When the chips are down
The seaport, Herman Melville reminds us in Moby-Dick, offers “safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities.” The ships that come and go may change, but the appetite for those offerings never subsides. Perhaps that’s why the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is spending $4 billion (U.S.) to acquire full ownership of Ports America, the largest terminal operator in the United States, with critical infrastructure in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, and New York. Collectively, we Canadians are now harbourmasters — watching as 2.5 million vehicles, 10 million tons of general cargo, and 1.7 million tourists pass through our facilities each year. And while “the port would fain give succour” during normal times, these remain anything but.
Much of the world is living through a logistical nightmare in the most literal sense. Shipping containers, the beating heart of global trade, are at a premium. The freight that does get delivered is piling up on loading docks, with too few hands to sort it. The United States and the United Kingdom alike are facing a shortage of long-haul drivers, which has led to runs on gasoline in London. There aren’t enough silicon chips for new computers, phones, and automobiles. Printers are feeling the crunch, too, with lead times increasing and stock dwindling. Mills have shut down during the pandemic or have retooled to provide Amazon with cardboard boxes instead of book publishers with paper — a cruel irony considering the behemoth retailer’s origin story.
Analysts and media outlets are warning us that finding the perfect holiday gift is going to be difficult this year, which in turn may devastate retailers that are already struggling. “Shop early,” advised the Canadian Press in late September. “Don’t hold out for big blowout sales.” On the East Coast, the SaltWire news network wondered in a recent headline, “Could Global Supply Chain Delays Keep Newfoundland Kids’ Christmas Wish Lists from Being Filled?” Deck the halls with pangs of pathos!
As much as we might blame labour shortages, extreme weather, and manufacturing disruptions for our various supply-and-demand frustrations, we might also point a finger at our twenty-first-century expectation that everything — from bicycles to high-end countertops — ought to be available at a moment’s notice.
That was certainly not the case when I bought my first computer, a Macintosh Performa 6116, in late 1995. Though a young teenager and not yet able to access the internet at home, I considered myself very much the informed consumer, having pored over magazines like MacUser and Macworld the way others my age had pored over Sports Illustrated and Mad. For months and months, I saved the money I earned from my morning paper route and lawn-mowing side hustle. Then, one day, I signed the largest cheque I’d ever written, cut out a MacWarehouse order form, and dropped an envelope in the mail.
There was no tracking information back then, and I had no idea when the FedEx truck would finally deliver that which I craved. If there were supply chain disruptions along the way, I didn’t know about them. I simply had to mark time.
Waiting for consumer goods wasn’t all that uncommon in the mid-’90s, especially when things went on sale and demand outstripped supply. Shopkeepers tempered our disappointment with rain checks, those promises of special pricing when their wares eventually returned. Everyone issued them, from the Kmarts to the mom-and-pops, and sometimes it was a promissory note you pulled out of your Christmas stocking instead of the present you dreamed of.
Now I’m beginning to wonder if COVID-19 might do for the rain check what it has done for another ’90s workaround: the QR code. Invented by a Japanese automaker in 1994, the quick-response code packs far more information into its square matrix than is possible with traditional UPCs, and those funny little optical labels have been a staple of logistics management ever since. But it was the hospitality industry’s need early in the pandemic to implement contact tracing and touchless menus that reminded most civilians of the QR code’s existence.
While the rain check won’t help when real essentials — fuel, food, medicine — are in short supply, its memory might just prompt us to slow down or even pause our on-the-spot consumerism. It’s appropriate that the concept traces its roots to the ballparks of the nineteenth century, when ticket holders could come back the next day in the event of inclement weather. At least for me, all those ports we’ve acquired bring to mind baseball, that rather slow-moving, statistics–filled, but also hopeful endeavour where the unexpected often happens. And when it does, it’s rarely the end of the world to wait things out.