Containerization and the Creation of the Modern World

When the contents of a grounded container ship wash ashore in Cornwall, a discussion ensues about the effect of containerization on modern life.

Shipping containers

Containerization affects more than the realm of the transportation of goods and logistics of the transport sector; it also plays into other areas of knowledge and cultural practices such as architecture, psychology, philosophy, theater and art.

Photo by Fotolia/chungking

Content Tools

Alexander Klose examines the shipping container as a vivid representation of the increasing, world-is-flat globalization of the international economy in The Container Principle (The MIT Press, 2015). Klose argues that containerization signals a change in the fundamental order of thinking and things as it spreads from physical storage to organizational metaphors. The following excerpt is from the introduction.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

The Accident

On the morning of January 18, 2007, nearly 50 miles south of the headlands of Cornwall, a container ship sailing under the British flag in the English Channel was in distress. MSC Napoli was at the very beginning of its journey from Belgium to South Africa via the Portuguese city of Sines when it crossed the destructive path of Hurricane Kyrill. Amid 40-foot-high waves and a 70-mile-per-hour wind, the 26 members of the crew were successfully rescued by helicopter. The disabled freighter was initially supposed to be towed to the nearest harbor, but instead it was put aground off the coast of Cornwall because it was threatening to break apart.

As a result of the continuing poor weather and an alarming starboard tilt of 35 degrees, 116 containers spilled into the sea. The remaining 846 containers stacked on the deck were able to be unloaded by March 9 with the help of a floating pontoon. The recovery of the approximately 1,300 containers stacked below the deck dragged out for months. Of the steel boxes that had gone overboard, 73 washed up along the coast and 11 were spotted on the sea floor. The rest were considered missing.

With a capacity of 4,419 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units— the internationally determined designation for 20-foot standard transport containers), MSC Napoli was a midsize container ship. When it was launched in 1991, under the name CMA CGM Normandie, it was the first fully rigged post-Panamax container ship—that is, the first container ship that was too large (902 feet long and 122 feet wide) to cross the Panama Canal.

A comparison with the dimensions of today’s largest container ships reveals the monstrous growth that remains nearly unchecked in the transport sector, compared to any other industry, despite oil crises, collapses in the capital market, warming climate, and shipwrecks. The French shipping company CMA CGM’s Marco Polo loads up to 16,000 TEUs and measures nearly 1,300 by 180 feet. Produced on order from the world’s largest shipping carrier, the Danish firm A. P. Møller Maersk, the new Triple E Class ships, 1,312 feet long and 194 feet wide and with a loading capacity of up to 18,000 TEUs, set sail in 2013. What will happen if a ship of such proportions loses even a fraction of its payload?

Aftermath of the MSC Napoli Grounding

The wreck of MSC Napoli off the coast of Cornwall in 2007 caused a state of emergency. In earlier times the area was notorious as a home for wreckers, who lured their victims into the shallow coastal waters with false beacons to then plunder the ships run aground. When a few dozen containers washed ashore on the beach of the small, quiet, coastal town of Branscombe, inhabited primarily by wealthy retirees, thousands of people traveled from across England to grab a bit of loot. They besieged the beach. The narrow village street was blocked, with parked cars stretching for miles from the site. The collectors and looters weren’t stopped by warnings that the containers could be carrying dangerous cargo.

Media from around the world reported extensively on the “Night of the Treasure Hunters.” “Hundreds of Beachcombers Pounce on Cargo,” “Scavengers in the Hunt for Booty,” and “Dreams Run Aground” read the headlines of German daily papers. The “self-service party” and “late Christmas” were topics of discussion. The beach was said to be transformed into a “supermarket,” littered with gears, steering wheels, and other spare car parts, along with wine barrels, cookie tins, first-aid kits, perfume bottles, sneakers, diapers from Arabia, shoes from Cyprus, empty French barrels meant for South African wine, dog food, clothing, household appliances, and toys. Even a tractor washed up.

Members of an immigrant family from New Zealand said that they recognized the personal effects of their European grandparents among the suitcases and furniture that were dragged off as the cameras rolled. In Die Zeit newspaper on February 1, 2007, one of the family members reported the following:

“My parents were sitting at breakfast when a journalist called and said that our containers had been found. We turned on the TV and watched as someone with an iron rod beat a hole in the container. Then looters took out our things, memorabilia from my late grandparents: wedding photos, an old table where we always sat with them, a sofa.”

Also causing a furor were the images of young men taking off on brand-new BMW motorcycles retrieved from containers. But more than the feelings of outrage, anxiety, and envy, a fascination dominated: For once, the boxes that were circulating in all parts of the world in such incalculable numbers had exposed their contents. For once, those hermetic boxes, which usually concealed their cargo even from the ship’s crew and the dockworkers, had opened!

According to the insurer’s figures, only five containers had broken open and been looted on the beach at Branscombe. But the number belies their importance. What the containers offered the travelers on the scene as well as the public around the world was a cross-section of the present state of world culture, of global consumer capitalism.

Containerization on a Vast Scale

In the last 50 years, containers have done more than bring about a fundamental change in the transport of goods on sea and on land; they have reformed beyond recognition the culture of the harbor, which had endured for thousands of years. Containers have supported significantly the emergence of a system of production and consumption that circles the globe, leaving almost no place on Earth untouched. This system has been discussed for several years with equal parts intensity and controversy under the name globalization. The boxes are the core and the crowning element of a logic of modularization and optimized distribution called logistics, which, since the nineteenth century and with considerable acceleration in the twentieth century, has successfully moved from the factories and the battlefields into all sectors of society.

Modernity, as a specific and systematic form of organization of social life, is subject to a logistical structure, an operational order of knowledge, and to date the container has proved to be the most successful material agent of this logistical access to the world. (The most successful “immaterial” agents are computer programs). The system of the container structures and encodes everything that falls within the realm of its process—that is, nearly everything. It establishes its own spatial and temporal order. It transforms the world into a moving warehouse and arranges it in the mode of standardized movable spatial units, switched processes, and clocked times.

If “the furrow drawn in the ground by the plow, and the (grain) silo” may be seen as “archaic technologies of hominization," as media scientist Bernhard Siegert has written, then the container is the modern answer to the ancient question of cultivation and utilization that constitutes culture. Containerization is a prevailing cultural technology of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Thus, an investigation of the principle of containerization cannot restrict itself to the more narrow realm of the transportation of goods and logistics from which the system of standard containers emerged.

Rather, one must also address the effects of the concept in other areas of knowledge and cultural practices. It seems that containers play as decisive a role in the organization of people, programs, and information as they do in that of goods. They not only physically appear in every imaginable place in the city (such as subway stops and airports) and in rural areas, they also appear in such cultural domains as architecture and urban planning, psychology, philosophy, pedagogy, business administration, communications and information, film, television, theater, and art.


Adapted from The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think by Alexander Klose, published by The MIT Press in 2015. Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.