A Shrinking World (for some)

A (rich) world on the go.

It’s now 6.15 am on Monday February 27, and I am sipping a cup of coffee in Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok’s gleaming and vast international air gateway.

I arrived here late last night on a journey that began on Saturday in Richmond, Virginia, when I boarded 7.40am flight for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. There I connected to a 16-hour nonstop flight to Hong Kong, followed by a short 2 1/2 hour hop to Bankgkok. In an hour or so, I will leave here on Thai Airways for Phnom Penh, a journey of less than an hour. All being well, I will reach my final destination some 37 hours after departure; of that time, I will have spent about 22 hours in the air.

This sounds like a grueling journey and, sitting in a cramped economy class seat of a full aircraft, I must admit that it is an experience I did not relish. But then I got to thinking about the discussion we had in one of my classes last week about the first European ships making their from Lisbon to Malacca (in modern-day Malaysia) in the early 1500s. This journey, which would have covered a distance roughly the same as mine, took the better part of a year. Sailors were cramped onto tiny, dangerous, and unhygienic ships, and it was not uncommon for a majority of them to die of disease during the journey (or for them all to die if the ship sank or was attacked.)

The coming of steam travel in the 1800s greatly shortened travel times, as shown clearly by the graph below, charting the dramatic decline in travel time between England and Australia over the past two centuries by sea, and, from the 1930s by air. The distance between the two places, in kilometers, remained the same, but the time, cost, and difficulty of traveling it, the friction of distance, has declined dramatically.

Two graphs showing the decline in travel times between England and Australia. The top graph shows times for sea travel, starting in 1788 with the First Fleet, which took about a year to make the journey, and ending in 2000, when the trip took less than 25 days. The lower graph shows air travel, 16 days in 1930, and less than a day in 2000.

The concept of friction of distance applies not just to people, of course, but also to goods.  When those Portuguese explorers headed for Southeast Asia five centuries ago, their main objective was bring back one of the very few commodities that could be transported half way around the world and still realize a profit back home. Spices were compact, light, and immensely valuable; transportation costs would have made it prohibitively expensive to haul back anything bulkier, heavier, or cheaper. Today, monstrous tankers carry oil from the Persian Gulf to House at a cost of 1 1/2 cents per liter, and the cost of shipping jeans or sneakers from Vietnam to the US is insignificant compared to the labor costs saved by paying textile workers Vietnamese rather than U.S. wages.  In the northern hemisphere winter we eat fruit grown in Chile and South Africa, and sent at minimal cost to our supermarkets.

A row of cargo containers on the quayside at Singapore harbor, with the high-rise building of the city center in the background.

Part of Singapore’s vast container port, the world’s busiest until 2011, the year I took this photograph. Shanghai now has top place.

The dramatic drop in shipping costs is not simply the result of new high tech supertankers and cargo ships. A much simpler low-tech invention has been responsible for a dramatic decline in transportation over the past 50 years or so. The invention is the lowly cargo container, which has reduced costs largely by considerably reducing the number of people needed to load and unload good from trucks or trains, into warehouses, and onto ships (and to repeat the process at the destination). Packing a ship’s hold with bags, boxes, and pallets of cargo, distributing its weight in a safe way, and loading it in the reverse order it was to be unloaded took many skilled dockworkers, cost a lot of money, and took a long time. Today handful of workers operating giant cranes and aided by a computer can unload and re load a ship in hours.

The greatest reduction in the friction of distance has come not for people or cargo, but for information. Until the adoption of the telegraph in the middle of the 19th century, information could only move as fast as people or goods. Today, the friction of distance for digital data has essentially disappeared.

Most of us who live in the era of fast and cheap transportation take them for granted, and don’t give them a second thought. But declining frictions of distance have fundamentally shaped almost every aspect of human life in a very short period of historic time.

My grandmother, born in 1896, grew up just 15 km from the farming village where her great-great-grandfather was born in more than a century earlier. Most of her forebears probably seldom if ever ventured very far from their places of birth.  By the time my grandmother was 10 years old, a journey from England to South Africa took just over two weeks by steamship, and cost the equivalent of about two months wages for a skilled craftsman, or six months income for an English farm worker. My journey from Richmond to Phnom Penh cost around $750 each way, about 1/43rd of the 2010 per capita median income for Virginia.

There is a billboard advertisement here at Suvarnabhumi Airport noting that “Right now, there are 500,000 people in the air.” Not only is that figure higher that at any other time in history, but those people are traveling greater distances faster and at lower cost than their ancestors could possibly have imagined.

But those 500,000 people remain a small minority of the human population. Even as some of us marvel at (or don’t even notice) the changes in friction of distance and what these changes have wrought over the past century or two, it is important to bear in mind that the lives of many people have been affected only minimally by new and cheaper transportation and communication technologies. I have met rural people in South Africa who live the better part of a day’s walk from the nearest clinic, and farmers in Cambodia who have never seen the sea, even though it is less than a hundred kilometers from where they live. People like these – and there are billions of them – travel about as much as my great-great-great grandfather’s generation did in Wales. Nearly half of the world’s population does not have electricity, so the speed of digital communications has little impact on them.

If overcoming frictions of distance using new technologies of transportation and communication results in an ever-increasing gap between the world’s rich and poor, it will be solving some of humanity’s problems while leaving others unaddressed. And which is more important, getting a Virginia college professor to Cambodia in less than a day, or making sure than a pregnant woman in eastern Congo can get to a clinic in the same amount of time?


  1. The graph of transportation times come from a fascinating article, ‘Time, travel, and infection‘ written by geographers Andrew Cliff and Peter Haggett, and published in the British Medical Bulletin.
  2. The history of shipping containers sounds as though it should be a thoroughly boring topic for all but the most earnest historians of business logistics. It is, in fact, a fascinating subject, and essential to any meaningful understanding of the processes of globalization. For a glimpse of the topic, take a look at The Box, a Special Report in which the BBC follows a cargo container as it travels around the world for a year. For a book-length description of the history and impact of the cargo container, I recommend Marc Levinson’s 2006 book also called The Box (reviewed here.)

Update: For my tongue-in-cheek view of the almost frictionless travel of the One Percent, see this video of the One Percent on the ground, and this of the One Percent aloft.


One Response

  1. Shilpa Sadarangani July 23, 2012

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