Shipping containers have become an emblem of contemporary economic globalization. Because of the “containerization” of the maritime shipping industry, goods move around the world, flowing along increasingly long commodity chains, at incredible speeds. Containers also have created a new geography, making places like Tangier Med, Caucedo, Yingkou and Prince Rupert into global hubs, and sidelining once busy ports like San Francisco.
Containers are modular storage, which means they can be moved on and off boats, shunted onto trains or trucks, and back again, all by machines with very little human involvement. This makes the human operators into superhumans who can unload and dispatch cargo in lightning speed.
Depending on how you look at it, containers reveal different aspects of globalization.
For some people, it's a technological breakthrough which has led to a more efficient, streamlined and sensible system of shipping.
For others, containers represent the globalization of capitalism according to its particular logic of growth. With this kind of efficiency, it becomes possible for a business to construct a long and convoluted chain along which materials will be fashioned and assembled into commodities, distributed to wealthy markets and sold to consumers. Because shipping any kind of thing is so easy and can be managed from on high, businesses have a nearly free hand in seeking out the cheapest possible labor and raw materials. And if and when a specific pool of workers becomes more expensive, then can quickly reassemble the links into a new chain.
Rodrigue, Jean-Paul, Claude Comtois, and Brian Slack. 2013. The Geography of Transport Systems. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge. https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/index.html.