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The ships sailing silently through the black hole of world trade

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Ever since the first invisible electronic phenomena were pressed into service as radio waves, inventors have tried to render them visible. For the best part of a century there were only two ways of doing this. The first (still with us) was by creative imagination, as is to be seen in the cartoonists' method of adding text to a bolt of lightning coming out of a radio speaker, for example. The second, the analogue method, works by translating the signal into the analogous movement of the needle of an instrument of some sort, watched over by an operator.

This narrow universe served all except the last few decades of the 20th century well, but with the coming of computer networks in the 1960s and mobile telephones in the 1980s, electronic equipment took a quantum leap into complexity, miniaturisation and, most of all, popularity. This, in turn, stimulated greater and greater curiosity about the invisible void of cyberspace, where most of the action seemed to be taking place.

Entertainment movies, like the animated 1980 Disney feature film Tron, offered a tantalising glimpse of this unexplored world inhabited by electrons but also, in some way, linked to the major changes in the real world that were being wrought by computer-aided design, electronic banking, computerised building management, satellite communications and robotics, which had already begun to manage our lives.

For a long time the grand project of the demystification of cyberspace concentrated on the information technology and communications business itself. As recently as the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, world trade was already producing 1.8 billion tonnes of cargo per year, virtually all of it carried by ships in plain sight. At the same time, the image of world trade in business advertising was more likely to be dominated by satellites and emails than by boats. Interestingly enough, this distorted picture is still to be seen today, even though the amount of shipped cargo has doubled to 3.6 billion tonnes.

This is because container shipping is a 'black hole' in the global economy, seldom, if ever, mentioned in connection with world trade, even though it is responsible for the delivery of over 90 per cent of all cargo in the standardised form of shipping containers. In fact, with the shift in the world manufacturing base from Europe and North America to Asia and particularly China, more and more shipping will be required, and more and much larger port facilities will also be needed at both ends of the journey. Invisible or not, the migration of manufacturing is going to shape future trade and shipping patterns for years to come.

How then can we reconcile the imagery of a global economy, which is spurious but heavily promoted, with the reality of world trade, which is growing but virtually invisible because when it is working it is at sea, where nobody lives? The answer must lie in the presentation. Pictures of ships, even if they are the largest ships in the world, will not restore the true balance of ship to satellite in the global economy. What we need to shock the viewer is clash and contrast, simultaneity and dissonance. We need a ship in cyberspace, a huge container ship carrying an improbable stack of containers all suspended in the air over an avenue between skyscrapers in a galaxy of goods and services whirling in an infinite space with forklift trucks, armoured security vans, oil drums, gold ingots, railway lines and sections of gas pipeline; the whole resembling nothing so much as a huge abandoned drawing of the nine moons of Jupiter.

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