Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Model for Humanity: Shipping Containers

Over at John Robb's blog he is musing on what a "Resilient Community", existing in a chaotic 21st century world, would look like. He brings up the abstracted platform of containerized shipping as a design inspiration for such communities.

Yes, yes, yes! Robb has hit upon something great.

I see the containerized shipping platform as a way to explicitly state the friction points in society. By friction points I mean any point where objects/people/information must pass through a "checkpoint". A checkpoint is any point of observation labor and judgement -e.g. "is this package legal or safe?", "is this person a terrorist?", "is it safe to invite this person in my house?", "should I marry him?", "are these pesticides safe? ", "is this email a virus ","is this email for joe_user@example.org","is that child tall enough to ride this rollercoaster?","are these tomatoes ripe?". Humans, as well as all animals, need these friction points. Why am I calling it a "friction point"? Because the flow of objects slow or stop at that threshold. The threshold is sometimes all physical, sometimes all semantic.

Shipping containers created a revolution by tidying up the transport and trade of goods. Before containers, goods were handled by dock workers at several transition points. This took time, the workers stole some of the goods, and the dock workers were a part of the union, socialist, mafia, and often Catholic culture. A southern trucker, with typical contempt for such working class northerner culture, saw these dock workers performing their trade on a dock and dreamed up how box the cargo up so the producers and consumers of goods could save money, and the vermin culture wouldn't have their livelihood. It worked, and now that vermin culture is long gone.

Switching gears a little here, there has emerged an orthodoxy in the countercultural schemes for a platform. These orthodoxies tend to want no friction points, or simply place all friction in the semantic distinction between their alternative society and mainstream society (Mainstream is always judged bad, alternative is a frictionless zone of no judgement). It is interesting to note the Burning Man culture as maturing through this, from wide open to needing security.

Back to John Robb's "Resilient Community" musings, and a platform. Humans need civilization, and it is time we containerized it for safe passage through time, by maturing to a point where all are conscious of the flow, and where/when the free flow points and friction points should appropriately exist. Not a police state with police judging people's validity of movement, but a people state policing with a precision, decisiveness, violent intervention, wealth and innovation protection that makes police states of the past look like what they really were: weak, pathetically poor and stupid.

A little about the non-philosophical. Sealand rocks! I was once the bookkeeper that did all the bill of ladings for cargo loaded on Sealand ships in Akutan, Alaska. The captains were really smart and cool. It was also something I liked about coastal Alaska . I remember watching a steady stream of cargo ships passing by while moored in Southeast Alaska, and thinking how densely commercial and modern in a truly contemporary sense the shipping corridor of Alaska is. Its the perfect mix of wilderness, high bandwidth flow of trade, big transport infrastructure things like ships and planes, and no farms and few roads. Most of America is a mix of rural farm-culture politics and old urban-culture politics. Alaska was neither. Those big Sealand ships, along with airline travel, are what enables modernity in Alaska, and that (with no rural farm ethos to corrupt it) felt more cutting edge than anything in the lower 48. No wonder I love Alaska.

1 comment:

The Serpent Lord said...

Platforms are inherently political technologies because some people benefit more from increasing friction and others benefit more from decreasing friction. But this is such an abstract concept that we need to look at the friction itself before we start designing platforms.

Shipping containers could be compared to a circulatory system: decreasing friction in the veins and arteries increases blood flow, while increasing friction in the capillaries increases nutrient exchange and metabolism. Or you could compare them to pipelines which increase the flow of oil to refineries where it is processed into fractions which are eventually transformed into myriad applications as fuel and chemicals with increasing friction.

A city is the classic example of a platform that produces a resilient community. The city has a government, police and roads. The city platform even controls time with standard business hours. And the adoption of the city platform by multiple communities makes it easy to network between cities.

The city platform has two problems:

First, it is threatening to people who benefit from increasing friction, especially the landed gentry and cultural conservatives. The cultural conservatives are the most easy to identify with. Cities force us to face difference. The urban hippie must face men in suits, and the urban christian must face public deviancy. Those who love law must face crime, and those who embrace chaos must face order.

Second, a city that cannot face it's own difference is poisoned. Ghettos segregated by race and class go to war against each other. Most people can identify with some kind of cultural conservativism (i.e. the atheist who is uncomfortable around overt displays of religion, or the politically neutral person who is uncomfortable around political action.) So this poison is a constant threat.

"Alternative is good, mainstream is bad" is a poisonous idea for the city platform, where you will have at least a few people who prefer "mainstream" to "alternative". Also, it is the nature of a platform to become a "mainstream" social order at least within a particular niche, so I can't imagine any platform that would support resilient communities which is based on the orthodoxy and obsessions of fundamentalist counterculture.

Perhaps an improved city platform would distribute difference as evenly as possible, while allowing people a small private comfort zone. For example the city would be anti-zoned/multi-zoned as much as possible, mixing classes, residential areas, workplaces and parks, with some variation tolerated in the height of buildings, size of residences, etc.

The real-estate business would have to be regulated to limit segregation. This does not mean every residential complex must be equally diverse, but it should be impossible to pick a powerful identity such as race, religion or class and draw a line around it on the map of the city. By regulating the way the real-estate business markets homes, the diversity of the city can be enforced while preserving the customer's choices. For example, a real estate agent might be able to tell a customer that most of the people in a certain building speak spanish or make less than $50,000 per year, but they would not be allowed to make the same claims about all of the nearby buildings.