Review of “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger,” by Marc Levinson

Some time ago I read The Box, Marc Levinson’s excellent history of the shipping container. The Box reads like a third appendix to Nature’s Metropolis, a debt that the book acknowledges. It is a fascinating description of the importance of platforms in business. And it describes the different responses of labor bosses to ‘the box’ (containerization), and how those responses shape lives today. If you want to see how a technology you take for granted shapes the world, definitely read The Box!

Nature’s Metropolis is a brilliant history of Chicago and the Great West. The book focuses on economic determinism, and how once men create a ‘second nature’ from capital, actions are compelled in the same way that would have been if that build world had been the ‘first nature’ of the place. For instance, rivers make certain transportation methods logical and are part of the first nature of an environment. Railroads make other transportation methods logical, and are part of second nature. Nature’s Metropolis ends with the establishment of the national railroad system. The Box picks up the story generations later, when the railroad system appears to be just natural, and a new second nature is about to be born.

A few months ago I gave a standing-room lecture at my alma mater. I described the business of my employer as focused on platforms, the building (and selling) the infrastructure to allow other people to sell products. Platforms are the components that allow new things to be possible. For instance, wireless internet (WiFi), laptop computers, and HDTVs (TVs which double as computer monitors) allow you to repurpose any media from anywhere in the world as a ‘show’ for an extended family. This could not be done without any piece of the infrastructure — the mobile entertainment platform requires all these scaffolds. Likewise, containerization requires container-ready trucks, container-ready-ships, container-ready trains, and container-ready labor. Without any one of these, containerization is not profitable.

I remember from a young-age hearing about the six-figure salaries of longshoremen on the West Coast. Little did I realiez that this happy payscale was because of wise leadership. While the backwards International Longshoremen’s Association opposed containerization as a threat to jobs on the East Coast, the wiser International Longshore and Warehouse Union (led by a former transportation-industry manager) took a wiser coast: an agreed upon fraction of savings from containerization would go to higher salaries. If only labor agitators in the education sector could be as clever as the ILWU!

My recommendation? Read The Box. It is great introduction to economic history. It is the story of a technology platform that you may not even realize exists. And it a description of how smart unionism can lead to good lives for workers by understanding technologal chnage.

6 thoughts on “Review of “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger,” by Marc Levinson”

  1. A great review! Levinson’s most recent contribution is also well-worth readers’ time. Its flawed only by the expectation of the reader to read more about A&P’s eventual demise, but he ably captures the essence of the small business protectionist craze of the mid 20th century. He rewardingly delves into competition vs. realized capitalism, Amazon, Wal-Mart, entrepreneurship, and government regulation.
    http://city-journal.org/2011/bc1216rc.html

  2. Interesting! No, I hadn’t heard of Aerotropolis – thanks for the rec!

    Right now I’m working my way through “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson [1]and “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” by Ezra Vogel [2]

    [1] http://www.amazon.com/Steve-Jobs-ebook/dp/B004W2UBYW/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1325602893&sr=1-1
    [2] http://www.amazon.com/Deng-Xiaoping-Transformation-China-Vogel/dp/0674055446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1325602936&sr=8-1

  3. This book traces various aspects of the development of the shipping container and explains how it revolutionized the costs of shipping and facilitated the global economy. It is full of interesting characters and interesting information, from Malcom McLean, who built up a trucking empire and traded it all in for a gamble on container shipping to details about the unbelievably inefficient way in which ships were loaded and unloaded before the advent of the container. The book covers the business, technology, labor and other angles.

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