The shipping container is the electrical travel plug of global trade. Enabling frictionless exchange of the products of territories oceans apart, the simple corrugated box is one of the winners of globalisation. Today, the container is everywhere. Not only on trains and lorries and boats but, much like capitalism itself, encroaching ever further into more areas of our lives. Containers are the answer to the UK housing crisis didn't you know? In San Francisco, they house business incubators and enterprise accelerators. In Berlin, they house refuges. Thousands of boxes spilled from the top row of overloaded container ships are now cluttering up our oceans, causing a serious shipping hazard. East London hipsters rent out containers to house their innovatively disruptive pop-up kimchi and foraged seaweed kiosks. Containers even have their own magazine - Containerisation International! - for those who want to think inside the box.
Of course the container has been around for a few hundred years, since the very first containerisation on the Stroudwater canal in 1750s. But container 2.0 arrived with Malcolm McLean's first 'intermodal' container in the 1950s. McLean, a trucker from North Carolina created the first shipping container to be easily transferred between different modes of transport, between ships, lorries and trains.
Subsequently, containers have gone global. In 2013, the Economist reported on a study across more than 20 countries which revealed that containerisation was the cause of even greater rises in bilateral trade than free-trade agreements. Indeed, containers were calculated to have made more of a contribution to globalisation than all trade agreements over the past 50 years. Protocols are less fundamental than interoperability. So these are not the operating system of capitalism - containers go beyond that, transcending competing varieties of capitalism. Containers are calm and collected under different regulatory territories, transferable across diverse markets, cultures, landscapes and legal frameworks.
But if the prophets of the new economy are even partly right, and the profits of the new economy will be partly made in the production of digital, virtual products and services, then what next for our very analogue metal box? In a future zero marginal cost society stacked with 3D printers, e-books, i-news, Google glasses, paperless offices and virtual realities, where is our container for the age of information?
In fact it's already here. It's called Docker and it's the latest game-changing technology you've never heard of. Docker 'containers' are a sort of filing system for software, which parcel up applications in digital boxes, standardised to work across all Linux and Microsoft operating systems. These uniform containers make software more efficient, faster, more secure, reliable and more compatible, enabling developers to more easily package up and ship ready-to-run programmes and apps. In just two and half years, over 300 million Docker containers have been downloaded with 200 million this year alone. There are already ten times more virtual containers than real ones. This is the medium for the message.
But to enable it to take off, Malcolm Mclean gave away the patent for his container, making it genuinely open source, owned by everyone and no-one. In a seemingly related event in 1982, Maclean subsequently declared bankruptcy, a broken and unrecognised hero of capitalism. While now, as history repeats itself and attempts to avoid such tragedy the second time around, Greylock Partners and Sequoia Capital have invested over $50 million in Dockers' virtual container. So this virtual box developed through open source collaboration is now at least partly owned by private venture capitalists, as is apparently necessary in today's economy to take this kind of product to market and to scale.
But these containers, both physical and ethereal, constitute a natural monopoly. When their function is to standardize, the most efficient number of varieties of container is one. What's more, these are critical drivers of the development of trade, growth and value in both the old and new economy. So shouldn't such a monopoly as Docker be open and owned by us all?