How technology is like shipping containers

There once was a time when it was really difficult to ship goods from continent to continent. We collectively knew a lot about how to navigate the high seas, but we had no idea how to let many people ship many things. We had one system: buy the entire hull of the ship.

That began to change when we learned how to break down the hull of the ship into discrete units.


The Birth of Modern Shipping

In 1956 a ship SS Ideal X set sail from Newark, New Jersey to Houston Texas. This ship was your average merchant ship except for an important modification. Instead of one big open cargo hull, the Ideal X was redesigned to accommodate shipping containers. When it arrived in Houston it unloaded 58 containers onto 58 separate trucks. This was the beginning of the modularity of international shipping.

Before this innovation, exporters faced a hodge-podge of standards to ship their goods. Locked shipping boxes had existed since the 1700s, but there was no standard size, so unloading the boxes changed at every port. Exporters could opt to put their goods on simple palettes, which they often did. But shipping companies had no way of knowing to optimize their space inside their hulls. They too faced a hodge podge of sizes making shipping expensive and difficult for everyone.

That all changed with the Ideal X. Shippers could now reliably predict how much space they could sell, and exporters could count on a standard unloading procedure. Prices fell and cargoes increased. Overall intersea traffic went up and trade increased. Ships’ hulls were no longer treated as whole spaces, but rather as a function of shipping containers. International shipping was fundamentally changed.

Shipping containers broke down cargo space into predictable, interchangeable, and flexible space. As such it solved a lot of problems.

The Birth of Modern Technology: The Open API

Technologies that allow other technologies to improve or combine are themselves innovations, ones that typically fly under the radar. The open API is one such innovation. It allows applications to talk to other applications, but unlike other standards before it, the API became readily available for others outside the organization to see. Open APIs are the embodiment of what Rainie and Wellman call the “new social operating system” of the networked society. Where once, internal organizations guarded their information carefully, now many people consider it normal and even proper to share information with others.

This is one of the norms “Secrets of Silicon Valley” one author found in the Bay Area. As a transplant from Washington DC, she found herself surprised at how open people appeared to be to meeting with her.

Note that I say “appeared” to be; openness is still not one of Silicon Valley’s virtues. Apple, for example, is notorious for its secrecy. But the norm of sharing means that people will be overtly open, demonstrating their compliance with this cultural expectation. That doesn’t mean they don’t keep secrets. It means that they are secretive about keeping secrets, and overt about sharing information.

The open API is a technology that allows combinations of existing technologies, which in turn creates entirely new technologies. Take, for example, the If This Then That tool, which allows users to create technological “recipes.” Send me a text if I get a retweet. Send me an email if my mom’s Facebook gets updated. Tell me something about something else — in the precise way I want it.

This is just like a shipping container. It breaks down a large technology, like Twitter, and takes a slice of its value and delivers it to you in the way you would like. You don’t have to buy the entire Twitter stream or the entire ship — you can take only the part you want and have it delivered safely and predictably in the way you specify.

The open API allows technologies, which were once “group” technologies, to become truly “networked” technologies.