Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Box and The Net

What invention of the second half of the 20th century had the single greatest effect on global commerce? In a neat new book The Box, Marc Levinson makes a strong argument for the shipping container those boring rectangular boxes you often see carried by trucks and trains as well as by large ships that carry thousands at a time. Of course that is the point, as one can move these containers easily and quickly between trucks, trains and ships. Containers allowed ports to be highly automated and very large single-purpose container ships were built driving shipping costs to negligible amounts. Containers greatly reduced theft at ports, particularly of small electronics. Only with container ships did producing small electronics overseas become financially feasible on a large scale and led, in part, to the computer revolution that fuels our field.

Not everything about the container world rings positive. Most dock workers and many domestic manufacturing workers have lost their jobs. Cities and countries that didn't modernize their docks for container ships got left behind. We can't inspect every container arriving into the US, some of which might contain illegal or deadly weapons. Used containers litter parts of our landscape. Nevertheless containers have greatly increased wealth in several undeveloped countries while delivering many developed countries with low-cost goods.

The Internet shares many parallels with shipping containers. It matters little whether a shipping container has stuffed animals, MP3 players or automobile parts, likewise the internet doesn't care whether it delivers email, pictures, music, movies, blogs and the like. The Internet has allowed many service jobs to move to developing countries. One can hide malicious programs and websites that appear to be something else on the Internet easier than one can hide a bomb in a shipping container.

Increased commerce have led to bigger and bigger ships and calls to expand or replace the Panama canal, now too small and crowded to handle all of the shipping from Asia to the East Coast. Likewise we have to continually increase the volume and speeds of the Internet to meet growing demands. As we learn to take advantage of new technology, especially those that help quickly and cheaply move goods and information, we learn to use it for purposes beyond expectations and we have to cope with expanding the good while limiting the bad uses of such technologies.

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