Life in the Shipping Container Age:
I’m not sure I can make this make sense, so bear with me. I have this feeling that much of our modern age has been determined by the invention and large-scale deployment of the standardized shipping container: globalism, consumerism, and branding, specifically. Once we were able to regulate and make use of economies of scale in shipping, we were able to trade with China as though it were North Dakota – the oceans became railroads. This ease is basically, globalism (without any troublesome factual research or study of economic theory, but I mean that that new trading landscape put all of Asia essentially next door to us). And now that we could get cheap goods really easily our consumerism went through the roof (Wal-Mart‘s expansion coincides, roughly, with the rise of the Shipping Container Age). And because all of those products, from Wal-Mart house brands to Nikes, came from, literally, the exact same place (at times, the exact same factories), the products themselves became functionally indistinguishable, which is why we had to get into “branding” them.
I think this idea crystallized over the past two weeks. We had a gearhead nephew in town and took him on a whirlwind tour of great car things in Southern California. I’m nothing more than a spectator (the neph’s a real wrencher) but these places were amazing. First, it was really surprising to see manufacturing in America. I know it still exists, but it’s not like there are manufacturing cities anymore. And second, and more surprising, was the way these companies work: they make the most excellent products they can, at a stunningly high level of craftsmanship, and have a (small, admittedly) customer base that will pay for really great work. Oh yeah, and third: the companies comprise a society of sorts – they work together (at times), and meet and talk and maintain a collective history and whatever.
All of these things struck me as being utterly different from the branded world I normally live in. In the Container Age, we have economies of scale and economies of economizing – cheap products mass produced with only a minimal level of quality – all encroaching on, or replacing, societies. There is nothing to care about, apart from the accounting of the profits, and no way to organize a community around, a big box store (or what’s in it). And of course there is no craftsmanship, which is why Nike shoes are sold as the idea of Sports and as feelings rather than as shoes.
Of course the world’s not going back, and I don’t suggest that these are all evils (as bad as the conditions can be, we are seeing a growth of a Chinese middle class that will bring even larger changes to the globe in the coming generation). Just that “branding” has begun feeling as empty as it fundamentally is.
- The shipping container is something we don’t seem to hear about much, apart from (sort of cutesy-poo) articles about their use as architecture.