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Visualizing Our Shrinking World

Posted January 11, 2016

It is a frequently heard truism of globalization that we live in an ever-shrinking world, especially so these days with advances in transportation, technology and communications now making it possible to do business around the planet almost irrespective of location.

One way to visually realize the true measure of the progress made in this regard over the past century was provided recently by The Telegraph newspaper, which published an “isochronic” map of the world obtained from the 1907 Atlas of the World’s Commerce.

Drafted by John George Bartholomew, a royal cartographer employed by King George V, the vintage map displayed various global regions based on lines connecting all the various points on the map accessible within the same amount of time from the capital of Britain’s empire. For example, at the time the map was devised, it took between 35-40 days to travel the roughly 13,400 nautical miles from London to Sydney, Australia. Today, the same trip takes just 23 hours by air.

This weekend, the paper updated the original map by recalculating the figures with current data from the contemporary world. It’s perhaps worth noting that in doing so, the upmost benchmark for measuring distance has gone from 40 days or greater to that of 1½ days or more, a decrease of over 96%.  

For another isochronic view of the world without a fixed point, the World Bank included one in its 2009 development report, Reshaping Economic Geography. The bank’s map represented every point on the globe by travel time to the nearest urban centre and showed that roughly 90% of the entire surface of the globe is now within reach of a large city in under 48 hours.