavals are loud and violent, eruptions of frustration and rage that smash existing, flawed models, only to replace them with equally flawed ones of their own creation. Unsurprisingly, these revolutions seize the headlines, causing many to fear the new. But sometimes, moments of change are so humble, so subtle, that it takes years before they, and their virtues, are even recognized, let alone heralded. And by then, the world has already re-ordered itself around a new, powerful paradigm. It is this latter form of change that underpins this excellent history from Mr. Levinson.

For centuries, international commerce has been a dangerous and expensive proposition. In order to get one's products profitably to foreign markets, manufacturers had to entrust them to ships sailing across ever-changing seas. Not only did this create long delays, during which time market prices could collapse, it forced manufacturers to have faith in the capacity of the ship's crew to not break, steal, or otherwise tamper with their goods. And then, even if all went well, swift, smooth voyages captained by trustworthy folk, the product would have to be carefully extracted from the hold at the destination by yet more hands that might be tempted to intervene in this long, tenuous chain of commerce. With such nightmarish complications in mind, it's little wonder that merchants favored domestic markets over foreign ones.

In the 20th century, however, this equation began to radically shift, first with the onset of faster, sturdier ships which reduced transit times between ports, then with the most revolutionary change of all, the humble shipping container. A well-welded box forged from commonplace metals, its manufacturing cost was as insignificant as its introduction was revolutionary. Not only would it serve as added protection for the products it contained, it could be lifted from holds by powerful cranes capable of operating far faster than even dozens of humans working in concert. The swifter loading and unloading of ships meant less time in port, which meant more ships could be processed, which meant more goods at radically reduced costs thanks to the steep reduction in human labor. These cost savings would eventually make possible a global economy, one that would lift from poverty untold millions and ensure that our world would never be the same.

As fascinating as it is humble, The Box is a piece of exhilarating non-fiction. Marc Levinson, who specializes in such micro-histories, not only familiarizes us with the fraught and complex world of international shipping, and the colorful characters that have occupied its choppy waters, he details the thorny web of unionized labor, government interests and ruthless economics that have characterized its last 150 years. That all these intractable stakeholders could have the ground taken out from beneath them by something as ordinary as a shipping container seems absurd, and must have to many of them as well. And yet, the author does such a delightful job explaining the commercial dominos that fell in the wake of the container's introduction that the reader is left seized by both the obviousness of the box and by the wonder of how swiftly the world can be changed by new, economic realities.

At The Box's core is the story of Malcolm McLean, a mid-century trucking magnate credited with the wide-spread introduction of the container. Having witnessed its use to move military goods in the Second World War, he attempted, in the 1950s, to improve upon this process with a standardized container that could be all-but-mindlessly lifted onto and out of the holds of vessels transiting the Atlantic. Though it would take years for this practice to eliminate break-bulk shipping - the process of haphazardly filling a ship's hold with all manner of products -, its introduction nonetheless ignited a 20-year revolution in international shipping that transformed every aspect of the process. Not only did costs plummet, taking with them tens of thousands of jobs, vital ports, that had been shipping and receiving goods for hundreds of years, shut down as business shifted to locations that were closer to highway and rail systems that carried the container to its final destination. All this thanks to one man's vision...

In this way, Malcolm McLean feels like the first of the host of tech visionaries we celebrate today. He did not create a computer or write software, but he recognized an inefficiency, had an idea for how to remedy it and, as a consequence, utterly remade our world by making it economical for cheap goods to flow from Asia in exchange for profits that have lifted hundreds of millions out of soul-crushing poverty. To be responsible for all of that, to have had your idea be the launch point for global change, is a heady achievement that deserves to be more widely known regardless of what one thinks of globalization and its costs. Steve Jobs ain't got nothin' on Mr. McLean.

A thrilling ride... Mr. Levinson has a rare talent for finding the critically important in the seemingly mundane. We are the beneficiaries of such a gift. (5/5 Stars)

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