Containers is a new 8-part audio documentary about global trade and the almost unimaginable complexity of modern capitalism.
Whatever the bleating from the White House about trade, this is a story that we’re all entangled in every time we buy a toaster at Target or a t-shirt at TopShop. That’s because almost no matter where you live and how you shop, the vast majority of everything you buy came over to the United States in a shipping container. Or at least its components did.And yet when you think about it, this is a remarkable system. It’s analogous to Internet Protocol, where each packet of data can move anywhere within a standardized system, but you’re dealing with actual frigging stuff, apples and raw hides and hair barrettes and hospital beds and transmissions for cars.So, each piece of this system had to be created, had to be refined, had to be standardized: The box, the crane, the ship, the operations of the yard, the locking mechanisms that allow the boxes to be moved from ship to truck chassis to rail car. And each component has to work with all the others all over the world. Because it’s this whole system that is containerization. It’s not just the box. (Though if you want to read the best book about containerization, it is called The Box. The author is Marc Levinson, who is in this first episode.) And what it allowed was a massive decline in the price of shipping and thereby a massive expansion of global trade.I wanted to know, “How did containerization happen?” And it turns out, the particulars are fascinating. I traced the history back to one spot in the Port of Oakland’s Outer Harbor—that’s the part closest to the Bay Bridge, if you’ve ever driven from San Francisco to the East Bay. Right there, three smallish gray shipping cranes are still standing.
You know what the descendents of these things look like: dinosaur-y, with legs nestled into rails and a piece dangling from the center (that’s the spreader: it’s what locks onto the shipping containers). In Oakland, these are the symbol of the city. But everywhere there are container ports, people are fascinated by these machines. They’re just so huge, aesthetically parked in between futuristic and prehistoric.......The three gray cranes were the first to load ships with containers to send across the Pacific. But to where, you might ask?The answer is Cam Ranh Bay.That’s Vietnam....