THE BRIDGE OF a modern ship is a shock on first encounter. Although this place is still known as the wheelhouse, the wheel at the helm is not wooden and impressive, but mundane plastic, the kind that would suit a video arcade game. Nearly all else is automated. A bank of screens contains radar, ECDIS — an electronic chart system — and AIS, an automatic identification system that transmits the ship's name, speed and heading, and other details to other ships, port authorities, and well-equipped pirates. There is radio, a gyrocompass and magnetic compass, a tachometer and echo sounder.

Capt. Glenn Wostenholme is often to be found on the bridge. He is here for port approaches and departures but also whenever he can escape paperwork, which is not as often as he would like, now that the role of ship's purser has ceased to exist and all the administration falls on the captain and senior officers. He can be on his computer for four to eight hours a day now. Glenn is the most senior captain in Maersk's container fleet. In older times, he would have been known as commodore and saluted by the raising of flags on courteous passing ships. His talk turns often to earlier times, because he has done enough years to have plenty and because in his four decades on ships, life at sea has changed dramatically. His first ship was a tramp steamer, a freelance vessel that picks up trade where it can, not a liner with a scheduled route like Kendal, his current ship. A taxi, not a bus. It was iron, had derrick cranes on deck to heft cargo about, and was held together by rivets. Rivets! Not like this Korean-made welded ship, only 4 years old.

In front of him the captain sees sea, but mostly he sees boxes. Orange, blue, gray, red. If the captain leaves the wheelhouse to stand on the port or starboard wings — the bridge's two terraces — he will see boxes fore and aft. That is if he sees them at all. For him they are blank, boring. "I am indifferent to them. They're just boxes, you've got to admit." He thinks they have destroyed the soul of a ship and of shipping. This is an old lament. In the middle of the shift from sail to steam, Joseph Conrad complained that "the loading of ships was once a matter of skill, judgment, and knowledge." With the modern steamship, cargo was "dumped into her through six hatchways, with clatter and hurry and racket and heat, in a cloud of steam and a mess of coal-dust."

Sometime toward the end of the 1960s, when the captain was a young cadet, he saw his first boxes. They were being carried by an American ship that was departing Hong Kong as he was arriving. "I was out on the poop deck and some of the crew said, 'Look! That's a container. That's a thing of the future.'" He didn't pay much attention because cadets didn't pay much attention to things like the creation of globalization. "We were too busy blinking learning stuff." But he listened to the crew, who kept talking about these strange metal things. They said, "That'll never take off." They said, "How are they going to get a truck in that? How will they get steel and timber into it?"

But it did take off. There are at least 20 million containers crossing the world now, quiet blank boxes, thanks to a U.S. businessman named Malcom McLean, who thought people who moved freight would find it easier if they could shift everything in a box, rather than the confusion of general cargo, of barrels and boxes and piles, of each company having its own system. McLean's spark was to call on an engineer, Keith Tantlinger, to create a design that could be seamlessly stacked and locked in place, using twist-locks. This new box could fit trains, trucks, cranes, and ships alike. The "intermodality" made perfect commercial sense, and labor unions hated it. Dockers in particular were furious. McLean claimed his box system reduced labor by two thirds, cutting dockers' workload, salary, and power.