Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Book review: The Box

A couple of days off work with a stinking cold has given me a lot of time lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. Fortunately its also given me time to finish off another book - The Box by Marc Levinson

Yes this book was short-listed for the FT book of the year by that wasn't why I read it. I would have read this book anyway because... well, I've got a thing about ships and even containers. It is hardly surprising, I grew up in Birkenhead, a docks and ship building town just over the water from Liverpool at one time country's biggest docks. And then I have family connections …

I should confess I once crossed the Atlantic in a container ship myself. I was the sole passenger on a trip from Montreal to Thames Port (east of London) on the Canmar Pride nearly 5 years ago now.

The Box is both a story and a business case study. As a story it is well written and easy to read. It tells how the metal container transformed ocean trade, the shipping industry, and if you agree with the author world commerce.

As a case study it is an examination of how technology changes things. A 40 foot long metal container might not look like technology but that is exactly what it is and in 1956 it was cutting edge. The introduction of the container hit many of the same problems and issues that any other new technology hits: trouble agreeing on standards, worker resistance, management failure to understand it and boom-bust economics to name a few.

Like so many technologies many people initially saw it as simply a means of doing the same thing faster and cheaper. Over time it became clear that the real value of the container lay not in moving the same cargos on the same routes more cheaply but in transforming the whole industry. Not only was the old technology superseded but the old business practises were swept away too. However, as is often true of technology, these changes took time to work through the system. In the first few years it wasn't clear that the container would even save money sometimes. Now its hard to imagine a world without containers.

I'd recommend this book for three reasons: its a good story, its an easy read and third its educational. And if your interested in ships then you’ll enjoy it all the more!