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Economic Ephemera
February 21, 2014 4:00 AM   Subscribe

"These gargantuan Lego blocks flattened global capitalism and erased human labour from industrial history in the process; they are the perfect tool for an economic system only interested in short-term, pop-up solutions." The shipping container (previously) an innovation that both revolutionised global trade and caused mass job loss, is now being reborn as the pop-up shop.
posted by mippy (60 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the last link: "In any case it's somewhat difficult to see how Artworks' boast of sustainability (because of the re-used shipping containers) fits with an idea whose whole point is that it is short-term." Interesting. Thanks for posting, mippy.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:27 AM on February 21


Interesting article on how the "mass jobs" at the docks were quite stratified in the 19th century, and technological change (railroads) and globalisation were a factor even in the 1880s: Top of the Docks
posted by alasdair at 4:31 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea.
posted by pracowity at 4:34 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


"container system reduced freight rates from Asia to North America by 40 to 60 percent." - http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Books/Personal/The-Box
posted by sieve a bull at 4:35 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea.

'Moby-Duck': When 28,800 Bath Toys Are Lost At Sea
In 1992, a cargo ship container tumbled into the North Pacific, dumping 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys that were headed from China to the U.S. Currents took them, and news reports said some may have eventually reached Maine and other shores on the Atlantic.

Thirteen years later, journalist Donovan Hohn undertook a mission: He wanted to track the movements of the wayward ducks, from the comfort of his own living room.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:44 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


In downtown Toronto there's a small mall/food court built out of shipping containers and run by a local community centre. It's pretty neat, and has been there for several years with no signs of going anywhere.
posted by quaking fajita at 5:11 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea.

Reminds me of this interview Bob Ballard did on Scientific American Frontiers:
BOB BALLARD If you were on a Phoenician ship, and you were carrying 2000 amphorae of a fine wine for the pharaoh of Egypt, what would you do along the way?

ALAN ALDA You'd drink the wine and throw the jugs overboard.

BOB BALLARD You got it! Absolutely! And what if you did that for thousands and thousands and thousands of years? What would you find?

ALAN ALDA A lot of these jugs.

BOB BALLARD A trail. So what I do is I say, OK here's an ancient seaport, lets say its Carthage. I'm gonna drive along here until I pick up the trail and I'm gonna follow it and that's exactly what I did.

ALAN ALDA Now how do you find it? Visually?

BOB BALLARD Yeah, just go along and look for empties. That's exactly what I did and there were the empties. And they weren't broken either! They didn't throw' em over because they were broken, they threw em over because they drank em!
I hope these discarded containers provide useful information about our global shipping for some future undersea archeologist.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:15 AM on February 21 [27 favorites]


I dunno, it looks like the advantage is that they are cheap to build, but the disadvantage is that they are not cheap to rent, which kind of undercuts their value in my mind. If we really wanted to support small retail (rather than, say, rental property owners) this does not really seem to be the way to do it.

They can be kind of neat as an architectural feature. The Freitag store in Zurich is made out of shipping containers, and I think it looks really good in the post-industrial space turned shopping area it inhabits, but part of that impact is its uniqueness. If every city is going to have shipping container buildings, it will be passe, then trite, and then dumpy in really short order.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:16 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


In North Dakota in the US, the median household income is something like $70K from the industries that are there. There are like 3 shopping hubs in the state, with only a handful of Walmarts and Sears and what have you throughout. There are no Targets and very few Best Buys and those are headquartered not particularly far away. The population is not particularly dense - even in the cities. Unfortunately though, even with the overall wealth, there are so few people in the state that it is relatively impossible to sustain a business that only sells widgets there. From having explored the contents of their shopping centers vicariously through the glory of the internet, they have access to very - very - few stores. The problem with this area isn't that these companies don't want to go in there, its that in general you can't go in there under the terms of a seven year lease and expect to not be in a loss at the later phase.

People are always going to shop at wal-mart, and people may shop at your Forever 21 for a year or so. At that point though, all the teenage girls have purchased their stylish new looks and still live in North Dakota so they have no where to go. The problem is that the mall is stationary.

This is a bit of an unclassy solution right now, but it is definitely how specialty retail stores are going to be servicing under-serviced areas in the near future - especially if they need to compete with Amazon.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:19 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea.

There was a story a while ago that gave the backstory of that famous photograph of the container ship with its containers tilted at crazy angles. It turned out that the containers contained a large number of cars, and because they had been subjected to forces outside of their specified tolerance, all the cars had to be destroyed, and any components had to be rendered unusable. So someone had the job of taking them apart and sawing through brake discs, CD players and tyres just to make sure that no potentially damaged components ended up on the black market.
posted by acb at 5:23 AM on February 21


How to.
posted by bukvich at 5:34 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


...and caused mass job loss...

Sorry to derail, but this kind of statement really, really bothers me. Whether they blame robotics or shipping containers or the internet or GMOs or whatever for causing their problems, people always fail to recognize that all of these technologies (and many besides) are not what causes unemployment or health risks or evironmental damage. They are the tools which are used by the real cause. Shipping containers and robots only cost people jobs, GMOs and what have you only lead to monocultures, pests and health problems, electricity production only causes huge environmental damage, when they are being used be the system of international capitalism. Capitalism causes all those problems; the technologies in question are simply the ones available to that ruthlessly inhuman system. No amount of charity, regulation or protest will fix the problems caused by capitalism if they continue only to address the incidental elements. When we choose to structure our society in such a way that one has to earn money in order to live, efficiency will lead to unemployment, discovery will lead to exploitation, and necessity will lead to overconsumption. But it's not the fault of the technologies in question that they will be used in those ways. And I'd just really wish that when people said things like "robots are taking away our jobs", they'd instead say "capitalists are using robots to take away our jobs and we live in a system where, despite the greatest accumulated wealth and productivity in human history, we still need jobs to eat."
posted by cthuljew at 5:34 AM on February 21 [34 favorites]


So how do you get rid of Capitalism?
posted by hellslinger at 5:40 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


(1) Grar containers
(2) They are just the tools of the master
(3) How do you unseat the master?
(4) Something, something pitchforks

I've seen this dialectic a lot on here. It's not compelling.


A revolution is something everyone wants to have had, but no one wants to have

posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:58 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Only water and sky. Only water and sky.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 5:58 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I was agreeing with the VICE article until it fell into the trap that the more nostalgic wings of the old Left tend to fall for: that, because full employment (presumably in an equal, fully unionised industrial proletariat, marching to our jobs in shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity to an orchestra of factory sirens), any sort of labour-saving is evil and regressive. So it's far better that we have armies of sweating stevedores manually unloading ships, longer turn-around times and more shitty back-breaking work to go around than having a mechanised system which employs fewer people (and tends to do so in ergonomic chairs behind control panels), because then the wages that would have gone to the stevedores go to merchant bankers and Tory donors.
posted by acb at 6:11 AM on February 21 [9 favorites]


"These gargantuan Lego blocks..."

The circle is complete...
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:11 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea.

Cargo gods, why are you angry at us? We've sacrificed every virgin on the island in the volcano asking for Spam and all you send us are cheap knit wear and crappy electronics!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:13 AM on February 21


The number one use of that Vice article should be to point us in the direction of the southwark notes blog, which looks about 10,000 times more interesting.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:14 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


I've seen this dialectic a lot on here. It's not compelling.

What alternative narrative do you propose, then? Go ahead and blame the tools? Curse the liberal media? Let the poor die and the problem solves itself? Everything is fine and everyone is happy?

I'm really not sure what you're getting at.
posted by Foosnark at 6:17 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


It's overly simplistic to say that they caused job loss - they changed the economics of transportation. Faster to load and unload, less theft, fewer breakages.

According to the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association (who admittedly may be biased), the adoption of the shipping container massively reduced shipping costs:

"In 1956, loose cargo cost $5.86 per ton to load. Using an ISO shipping container, the cost was reduced to only .16 cents per ton."

On another point, there was a fantastic documentary about shipping containers on BBC4 a few years ago, which explained that the inventor of the container made his designs feely open source so that they could be widely adopted by the whole industry.
posted by DanCall at 6:25 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


Don't worry. Everyone can have their backbreaking manual labor back when we run out of oil.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:02 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


RE: the Vice rant, I imagine Christchurch, New Zealand has a different view of shipping containers and 'development'.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:03 AM on February 21


There's a shipping container housing project using land slated for further development here in Brighton, which has recently opened. 36 self-contained flats (so a container each) which house homeless individuals.

I walk past it daily and it's been fascinating watching the construction and it looks really nice now that people are living there and they've put the final touches in - bike shed, raised veg boxes etc.

There's also an artists studio/flat collective that uses them in East London. Do think it's nice to see them being reused.
posted by halcyonday at 7:08 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


So how do you get rid of Capitalism?

Tactically I'm a fan of anarcho-syndicalist unionism — get everyone unionized and then have a massive strike/putsch to replace capitalist management with democratic worker management. Strategically, I'm a fan of federalistic democracy.

Although, if we were to actually have a real welfare state without massive capitalist interference, it could be totally feasable for only those people who want to work to work, and everyone else to live high on the hog of massive economic production. However, people like that tend not to want to work for the "market wage", and therefore capitalists will do everything in their power to prevent such a government from ever taking or holding power. Hence the need for a total dismantling of capitalism so that the economic power of free trade and association can finally be coupled with the justice and plain common sense of socialism.
posted by cthuljew at 7:10 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Once all the homeless people are in the containers, it's easy to move them to their next home.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:12 AM on February 21


Having a rant about shipping containers is ignoring the worse excesses of the Tory government's plan to gentrify the area and not replace social housing, displacing families and a functioning community. I get the feeling that Cameron would be perfectly happy with a few ghettos he can push the working class into and then blame them for not getting out by dint of pulling on their own bootstraps.

Against that thought, I rather like shipping containers.
posted by arcticseal at 7:15 AM on February 21


it looks really nice now that people are living there and they've put the final touches in - bike shed, raised veg boxes etc.
Once all the homeless people are in the containers, it's easy to move them to their next home.


This is what the Internet is for!
 
posted by Herodios at 7:18 AM on February 21


So how do you get rid of Capitalism?
It's not a question of getting rid of it... All we have to do is love each other and be as compassionate as possible and the whole disgusting system will fall in on itself, because it depends on hate and division and status and many other kinds of de-humanistic bullshit.

The revolution is within, brother. The time is NOW. The place is HERE.
posted by Monkeymoo at 7:47 AM on February 21


All we have to do is love each other and be as compassionate as possible and the whole disgusting system will fall in on itself

Welp, guess we're screwed, then.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:49 AM on February 21 [8 favorites]


Before repurposing steel shipping containers into shops and housing, we had repurposing wooden box cars into cabins. At Rex Mine, Death Valley, Albany, Wyoming, All over the Southwest and in Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.
posted by morganw at 7:58 AM on February 21


it depends on hate and division and status and many other kinds of de-humanistic bullshit

Only in it's modern, massive, ugliest of forms. Simple, egalitaian trade based on mutual trust and respect is certainly more than possible, it happens every day at the micro level. The simple merchant/buyer relationship when you walk into a store or go online is still happening, even if the wholesale side is dirty. It doesn't have to be a baby/bathwater proposition here, we can set perameters to make it a more level playing field.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:02 AM on February 21


> Although, if we were to actually have a real welfare state without massive capitalist
> interference, it could be totally feasable for only those people who want to work to
> work, and everyone else to live high on the hog of massive economic production.

What a massive leisure class those poor workers will be supporting. For god's sake don't let them get hold of any Bakunin.
posted by jfuller at 8:03 AM on February 21


Shipping containers only "cost millions of jobs" if you don't count the millions of new jobs they created in Asia.
posted by mikewebkist at 8:03 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


it could be totally feasable for only those people who want to work to work, and everyone else to live high on the hog of massive economic production.

Pray tell, who cleans the toilets and maintains the sewers in this utopia? It's not a job anyone volunteers for en masse, you know.
posted by like_a_friend at 8:09 AM on February 21


Pray tell, who cleans the toilets and maintains the sewers in this utopia? It's not a job anyone volunteers for en masse, you know.

People who are paid the actual value of that job. One of the benefits of the current system is that you can compel people to do vital but deeply unpleasant work for very little money indeed. Yay, you!
posted by Naberius at 8:12 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


I know that we've firmly established this thread as boo shipping containers boo capitalism boo grar boo, but I just wanted to leave this beautiful shipping container house [note: autoplays video] and architect (Adam Kalkin) here. And another one. And this one.
posted by Mchelly at 8:14 AM on February 21


Capitalism . . . depends on hate . . .
Simple, egalitaian trade based on mutual trust and respect . . . happens every day at the micro level. The simple merchant/buyer relationship when you walk into a store . . .
That bastard with his "can I help you, sir?" and his "d'ya watch the game last night?", and his "have a nice day" . . . ?

I hate that guy.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:15 AM on February 21


Each year, an estimated 10,000 shipping containers fall off container ships at sea.

Interestingly, these containers are one of the most terrifying navigational hazards faced by small craft on the open ocean. One might expect that they would just sink to the bottom of the ocean as soon as they fall overboard. Rather they often only partially flood, which allows them to float just beneath the surface of the water, which is the most dangerous possible location for them to end up.

If they sank, they wouldn't pose a threat to any ships (except if they landed on a sandbar, but any shallow enough sandbar is too shallow for a container ship to cross anyway). If they floated well above the surface, they could be spotted and avoided. Instead these aquatic goldilocks hover at just the right depth where they are both nearly invisible to spotters and still shallow enough to strike a ship's hull. With an average weight of around 60,000 pounds, that puts a lost container's mass on par with that of the average pleasure sailboat that might strike it. Its rectangular profile makes for maximum drag in the water, which when combined with the inertia from its mass makes hitting it pretty much like slamming into a pile of jagged rocks. Bad, bad news for a wooden-hulled ship, even worse news for a fiberglass-hulled pleasure boat, and still pretty bad news for a steel-hulled working boat. Not to mention what it can do to a fishing trawler's nets.

On the brightside, they can occasionally be great salvage. I can't find a source online, but I recall hearing a story a few years back about a guy who found a floating container holding a couple of highly desirable antique Ferraris. Repairing the cars cost a few thousand dollars, but netted the salvager a couple hundred thousand in profit. Yet for every container with a pair of high end sports cars, there's a couple thousand full of waterlogged baby diapers or eye-bleachingly bright neon hotpants. Shipping companies are smart enough to place the gold bullion cargo in the middle and bottom of the stacks, with the electric tea kettles and vuvuzelas on the outside where the risk of overboarding is higher.
posted by NapAdvocacy at 8:18 AM on February 21 [11 favorites]


...we've firmly established this thread as boo shipping containers boo capitalism...

For the record, I think shipping containers are one of the greatest inventions in human history, up there with fire, writing, the printing press, and the computer. They allow huge economies of scale and the movement of resources across the globe to facilitate massive improvements in living conditions. That they're being used to bleed Asia for the sake of destroying wages and conditions in the West isn't a stain on containerized shipping, which was my whole point.
posted by cthuljew at 8:19 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


This is a bit of an unclassy solution right now, but it is definitely how specialty retail stores are going to be servicing under-serviced areas in the near future - especially if they need to compete with Amazon.

Trade caravans visiting your town with the latest goods from Far New York. Everything old is new again, I guess.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:19 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Trade caravans visiting your town with the latest goods from Far New York. Everything old is new again, I guess.

Maybe this will solve the socio-economic crisis faced by Irish Travellers and European Gypsies. Their caravans will once again have an economic niche to fill!
posted by NapAdvocacy at 8:22 AM on February 21


Without the capitalism, we wouldn't have developed the containers in the first place, so I suppose you can say that Capitalism is the fundamental problem. Get rid of Capitalism, and you'll get rid of pretty much all of the need for cost and labor savings.

I'm still not looking forward to when we revert to pastoral feudalism under the rule of a hydraulic empire.
posted by happyroach at 8:36 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Without the capitalism, we wouldn't have developed the containers in the first place

How are the grain shipments supposed to get from the agricultural collective to the bakery work unit so they can make bread for the steel workers soviet to distribute to the workers who will then make and ship back plows?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:44 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Perhaps this is my inner hate-fueled capitalist oppressor talking, but if I were in charge of setting up a command economy or an exchange economy of autonomous workers' collectives or whatever, I'm not sure that intentionally making shipping and logistics far more expensive than necessary would be the first decision I'd go for.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:58 AM on February 21 [9 favorites]


Trade caravans visiting your town with the latest goods from Far New York. Everything old is new again, I guess.

One of the biggest difficulties stores have - even as popup and short term lease stores is that its hard to get an appropriate look in a short period of time. It takes time to build the iconic front of Abercrombie & Fitch, and yes - they require a specific minimum decibels of music as well. A pop-up store for A&F becomes difficult because it is hard to control the experience. In addition it takes weeks to do a proper remodel - especially if your last tenant was a very different type of store

Now, instead if you had a box that traveled with other boxes and the boxes were perceived to be better than carneys and AS Seen On TV demonstrations, and the boxes even sold an elite image - well - you've opened up a sales channel that even the internet can't reach. The problem right now is strictly the logistics of having your store ruggedized to move as opposed designed for stationary single point of contact.

Until then, sadly, it is more cost effective to put a store 15 miles away from their other store in New York.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:01 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]


How are the grain shipments supposed to get from the agricultural collective to the bakery work unit so they can make bread for the steel workers soviet to distribute to the workers who will then make and ship back plows?

Obviously via long lines of lean yet muscular young Collective Workers, striped to the waist, the sweat glistening from their athletic bodies as they pass the sacks from one person to the next to the next...excuse me for a moment.
posted by happyroach at 9:13 AM on February 21 [13 favorites]


I've seen this dialectic a lot on here. It's not compelling.

Well it gets me going every time. In fact it's the main reason I'm here and not on The Guardian talking about football.
posted by colie at 9:18 AM on February 21


Yeah, I've worked as a longshorman [ILWU] stacking boxes in the hold of ships - it still happens for smaller ships in less easily navigable waters. Being old I've also worked with some of the people who used to load the larger ships - by cargo net and hand. That work is a nightmare. Men were limping and creaky by the time they were 50 if not before so your earning window was narrow.

"flattened global capitalism "

Global capitalism being flattened is bad for me, being an American, but it's better for the rest of the world. Tough shit I guess.

I suspect it wasn't mippy's intent to initiate a discussion about the global economy. Shipping containers are really difficult to insulate though. Carbon Steel is only overmatched in its ability to conduct heat by [in no particular order] Gold, Molybdenum, Cadmium, Cobalt, Iridium, Iron and Copper. Link.
posted by vapidave at 9:55 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


Grain is a bulk commodity, so you should be using covered hoppers and bulk carriers anyway.
posted by ckape at 9:59 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


Being old I've also worked with some of the people who used to load the larger ships - by cargo net and hand. That work is a nightmare. Men were limping and creaky by the time they were 50 if not before so your earning window was narrow.

Not to mention what it did to their boxing careers!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:44 AM on February 21


My neighborhood is getting a Shipping Container Starbucks.

One of these things in my neighborhood is kind of quirky and fun. A dozen would be weird. Fifty would be dystopian.

As vapidave notes, these can't possibly be cheap to heat or cool.
posted by gurple at 10:53 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


striped to the waist
Tell me more about these zebra-human hybrids!
posted by soelo at 11:02 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


Goes well with allkindsoftime's epic supply chain management intro (Previously)
posted by yoHighness at 11:17 AM on February 21


sea container cabin
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 11:41 AM on February 21


My neighborhood is getting a Shipping Container Starbucks.

There's a shipping container Starbucks near my neighborhood, too. I personally hate it (not that I've been there) because it has no interior space - it's walk-up or drive-thru only, and that intersection already sucks for car traffic. The line of cars waiting to get into the drive-thru that I see most mornings just makes it worse.

The article says it's a "great concept for a college campus" but it's not on a college campus. Sure, it's near Loyola, but thousands of commuters and residents and people going about business that has nothing do to with Loyola pass through that area every day. As a former Starbucks barista I also wonder how shitty it is to work there, stuck in such a small space.

Also it opened right before this Polar Vortex winter started so yeah, not doing so much walk-up business at the moment.
posted by misskaz at 11:46 AM on February 21


There's a tasty shipping container taqueria just a few blocks from me as I type (also a walk-up/drive-through only).
posted by blacksmithtb at 12:23 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]


striped to the waist
Tell me more about these zebra-human hybrids!
We prefer the term Quaggan*Americans, if you please!
 
posted by Herodios at 12:31 PM on February 21


rolls-royce is developing unmanned 'drone' container ships
posted by kliuless at 3:26 PM on February 28


Free Trade Supporter Cato Institute Says Drop Corporate Sovereignty Provisions In Trade Agreements
posted by jeffburdges at 11:22 AM on March 18


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