On 23 March 2021, the Ever Given container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal. Travelling westwards from Malaysia, the ship was buffeted by strong seasonal gusts of hot air – the khamaseen winds. The Ever Given was already travelling too swiftly for a vessel of its size in the canal, belting through the waterway to try to move through the wind rather than be blown off-course. At around 7:39 am, having been gradually pushed by the winds towards the east bank of the canal, the ship attempted to readjust, over-correcting as it did and suddenly moved westwards, displacing water as it swerved. As a car spins on black ice, so the Ever Given swung through the stream – stern one way, bow the other, its snout ploughing into the sand of the east bank. The ship was stuck and the Suez Canal – abutment to the flow of global supply chains – was blocked.
Like many others, the first I heard of the Ever Given was through social media via an image taken from the Marine Traffic site. On a regular day, the site maps the flow of maritime vessels across the world in real time, as soothing flocks of tiny brightly coloured rhomboids bopping across the oceans. On the morning of the grounding, a screenshot from the site showed simply a single yellow shape clearly wedged at an uncomfortable angle between two boundaries. This ship was not going anywhere. As the event was confirmed and news reports started to investigate the implications for global supply chains, the photos from Egypt began to arrive. First, a shot from above – the satellite image version of Marine Traffic’s diagram, the sandbanks yellow and the ship a blocky Lego construct. And then, a photo taken from the ship stuck behind the Ever Given, which gave a sense of the heft of the thing.
Set against a grainy yellow sky with the washed-out colour palette of something bleached by sunlight, the photo showed the enormous vessel, hoicked sideways between the two shores – placed at such an angle to show the owner company’s name, EVERGREEN, painted on its side. It is very hard to determine how big anything is in this picture: everything is lines, angles, and primary colours, and the ship’s lettering is extremely clear and legible. There are no people anywhere in sight. Only the containers, which appear as small as Lego bricks but are stacked ten high and more, give a sense of how big this ship might be.
In the lower left of the photo on the shore, by the bow, is what looks like an inverted orange ‘V’. A second picture followed shortly, taken from the perspective of this object. It’s a yellow crawler excavator – a type of digger commonly found on construction sites to scoop out debris and soil. Balanced precariously on the bank, its extended arm reaches into the mud by the bulbous bow, its cabin barely higher than the ship’s red waterline. It is a strange image to look at. By the side of the Ever Given, this digger looks like a delicate insect picking away at its host’s skin. This feeling of size difference is not one that can be described through numerical expansion, but one best expressed through a relationship.As swallows migrate south for the winter, so memes follow popular news stories, and the Ever Given was a memetic gold mine. Some memes focused on supply chains; one compared Marine Traffic images of the ships flowing through the Suez with their movement
around the Cape of Good Hope with the motto REJECT MODERNITY / EMBRACE TRADITION. The visual artist Daniella Baskin created a mocked-up dating app, Forever Given, to allow the single crewmembers on all the other ships, now also stuck in the Suez Canal, to find love (‘Deckhand seeking crude oil tanker captain’ is one possible pairing which the app’s drop-down menus permit). The ship itself was also the object of fascination: ‘Steal His Look!’ enthused one image, in the white-square style of a fashion look book, collating an expensive primary-coloured striped jacket, Dolce & Gabbana jeans, and some 99p self-adhesive wheelie bin stickers to allow you to dress like the ‘Cargo Ship Blocking the Suez Canal’.
Through this, the images which felt to me as though they carried the strongest resonance were those first two, of the ship itself stuck sideways, and the excavator trying to free it. They became extraordinarily popular templates for memes that had nothing to do with a crisis in global shipping but instead responded to the extremes of scale at play. The digger was ‘You, Trying Your Best’ against the bulk of the ship as ‘The Crushing Despair of the Past Year’. The digger was ‘A Diversity and Inclusion Workshop’; the ship was ‘Systemic Racism’. The digger was ‘Making Different Personal Choices’; the ship, ‘Structural Problems’.
In the days in which the Ever Given was stuck, it felt as though everyone on social media was responding, in their own ways, to a creative challenge to make a meme about the crisis. As someone with an emotional investment in gigantic machinery, it was wonderful; a personalised springtime festival of infrastructure. But I was also taken by other people’s fascination and response, which felt as though it went far beyond other similar supply chain misadventures, such as the grounding of flights in the wake of the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Part of this was no doubt the obvious dumb visual pleasure of ‘Big Ship Stuck’. But I also felt a crackle of something else; that the strangeness of scale in global supply chain systems, most commonly isolated as a big ship, or a large steel container, or a whole new waterway carved through the top of a continent, had somehow aggregated and slipped the leash, and was now running at full pelt into public consciousness.
—An edited excerpt from Systems Ultra: Making Sense of Technology in a Complex World by Georgina Voss.
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