The Revolution of the Container
The container has changed the world, and perhaps also the way we think. Goods are moved around the planet in metal boxes of standard size, and the radical drop in transport costs has transformed economic geography, enhancing trade and furthering globalization. This great logistical revolution, which has created a new unit of measurement, the TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit), has also affected our perception of the physical and social environment, supplying organizational metaphors and suggesting patterns of regularity. The economic metamorphosis is the subject of The Box, whose subtitle is an exact synopsis of its content: ‘How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger’; the ideological mutation, in turn, is the theme of The Container Principle, which also sums up its thesis in the subtitle: ‘How a Box Changes the Way We Think.’
The work of the American economist and historian Marc Levinson is a fascinating account of the creation of the container and its universal adoption in merchandise transport: a story whose leading character is a visionary entrepreneur, Malcolm McLean, and which begins in April 1956 with the moving of 58 containers from Newark to Houston, stacked on the deck of an adapted oil tanker. This mythical journey opened a new era in shipping and logistics, which would come of age with the massive use of containers in sending supplies to American troops in Vietnam, and end up contributing to a spectacular boom in international trade and the relocation of industries, allowing a huge distance between the production and the consumption of goods. Solidly documented and very well written, The Box is the definitive history of an object whose impact on our lives in the course of a half-century is second only to the Internet’s.
Equally stimulating but less convincing in its ambitious theoretical goals is the book by the German scholar Alexander Klose. Very broad in scope, reaching back from containers to the amphorae and barrels of the ancient world as pioneer standardization systems, and richly illustrated with examples ranging from logistics and computers to architecture itself – in a fleeting itinerary dotted with episodes that include the modular projects of Le Corbusier or Gropius, the Froebel blocks, or the Neufert codes, ending in the contemporary use of containers as living spaces –, The Container Principle is a political, social, and cultural interpretation of the container understood in a very wide sense, and which for the author has brought about a fundamental change in the relationship between thought and the material world, making this icon of global commerce a powerful ideological idol.