The World-Changing Technology You Completely Forgot About

By Chris Mills on at

'Technology' normally means a gadget — but really, it's any technical invention that solves problems and improves lives. Often, the most important tech is the one you take completely for granted. Like shipping containers, which are explored in a book called The Box, which is one of the most fascinating things I've read in years.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson, is a concise history of a 40-by-8 steel box that completely changed the world. I know what you're thinking: a history of shipping containers sounds exactly like the kind of shitty textbook that made you fail grade 12 history. But honestly, it's a mesmerising read.

The story starts back in the 1950s, when longshoremen unloaded the bellies of cargo ships item by item, theft was rampant, and ships stayed in ports for weeks on end. A visionary executive had the (admittedly not novel) idea of loading that cargo into boxes, and then using boats, trucks and trains to shuttle that cargo around the globe. Within decades, thousands of people were out of jobs, and the size of cargo ships was measured in football fields rather than meters.

But the history of the shipping container is so much more than a simple change in mechanics. Without trying to explain in detail (because that's what the book is for), containers shaped cities — it grew those that embraced it, and destroyed ports that were unable to unwilling to handle containerization. It reduced longshoremen, once the most powerful labour union, to a historical curiosity, and most importantly, lowered the cost of shipping to the point where importing foreign goods is a necessity, not a luxury. As author Levinson writes:

''It was not routine for shoppers to find Brazilian shoes and Mexican vacuum cleaners in stores in the middle of Kansas. Japanese families did not eat beef from cattle in Wyoming, and French clothing designers did not have their exclusive apparel cut and sewn in Turkey and Vietnam.''

One of the most thrown-around buzzwords these days is disruptive — a technology that takes an established industry, and turns it on its head. It's the watchword of Silicon Valley — heck, there's a whole conference named Disrupt — but if you really want to understand how a technology disrupts, how one simple invention can have ramifications way beyond anything you can imagine, The Box is a pretty fantastic place to start.

Image: Suhaimi Abdullah