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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

19 May 2010

12:00 AM

19 May 2010

12:00 AM

With the single exception of the in- flight live map with its wonderfully eccentric ideas about the relative importance of towns and cities (what’s so special about Chartwell?), I don’t often use the in-flight entertainment systems on planes. I’m not sure I want to watch Avatar on a nine-inch screen — or on any screen, come to think of it. In fact I think it would be better if, a week before the flight, your airline just sent you a £10 Amazon voucher along with a few book recommendations.

In a way, the best improvement to in-flight entertainment has been the BBC’s and Sky’s creation of desktop software which means you can download television programmes to a PC. This means that, before your trip, you can download many hours of television to your laptop and then watch it at leisure while you’re abroad.

In my case this largely means programmes from BBC4 — a miraculous channel which seems to absorb little more than 1 per cent of the BBC’s budget while producing around half its worthwhile content. As a result, I have just spent an hour of my recent flight watching The Box that Changed Britain, a documentary narrated by Roger McGough — and as valuable an hour of television as I have seen in ages. If you are quick you can find it now by searching for it at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer.


The programme chronicles a seemingly banal invention which, though little celebrated, may have done more for the postwar economy than almost any other innovation. This is the standard shipping container, a centuries-old concept which finally realised its true promise as the result of work in the 1950s by Malcolm McLean, a self-made North Carolina trucker.

What’s interesting about the whole story is how much it parallels and presages the development of the internet — a container being analogous to the packets in which data is moved about. Both inventions owe their success to an act of inspired generosity, too: just as Tim Berners-Lee refused to profit by patenting the Web, McLean was persuaded to donate many patents relating to his container designs to the transportation industry, thereby speeding up the establishment of a common universal standard.

In financial terms, the worldwide spread of ‘intermodal containerisation’ made the distance travelled by non-perishable goods more or less irrelevant — so that, just as your email from London to Frankfurt may pass via New York, so your car now contains parts which have been made on one continent, painted on another and then assembled on a third. Transportation costs, once as much as 40 per cent of the price of imported goods, fell to near zero.

However, as with the digital age, the cost to established businesses was high. You would be hard-hearted not to feel sympathy for the tens of thousands of dockers made redundant overnight, or for the 50,000 people who once worked in Britain’s raincoat factories. But also for the ship’s captain who on a traditional vessel could pop ashore for a round of golf while his ship was being unloaded, but who now found there wasn’t time enough to disembark for lunch. Anyone with a BlackBerry will recognise this phenomenon. Both container shipping and electronic communications have destroyed that wonderful workplace experience of enforced communal downtime — making us materially richer but poorer in most other ways.


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