No One’s Driving

Moving the Big Boat Did Not Magically Fix the Global Economy

The big boat may be unstuck, but our deeply technologized, infinitely complex economy is just beginning to get jammed

Photo: DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/Getty Images

Welcome to No One’s Driving, a column by novelist and tech writer Tim Maughan about how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiraling out of control.

As I write this, I have an extra tab open in my browser, which has been open all week. It’s there so that I a captive of my increasingly frayed, exhausted attention span can compulsively check it at any given time. It’s a livestream of news updates from the Suez Canal, where the 220,000-ton Ever Given and its cargo of 10,000 shipping containers ran aground and blocked one of the world’s most important trade routes. Until the ship’s abrupt freeing on Monday, nobody knew what would happen next. Some reports suggested that it might take weeks of excavating sand and reshaping the canal itself to get the Ever Given to budge. Others got it closer to right — that rising tides would help shift it out of torpor. Either way, a huge traffic jam formed of upwards of 200 ships, all waiting to take their turn to enter the canal.

I am obviously not the only one who became obsessed with the stuck ship. You’ve probably watched some of the coverage yourself. Everyone has. It was nearly impossible to avoid the endless memes and jokes that have flooded the internet.

The Ever Given had been stranded only a few hours when the conspiracy theories started. The QAnon cultists quickly decided it was stranded as part of a special ops military action meant to free children being smuggled in shipping containers by Hillary Clinton. A slightly more down-to-earth and also popular theory posited that the accident must have been deliberate based on the fact that the ship seemed to trace a crudely drawn cock and balls before heading into the canal—imagined to be a kind of final “fuck you” for the whole world to see from a disgruntled captain just before committing an act of revolution against global capitalism. It’s a fun thought that becomes less logical the more you think about it and even more so when you know that those maneuvers are typical for all ships waiting to enter the canal. The spiraling circles are simply part of the complex, algorithmically choreographed ballet needed to move hundreds of vast craft through the tiny passage in a precise order.

As is so typical when it comes to any media coverage of or public interest in supply chains, the human beings who work and live inside them remain invisible. If there are 200 ships waiting in the Suez, that means some thousands of crew members are also stranded, most of whom have already been away from their homes and families for months. Many of them could well have been among the 300,000 workers stranded at sea by Covid-19 last year and who are now again adrift, facing dwindling supplies of food and provisions. We’ve talked in this column about how international supply chains exist primarily to exploit cheap labor in the global south while providing artificially cheap goods to consumers in the global north. This is as true for the shipping industry as it is for manufacturing, with the majority of crew members coming from Asian nations.

But the global media has become, understandably, obsessed with speculating on what the impact on the global economy will be. An estimated 12% of all international trade passes through the Suez Canal, with Lloyd’s List reporting that the blockage was disrupting an astonishing $9 billion worth of goods every day it continues, or about $400 million per hour. Almost certainly the impact of this will be felt by the retail sector and everyday consumers like you and me. A year of the Covid-19 pandemic has already pushed supply chains close to breaking point, causing prices for groceries and food to steadily climb and widespread shortages of everything from PPE and toilet paper to graphics cards and games consoles. The Suez blockage seems set to only make this worse, as it pushes up shipping costs per container and millions of tons of goods float, helplessly, just off the coast of Egypt. Ikea, for example, announced that is has at least 200 containers’ worth of products stuck somewhere in the traffic jam.

Not everybody is suffering, of course. The global economy is a gigantic sprawling mess, its interlocking mechanisms and networks so complex that its whole has become impossible for human intelligence to comprehend. As such, it frequently appears to defy logic and common sense, especially in times of crisis, as a select elite with few morals but a lot of capital find ways to profit off global misfortune.

It’s not just container ships full of consumer goods that rely on the canal. The Suez is also a vital channel for vast tankers and bulk carriers carrying oil, natural gas, and coal. As such, the markets have decided that oil prices — after weeks of falling — must be driven up. Goldman Sachs is excitedly telling traders to invest in oil and energy stocks if they want to land big returns. And in what seems like the most illogical of outcomes, a genuine maritime shipping crisis has helped the maritime shipping and tanker industry turn a profit for the first time in weeks.

As the rest of us stare blankly at the stricken container ship, wondering what it might mean for our grocery bills or jobs, predatory traders, hedge funds, huge financial institutions, and the vast industry that has gotten rich off destroying the planet’s climate are watching their bank balances swell.

“After years of bitcoin and reddit short selling and credit default swaps and a million other things i don’t understand it’s so refreshing to hear that global commerce is in peril because a big boat got stuck in a canal,” tweeted Brandy Jensen on March 25. At the time of writing this, a few days later, it has been liked nearly 80,000 times.

Jensen’s tweet resonates with so many people because it’s true: Everything — capitalism, the economy, politics, the internet, supply chains — has become a terrifying, complicated, interlocking, hard-to-see mess that we can’t understand. But we can understand a ship blocking a canal. It’s a huge, dumb, obvious object wedged into a place it shouldn’t be. It feels like a relief to be able to physically point at something and know that it’s wrong, or to be able to count the ships queuing up behind it and understand instantly why the system has ground to a halt. And it also looks conceptually easy to fix. I mean, it might well take some intensive engineering work to move the ship, and it may cost billions in losses in the process, but that’s all you have to do to get things flowing again. You’ve just got to move that one ship.

And now that it’s moved, what happens? The rest of the world forgets about supply chains again? We go back to normal?

Normal in this instance means supply chains that are so complex that they need algorithmically controlled networks to manage them as they exploit cheap labor in one half of the world just to provide savings to the other half, and even then, fail to deliver lifesaving equipment during a global crisis. It means an internet where nobody trusts anyone, because a handful of companies that have grown too big to even understand themselves have worked out that the best way to turn a profit is by exploiting everyone’s fears and differences to fuel advertising technology that might not even work. And it means a global economy that has long escaped the control of elected governments and has become a confusing free-for-all where another handful of companies hoard the planet’s wealth by profiting off people losing their jobs and the constant burning of fossil fuels.

This column was always meant to be about how things have become so complex that there are very real risks that they will collapse. Perhaps it was always too late and that collapse has been underway for a while already. Certainly the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to both highlight and accelerate the growing cracks: There was a moment, about a year ago, when it felt like it might be enough to start pushing for change. There was a lot of talk of unions, of general strikes, of protests and organizing, of mutual aid. We could see the problems and started to glimpse solutions and alternatives. It felt like our ship had run aground, and if we all got together and pushed, maybe we could get it not just back in the ocean, but on a heading to somewhere we actually wanted to go.

But that moment seemed to slip through our fingers, lost in the never-ending chaos of last year’s news cycle. Maybe we were distracted by everything that happened, from the police brutality to the millions of dead, or maybe we got hoodwinked into thinking the economy wasn’t so bad when really it was just even more distanced from reality, as stocks continued to soar even though millions were out of work. Either way, it feels like we forgot about collective action and instead have started to pivot harder into a kind of desperate individualism, where we’re so scared at what the collapse might bring that we ignore unethical practices while buying into illogical get-rich schemes.

Huge corporations like Amazon have learned from Trump and QAnon that they can just lie on social media about working conditions and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them — try as journalists and fact-checkers might to desperately debunk the lies. Tech companies employ academics and experts in A.I. to help guide them through the complex problems they’ve created, and then fire them when they say something they don’t want to hear. Media companies are sacking their staff allegedly because they unionized, or even sacking them just weeks after they managed to stop them from unionizing.

Meanwhile, celebrity journalists are abandoning traditional media outlets to get huge advances from other tech companies like Substack, in the process throwing their colleagues under the bus as they demonize them to pander to their legions of new, conservative subscribers. Everyone seems to be trying to pump cryptocurrencies as a way to make a quick buck, even though they know Bitcoin alone has a carbon footprint comparable to all of New Zealand. And artists — one of the populations hit hardest by the economic fallout of the pandemic — are desperately trying to cash in on the NFT craze, even though it’s throwing the futures of emerging artists under the bus by turning them into the kind of nonsensical financial products that, yet again, ultimately only make hedge fund managers and crypto hoarders rich.

If that all sounds bleak and confusing, it’s because, well, it is. A year on and we’re back to feeling like everything is in the free fall of collapse again and that it’s all too much for us to comprehend, let alone change. But we can do both if we really want to, if we really fight for it, and if we come together. As things get worse, the only answer is to try to recapture that spark of collective action.

There’s another future out there, a better world, one where we overcome the complexities that hold us back while embracing the ones that can help us grow stronger. If we all come together and push as one, then we might be able to refloat that one metaphorical ship and get it back on course, but we also have to realize that it’ll only be the beginning.

Writer. Debut novel INFINITE DETAIL out now on FSG. Bylines at BBC, Motherboard, New Scientist. http://timmaughanbooks.com

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