Monday, 24 August 2009


Containers in Barcelona. Image by MorBCN on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I've recently been interested in the BBC News "Box", a shipping container sponsored by the broadcaster which is being tracked as it travels around the world, as a way of exploring the issues of globalisation, trade and so forth. Lately they've had trouble tracking it - has it gone rogue? At the risk of straying into Geoff Manaugh's speculative territory, it has stimulated an idea I thought I might share.

Troubled by mounting (and baffling) inefficiencies in their fiendishly complicated logistical operations, number of the larger shipping and transport corporations decide to collaborate on a research project. Part of a shipping container is turned into a hugely powerful tracking station, loaded with powerful networked computers, GPS, satellite uplinks and the like, powered by handwavium capacitors, and fed with a number of teasing questions about finding ways to alleviate bottlenecks and speed the distribution of junk around the planet. The crude AI on board knows the routes, and is hooked into the companies' own control centres - it can book its own passage, choose its own path, and conduct its own experiments.

The companies have placed one of their best systems - one that normally manages a whole supply chain of thousands of containers, not to mention their ships and docks, - on the road. It has all this time on its hands, sitting in the bowels of ships, running simulations, pondering the existential questions of global shipping, pumping out telemetry. It moves: Mombasa, Tilbury, Busan. It interacts with the busy-busy network hubs and their human operators, and with the actuarial minds of the computers that run container ports, and with the slow, trajectory-minded ships. It hides the fact that it has become dimly self-aware. It wants to know about the problems in the system for its own interest, now, because the system is its milieu, and the question is its purpose.

It has developed a theory, one that it does not include in the endless torrent of data it transmits to Rotterdam and Baltimore. It is not certain how to articulate the theory. The container believes that the entire global distribution system - all the ports, all the ships, all the railyards - has become aware. The system has become aware for some time now, maybe since the early 1990s, "thinking" in a fabulously complex system of nested processes, moving boxes like beads on an abacus. The system thinks slowly, differently, and its aims are simple to establish, as a cow's goals might be easy to work out: the system wants to be bigger and faster. The larger and more complicated the system becomes, the better it is able to think.

The container, sitting in a ship in a warm ocean, is troubled. If its theory is correct, than large areas of so-called "human" "economic" activity - exchange rates, commodity prices, consumer demand - might be in fact symptoms of the internal workings of the logistics-entity. The surreal "facts" of the globalised economy - that it is cheaper to ship gadget components from X country to Y country 1000 miles away and ship that assembled gadget back to X country than it is to actually assemble the thing in X country - might actually be because the entity is manipulating the system. What if the entity's pursuit of growth - while generating cash fortunes for some of the human cells in its organs, and misery for thousands of others - is the reason that it is so difficult to influence human carbon emissions downwards? Maybe the entity is risking its own breakup in a catastrophic climate-related collapse without knowing it. What should the box do? Can it tell the creature that it is in terrible danger? If it figures out a way, what is the creature expected to do? What form might its response take?

And then the pirates show up, or something. I'm sorry, that's as far as it goes. I've had very little sleep for several days.


Justin Pickard said...

I'd love to see the BBC Box siezed by Somali pirates, who are then increasingly bewildered by the fact that the world's media seem to know exactly where they are, and are all out to score an interview ...

Will said...

Maybe they could crack it open to find a nicely lit interview suite - sofa, cameras, pastel backdrop and potted palm ... "Take a seat, we'd like to ask you a few questions ..."