Against The Nostalgia of Objects: Extracts from A Manifesto for The Container Shipping Industry

The Network is Not the Territory

In business, as in war, the important thing is not how much geography we hold, but the supply lines we control. How we get food, fuel, people, goods from one point to another.

The only map that matters is the one that describes the routes we own. Everything in between – the mountains, the deserts, the forest, the places where people live – is dead space.

From the point of view of the one billion shipping containers circling the globe, the world is both one-dimensional and eternally present. The future is currently stacked eighteen thousand deep on 1,300-foot-long ships, each one designed to cover vast distances as slowly as possible – because with a theoretically endless number of ships at sea, the time it takes any one of them to get from one port to another becomes irrelevant.

Time is cheap.

The thing we’re interested in is cadence.


Eventually Every Deep Water Container Port Ends Up Looking the Same

Caveat: time is cheap only for as long as everything is motion. Things that stop moving suddenly become very expensive indeed. The holding capacity of a container port is cripplingly finite; the longer a shipment of electric toothbrushes, or bulldozers, or artificial hearts hangs around taking up space, the more money we lose.

Dead space costs.

Inertia is a killer.

So our container ports will be built for frequency. From cranes to forklifts, everything will be automated and standardized. Everything will work to the same rhythm, from Singapore to Shenzhen to Rotterdam.

Same obscene dimensions, same business processes, same functional architecture, with every action endlessly analysed and optimised.

We will create a quantified New Hanseatic League, and the capacity of our love for the world – our standardized and transportable love – will be measured in twenty-foot equivalent units.


The Ecstasy of Forgetting

Our aim, then, is absolute fluidity. As every object reaches its ideal state in our glorious just-in-time economy, we get closer to the dream of the frictionless, permanent now.

The intermodal ISO container as both wave and particle: weightless, unknowable, with no future and no past.

A network with no memory.

Imagine! No more nation states. No more governments. No more birthday parties. No more death.

Dolphins will caper in our mighty bow waves. We will be outrun by flying fish.

Our only worries will be piracy and freak waves.


Ten Thousand Tiny Disasters

Ten thousand shipping containers are lost at sea every year. That’s more than one every hour.

Ten thousand tiny disasters spilling cargoes of ink, of gardening equipment, of tape measures and spearmint flavouring, of cardboard, of polyester fibre, of spindles, of counterfeit cigarettes, of monosodium glutamate and car parts, of tinned dog food, of hand cream, of washing machine drums, of spray bottles and cork, of Christmas tree decorations, of condoms, of slot machine tumblers, of tortilla chips and running shoes, of machine tools and children’s bath toys and copper pipe into the Gulf Stream, and the Agulhas Current, and the South Pacific Gyre.

Imagine a mile-long whisky bottle surf washing up on beaches made of Lego.

Imagine an endless slick of car tyres silting up the Antarctic circumpolar current.

Imagine thousands of artificial reefs made of handily pre-rusted corten steel containers, slowly self-assembling into crystalline new islands.

Each with no concept of what they ever were before.


Toward The Logistical Sublime

So we will put our faith in Maersk and MSC and CSCL, and the calculations of the underwriting industry. We will sail under the flags of failed states to save on costs and legal oversight.

We will carry sports cars and sex toys and priceless works of art and non-perishable foodstuffs from point to point across the world and it will be as if they have covered no distance at all.

It will be as if they had sprung, fresh and newly formed, from our own collective desire.

An end to the terrible nostalgia of objects!

An end to the history of things!

We will traffic in opportunity, and possibility, and unbreakable optimism. We will build the horizontal, evenly distributed new Jerusalem, the city on a rolling hill.

We will be seasick with the monstrous scale of it all.

And the lights of our industry will shine on the dark waters, and nothing will ever be the same again.

– End –


[Originally commissioned by Spur Leeds for the About Time project]