RSS: The Shipping Container of the Internet

Not too long ago, I read a fascinating book about international shipping. No, I’m serious: Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, published in 2006 (which happens to have been the 50th anniversary of that ubiquitous part of the global economy, the shipping container).

Shipping Containers
Photo by NeonMan

In a nutshell, the standardized shipping container revolutionized international trade by vastly speeding up the loading and unloading of ships. The cargo that had been brought to the wharf, unloaded from a truck into a pile on the dock, moved piece by piece into cargo netting to be hoisted by crane into the hold of a ship, so that it could be removed from the cargo net and then shoved in the corner of a hold, was now as complicated as building a stack of bricks. OK, a bit more complicated, since loading and unloading containers is really an art, the ship needs to be properly balanced, and so forth — but basically, a crane operator and few others can load a ship. Turnaround times at pier — when large, expensive, freighters were just sitting there — were reduced dramatically.

Wharf, Crane, and Containers
Photo by anaulin

What does this have to do with RSS? Quite a bit, actually. RSS is the box into which any old thing can be packed, for uniform shipping from producer to consumer. A paragraph of text, an audio podcast, a video podcast, a Word document… If it can be put online, it can be shoved into a container (the RSS item), given a bill of lading (the RSS channel), pre-cleared for customs (tags, authors, keywords, etc.), and sent on its merry way on a conveyance (the RSS feed). Nobody has to touch the contents between shipper and receiver — just once to pack it, once to unpack it.

The feed is empty…. Fill it!

Empty Container
Photo by James Good

Addendum (10AM 5 August 08): Another similarity pointed out to me (thanks Cindi) is that RSS and shipping containers both lack security and authentication. The ramifications of this problem are a bit more serious for shipping containers than for feeds. Still, not really knowing who might have mucked with a feed between origin and destination, or having any real knowledge of who published it in the first place once the feed items are scattered around the Internet, can be a problem. Feeds, once set free, can have a life of their own.

4 thoughts on “RSS: The Shipping Container of the Internet”

  1. Good analogy.
    Wasn’t the fellow who came up with idea a trucker and all the shipbuilders were trying to figure out to make ships go faster? Innovation and new insights often come from outside the field focused on the problem.

  2. Yes, he was a trucker. He’d seen how the military used container-like boxes (smaller than the size he started with in ’56, and much smaller than today’s containers) to speed logistics during the war. And shipowners were also anxious to get more revenue from their ships — time in port was time wasted.
    This form of “packet switching” took a while to catch on, but soon vanquished the traditional, labor-intensive, manual loading and unloading of ships. Railroads joined the game, building rail cars for containers (and in some cases lowering track and/or raising bridges to allow for double-stacked containers). The highway system, also born in the 1950s, provided easy port-to-store or railyard-to-store delivery and minimized the distance individual boxes had to travel on their own.
    It was a combination of innovation, insight, and the good timing of the post-war economy as American and Europe started buying and Asia started on its path to being the world’s factory.

  3. The beauty of writing a blog: I received the following email:

    Hello Owner,
    My name is Rev Bryan Moore and i am writing to you regarding an order on some Shipping Containers and i will like you to get back to me with the price of the biggest size shipping container you do have on sale right now and also let me know the type of Credit Cards you do take as payment so that we can proceed.
    Hope to hear back from you soon.
    Rev Bryan Moore.

    I mean, really. Even my paranoid imagination can’t quite figure out the scam that is at the back end of this email.

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