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The Context of Shipping Containers

Apparently, my gestation period is about ten years. I'm still thinking about the IA Summit I attended in Baltimore in 2013. I've been mulling over a keynote presentation by Scott Jenson.[1] During the presentation, Jenson named Malcom McLean as his hero. However, I had just finished reading a book putting McLean in a different context.[2]


Malcom McLean made the world smaller. Modern globalization and its complexities are rooted in McLean’s seemingly simple invention, the shipping container.

By thoughtfully designing, standardizing, and then handing his patent to the International Organization for Standards (ISO) as a gift to the world, McLean stream-lined international trade and enabled consumers to wallow in more stuff than they ever dreamed possible.[3] Since their introduction, containers and their ships just keep getting bigger. Thanks to modern shipping, China is the virtual “workshop of the world.”[4]

The Dark Side of Shipping

Prior to flying to Baltimore, I finished Roberto Saviano’s dark expose of organized crime in Italy, Gomorrah. In the opening paragraphs, a crane operator disturbingly describes a shipping container opening and corpses spilling out onto the docks of a port in Naples. The dead are Chinese.[5]

I'm currently reading a crime and thriller series by Barry Eisler about a woman who is a cop hunting down the men who trafficked she and her sister. The first book was so brutal I had difficulty in many parts.[6] The book opens in a shipping container. Eisler's bare bones prose quickly takes the reader in and out of the shipping container using flashbacks and present-day interchanges.

For me, I can't separate shipping containers from human trafficking. It's not something I can forget or even ignore.

McLean's Legacy

Before his death in 2001, McLean kept a low profile. He was personally and emotionally devastated at the bankruptcy of his company in 1986.[7] It’s unclear if McLean really knew shipping containers could be used in such nefarious ways. McLean was a builder from the same era as my grandfather, a construction prodigy, utterly self-made.

From McLean's perspective, containers solved a problem: the shipping of stuff. What the stuff is, how it’s made, who makes it, and from where its components come are logistics unseen by consumers. As Saviano writes, “All merchandise has obscure origins: such is the law of capitalism.”[8]

Contextual Analysis

I am not painting McLean as a bad guy. Plainly, he was a businessman who changed the world. But contextual factors complicate his legacy. Just a few of them are:

Nearly a quarter into the 21^st century, shipping containers are just life around the world. Yes, they enable slavery, but people also retrofit them into cheap housing. It's a complicated, messy history, but one where context is critical.

  1. [Scott Jenson. “2013 IA Summit.” Baltimore, MD, April 5, 2013.] ↩︎

  2. I don't know Scott, and this isn't a critique of his presentation. It's memorable because his presentation didn't present the unintended consequences of design, something missing in most conference talks I've seen (unless the talk itself is about unintended consequences. ↩︎

  3. Levinson, Marc. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008, chap. 14. ↩︎

  4. Martin, Will, and Vlad Manole. “China’s Emergence as the Workshop of the World.” Policy Reform and Chinese Markets: Progress and Challenges, 2008, 206. ↩︎

  5. Saviano, Roberto, and Virginia Jewiss. Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. New York: Picador, 2008, chap. 1. ↩︎

  6. Eisler, Barry. Livia Lone. First edition. Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2016. ↩︎

  7. Levinson, 2008, chap. 12. ↩︎

  8. Savioano, 2008, chap. 2. ↩︎

  9. Díez, Federico J. “The Asymmetric Effects of Tariffs on Intra-Firm Trade and Offshoring Decisions.” Research Review, no. 13 (March 2010): 18–21. ↩︎

  10. Mueller, Benjamin. “Gasping for Air: 39 Vietnamese Died in a U.K. Truck. 18,000 More Endure This Perilous Trip.” The New York Times, November 1, 2019, sec. World. [] ↩︎



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