The invisible network that keeps the world running

One of the world’s most dazzling engineering feats is largely hidden from view. Travelling with a group called Unknown Fields, Tim Maughan stepped on board a container ship to investigate the humungous, algorithmically controlled network that supplies most of what you own.

It’s been just over 45 years since the Apollo Moon landings, and some would have it that we are failing to build big anymore; that we've since become too fascinated with the small, too impressed by our tablet computers, games consoles, and smartphones that we don't invest in grand, world-changing engineering projects.

Stand on the bridge of a container ship docked in a mega-port in Korea, however, and it's clear that's just not true. The global supply chain that brings us those tablets and phones, and pretty much everything else from our clothes and food to our toys and souvenirs, is nothing short of a moon shot itself – a vast, unprecedented engineering solution to a truly astronomical logistics problem. The fact that it's hidden from most people's sight, and that it has become so utterly reliable and efficient to the point of transparency, doesn't make it any less of an achievement of human technical endeavour.

To find out more about this huge, invisible network, I accompanied a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division for a rare voyage on a container ship between Korea and China. The aim of the trip was to follow the supply chain back to some of the remotest parts of China and the source of our consumer goods – and what we saw as we travelled through mega-ports and across oceans looked closer to science fiction than reality.

Early rise

We're picked up at 9am from our guesthouse in the Korean city of Busan by a local 'ground agent' for the shipping company Maersk, whose ship will be carrying us for the next week. They have at least one of these personnel handlers in every major port in the world, their job being to ensure crew members make their way through each country's unique and complex maze of customs and immigration bureaucracy, and on to their ships on time.

If you were asked to name some multi-national corporate brands you could probably reel off half a dozen, from Apple to Coca-Cola, but chances are that Maersk wouldn't spring to mind. Yet the Danish shipping giant is the very definition of a multi-national corporation, with over 25,000 employees, 345 offices in 125 countries, 600 active ships, and more than 2 million containers moved every year. The company is estimated to be responsible for 20% of Denmark's GDP on its own. Maersk might not make any of the things you buy in shops, but it more than likely put a lot of them there.

As we drive along, Busan's dense mass of high-rise apartment blocks gives way to what will be one of the defining images of the next seven days; the giant cranes that line every major port in the world. Soon we're into the depths of Busan New Port itself, and speeding past endless, towering stacks of shipping containers until we're finally dwarfed by the huge, blue mass of the Maersk Seletar, the 320m- (1,050ft-) long, 80,000 tonne, 9,000 container capacity ship that will be my home for the next seven days.

It's not until we get out on to the towering balconies around the ship's bridge and look back at Busan that we're fully able to first comprehend the scale and nature of these Asian mega-ports. It feels like we're being given a rare look into a usually hidden space, a peek at the intricate but city-scaled machinery of global capitalism.

From that viewpoint – essentially high above the sea, looking into land – it's easiest to describe the ports as a sequence of layers. First, towering above and over the ship, are the loading cranes. Vast structures mounted on huge, four-legged frames, they resemble the naked scaffolding of unbuilt skyscrapers, and trigger nostalgic reminders of Saturn V rocket launch towers from the 1960s. Their sheer size makes them the first thing you see when you arrive at any port – whether from land or sea, and as staggering as they are they don't make their full impact until you see them move.

Future gaze

Built on tracks in the surface of the harbour-side, they slide left and right, parallel to the berthed ships, accompanied by a cacophony of warning sounds and robotic safety announcements. Once in port at night I saw one suddenly fire into life next to the ship in a stroboscopic explosion of lights, before it tracked slowly above my high vantage point, bathing me in the orange glow of a dozen small halogen suns. It was an intense experience.

The second layer in from the cranes are the trucks; a constant loop of circling, diesel-belching flatbeds. Endlessly, they arrive at the bottom of the vast cranes, seemingly one every minute when the port is at its busiest, stopping in precise locations so the crane drivers can either pluck their containers off their backs and on to the ships, or drop a freshly unloaded container straight on to them, before the trucks instantly pull away and head inland.

It's a hypnotic, fascinating dance to watch: the cranes lifting containers off the ships, the trucks pulling up in time to catch them as they are elegantly lowered down on steel cables. The complex and precise orchestration behind every move is almost bewildering to comprehend. The ships never unload everything at just one port – that'd be hugely inefficient for these vast, globe-orbiting warehouses – so the crane drivers need to know which one to take off and when, just as the truck drivers need to know where to take each one they collect.

It's the kind of logistical information that it's hard to imagine any one human mind comprehending, and the truth is no single one does – this is distributed knowledge, managed by Maersk's vast world-spanning computer network and shaped and interpreted by complex, similarly unknowable, algorithms. In a very real sense the crane and truck drivers are little more than elements in a vast robotic system, receiving instructions in their cabs from their computerised managers, following orders on endless cycles until their shift ends.

Not that there isn't a certain amount of pride in their work, as regimented and alienating as it might seem – it's not unusual to see the cranes decorated with awards and badges announcing record breaking container shifting performances. At the same time it's also impossible not to be struck by the precariousness of their job security; with so much managed by the network it must surely only be a matter of time before the system evolves enough to remove the human element entirely. In fact, ports like Rotterdam in the Netherlands have already moved to fully automated systems, with driverless trucks and robotic cranes.

Stacked neighbours

Layer three, sat behind the cranes and trucks, is the most easily recognisable image from the whole process: the container stacks. From the bridge of the Seletar they look like row upon row of repeating, multicoloured Lego bricks, six units high, each straddled by multiple cranes – miniature versions of the ship loaders, sliding back and forth on rails. These cranes continually shuffle the position of the containers within the stacks themselves, following the algorithmic wisdom of the network to ensure everything is in the most efficient position possible; cargo heading backwards and forwards, inland and out.

At every port we arrived at, the three layers – cranes, trucks, containers – seemed fundamentally the same, standardised with only the occasional exception. The Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung uses small, fast moving, mini cranes instead of trucks – oddly top-heavy looking skeletal machines that bounce along on huge moon-buggy tyres. They swarm endlessly like busy robots, their blue or yellow frames smeared in grease and grime, discharging black clouds of diesel smog.

It's only layer four that displays any individualisation – the landscapes beyond the ports. In Busan it was housing blocks branded with corporation logos nestling beneath green mountains. And at Shanghai's Yangshan Deep Water Port it was the six-lane, 20 mile long Donghai bridge, built to carry the constant flow of container trucks in and out from the port, built on a vast artificial island.

Dark skies

After three days at sea, we reach the city of Ningbo. Arriving into port at night we are presented with an almost nightmare vision, a Blade Runner-like landscape of glowing lights and smokestacks painting the low cloud ceiling orange. We'd been delayed going in as the black shadow of a ship owned by French giant CMA CGM slid gently past. It towers above ours, with a startling 18,000 container capacity. As soon as we hit port-side the cranes fired into life, the trucks queuing up as though impatient to make up the delayed time.

The next morning, unable to sleep, I rise at 4.30am and head for the top of the ship again, eager to see the port in daylight. The industrial landscape in front of me is vast and awful: a huge coal burning power station fed directly by incoming bulk carrier ships sits right on the port-side, its towers filling the sky with black, while the landscape behind is filled with refineries, gas storage plants, and tightly huddled together housing blocks. You can not only see the pollution – the vast carbon footprint of this industrial network – but taste it in the air. As much talk and concern as there is in the West about the environmental impact of China's economic dominance, it's easy to forget how much of that impact the Chinese people are taking as a direct hit themselves, as much for the West’s benefit as their own.

It's not just onshore environments that containerisation has shaped and transformed. The surfaces of our planet's oceans – for centuries a space of mystery and myth, of expanse and desolation – have been rationalised and shrunk. Once an enigmatic, awe-inspiring place, the sea has become a zone of efficiency, little more than another channel for the automated supply chain network.

Over the course of seven days there wasn't a single time when I stood on the bridge of the Seletar, even when deep at sea, that I couldn't look out and see other container ships, and a brief scan of the horizon with binoculars would usually reveal four or five more. The implications are even more startling when nearing a port, and seeing dozens of vast ships held at anchorage, lined up like trucks in a parking lot. The sea has become dominated by GPS tracking and autopiloted navigation, where the shipping routes are more than just vague geographical gestures, but instead precise spaces traced out both by computerised charts and physical markers, with deep sea buoys marking lanes like the painted lines on road surfaces.

Human shift

Change the sea and change ships and it's impossible to not also change seafarers, although perhaps the impact containerisation has had on ship crews is a little more subtle. Certainly, like the crane and truck drivers back at the port, there's a certain sense of alienation from the cargo. Nobody on the ship knows what lies inside the containers the ship carries.

There are exceptions of course; hazardous materials must be declared, as must the contents of the refrigerated containers – known in the industry as reefers. The reefers themselves are fascinating pieces of technology, basic containers outfitted to be advanced climate controlled, computer monitored micro-environments. Checking the reefers are running is the crew’s only tangible, direct responsibility for the cargo beyond ensuring it arrives on time. Even so, it is still highly computer-controlled; the ship’s captain, Brian Argent, tells me that the crew's emails piggy-back off a satellite uplink designed keep an eye on the reefers, transmitting status updates thousands of miles back to land so that the company's computers know about a problem before the ship's crew does.

And that's not all the ship receives emails about: Maersk regularly sends Argent and his senior officers messages informing him of course changes or of what speed to take. Even the captain has become just another node in the network, the running of his ship dictated by the unseen algorithms.

The myth of the seafarer as the drunken adventurer with “a girl in every port” couldn't be further from the truth, with shore leave a rarity, and ports so far from urban centres that day leave excursions become little more than trips to out-of-town shopping malls to stock up on essentials such as shampoo, shower gel, and snacks. But for most of the Seletar's crew – made up of mainly Indian, Filipino, and Chinese seafarers – the reasons for going to sea are the same as they ever were:  to make money that can be sent home to their wives, children, and parents.

And even the sense of distance from their families shrunk, thanks to the Seletar’s satellite internet access. It's slow and patchy, but it's enough for the crew to maintain daily communication with home – with most of them spending a sizable chunk of their free time crouching in corridors and stairwells with smartphones and laptops, trying to find the elusive wi-fi signal so they can talk to home, send messages to loved ones, and connect to Facebook.

It's a fascinating sight at first, and within a few days I find myself doing the exact same thing. I'd initially thought it might be fun – healthy even – to truly escape the internet and life back home for a few days. That was before I realised what the Seletar really was, saw how it was just another node in the network, another rationalised point in the global infrastructure, a bridge between the physical and digital. Once I saw that, I knew it was time to abandon my romantic notions of being away at sea, that it was pointless to resist the lure of the network, and found myself squatting in the stairwell between Decks C and D, trying to get reconnected.

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Read the first instalment in this series, where Tim Maughan and the Unknown Fields group visits the Chinese city of Yiwu, the real home of Christmas.

This trip was organised and funded by the Unknown Fields Division, a group of architects, academics and designers at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.