A Boston-area comedian by the name of Steven Wright used to say, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.” Well, that tells you more about my sense of humor than about geography, but it’s true – it is a small world. And it’s getting smaller and smaller.
What one usually means by “small” in this context is that it’s easier to get around. Not just because travel is faster in the days of jet planes than it was in the days of caravans, but it’s because foreign places aren’t as, well, foreign as they used to be.
Just 30-ish years ago (ish is too many) I had to bring enough cash with me wherever I went to cover the needs of my trip because ATMs didn’t exist. I couldn’t (well, wouldn’t) call home because it was horribly expensive. That is if I could figure out how to use the phone. I didn’t stay in touch with home at all because there was no email, no IM and no internet for Facebook or Twitter or anything else.
It wasn’t so easy to plan my travel. I had to go to the library or a bookstore to get travel guides. How did I survive without those web sites that today allow you to do a video walk through of your hotel room? Or see the menu at the restaurant you want to go to? Or get every detail about just about everything?
Okay, so travel has gotten easier. But I’m not sure that I’m completely happy with the situation
Being in Paris or Tokyo or Sao Paulo used to mean experiencing foreign things. That is, things that I couldn’t experience at home. I could buy things that weren’t available at home. I could eat things that I couldn’t find at home. I could see things that I couldn’t see at home. Traveling was foreign in a bad way – hard – but it was also foreign in a good way – different.
No longer. Today, in major cities around the world, you can buy and eat just about anything from anywhere. The only form of art from anywhere that you can’t see in your local museum is architecture (it’s hard to put a building on tour), but architecture is copied everywhere (not just in Las Vegas).
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? And what caused the change?
I think that the good or bad question is a personal one. For me the jury is out. Shopping and eating aren’t major attractions of travel for me anymore. I miss bringing home special (you can’t find it at home) things, and I miss describing the “exotic” things that I ate that nobody else had ever eaten (or maybe even heard of). But I certainly like having to deal with fewer currencies, using credit cards that are universally accepted (if I’m not over my credit limit) and being able to plan with less effort. When I’m on business I appreciate being constantly connected by voice and various e-methods. When I’m not working (which isn’t often), my wife will tell you that it’s not so great for me to be constantly connected. But that’s another topic.
For humanity, I think it’s a good thing. I think that “foreign” has more bad connotations than good ones, and I’m glad that humanity is more closely connected than it’s ever been. It’s harder to hate someone who you understand than someone who seems foreign.
As far as what caused this huge change, there’s no doubt in my mind – it's technology. Modern communications and travel, the internet and automatic translators are all creations of technology. So if you are working in a high tech industry or studying engineering, math or science, you are part of “The Great Shrinker”. Help further the good aspects. You’re probably too young to miss the romance of what we’ve left behind ;)