Dollar bills have several features that make them ideal for modern commerce. They are impartial, lightweight, and memoryless. You can use them to buy a gun or a granola bar, to pay a drug dealer or a dry cleaner. As a vehicle for trade, it does not get much better.
Suppose the dollar bill had a brother, a younger but larger relative whose own contributions similarly smoothed the pathways of globalization. That brother would be the shipping container:
Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant.
Once they enter the stream of global shipping, the boxes are shifted and routed by sophisticated computer systems that determine their arrangement on board and plot the most efficient route to get them from point to point. The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle.
That’s Andrew Curry in the latest edition of Nautilus, and the whole article is worth a read.