Let’s start again with the Durants :
Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining horne. Its rivers, lakes, oases, and oceans draw settlers to their shores, for water is the life of organisms and towns, and offers inexpensive roads for transport and trade. Egypt was “the gift of the Nile,” and Mesopotamia built successive civilizations “between the rivers” and along their effluent canals. India was the daughter of the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges; China owed its life and sorrows to the great rivers that (like ourselves) often wandered from their proper beds and fertilized the neighborhood with their overflow. Italy adorned the valleys of the Tiber, the Arno, and the Po. Austria grew along the Danube, Germany along the Elbe and the Rhine, France along the Rhone, the Loire, and the Seine. Petra and Palmyra were nourished by oases in the desert.
If Egypt was the gift of the Nile, Rome the gift of the Tiber, and even Montreal the gift of the St. Lawrence – the products of man’s technological leveraging of water’s buoyancy to lift people and products far, far afield – then waterborne ships were the first extractor of humankind from his narrow geographic confines, that imposed by his terrestrial bipedalism. Human tribes in closer proximity to water were provided a more stable climate and more consistent food source than plains or mountains peoples, allowing for the greater-than-base productive capacity needed to develop civilisation.
It was at the forks of rivers and mouths of seas that the earliest peoples were able to flourish above their primitive ancestors for the first time. Thus, water provided humanity with the opportunity to produce commerce and culture of previously unparalleled heights. It was the harnessing H₂O that separated man from beast.
This era of civilisation lasted for some six thousand years from the time of the Pharoahs until the early Industrial Revolution. In that time, though successively larger seafaring vessels were developed, and though history’s greatest culture and civilisations rose and fell, man and his ideas moved no greater than the speed of wind across the waters.
It wasn’t until steam engines in the 1700s that sea travel quickened, and not until the late 19th century when the locomotive train transformed the continents that technology so completely redrew the maps of the world. With steam boats and trains, transportation of supplies, labour, and ideas became vastly more efficient and far more reliable.
The development of the airplane will again alter the map of civilisation. Trade routes will follow less and less the rivers and seas ; men and goods will be flown more and more directly to their goal.
Then came the airplane, which, for the second time in a century, tore up the rulebook and thrust young men farther and faster than their fathers could’ve imagined. While materials were prohibitively expensivei to move through the skies, men proved to be a perfect parcel for aeronautical portage. Whether for leisure or business, air travel has shrunken the globe and turned once remote locales requiring season-long time commitments into weekend pitstops.
Not that the personal car was anything to sneeze at, allowing as it did for an independence and decentralisation of decision-making unheralded in human history. Man no longer needed to consult a timetable or buy a ticket to travel to the next city, he was free to move when he wanted to move ; and move he did ! In the 20th century, more than ever before, man enjoyed emancipation from fixed location. It was a glorious time – one filled with boundless optimism – and yet its supremacy was all-too fleeting.
Enter : the Internet, the 21st century’s trump card and already on track to divide and redraw the world into ever-smaller nuggets. On the shoulders of the worldwide web, this information superhighway in the clouds upon which you read these words, the group’s ability to overpower the individual has been overcome quite entirely… with a little help from encryption, naturally.
Today, there exists the ability to transmit uninterdictable communication (PGP) and value (Bitcoin) at a piddling fraction of what these would’ve cost just 100 years ago, to say nothing of 1,000 years ago. What was once the purview of a handful of patient princes and knightly nobles is now available, if not exactly accessible, to thousands upon thousands of men the world over. We are witnessing the plunging of final stake in geography’s coffin.ii
So Auf Wiedersehen, arriverderci, ciao, tschüss, sayonara, see ya, au revoir, until next time, do svidaniya, catch ya on the flip side, so long and thanks for all the fish, it’s been swell, ’twas fun while it lasted…
This is what the death of geography means to you :
I : There’s never been a better time to be world-class and to align yourself with the people who are. If you’re an opera singer (or their manager), you’re no longer limited by the number of people you can pack into a local theatre, or the number of days you can spend on the road before you burn out. The world is yours for the taking.
II : There’s never been a better time to have skills and provide services that require physical interaction and specialised training. Dentists have as secure of a future as anyone, masseuses idem. Government “inspectors” are fucked and so are social media “experts.”
III : Housing costs will increasingly reflect access to clean food, air, water, and gigabit Internet. The strength of “the local economy” will be a consideration of diminishing value as the size of local economies will necessarily pale in comparison to that of the économie DI. So don’t go running into a mortgage just because your parents’ house went up 500% over 30 years. If such a thing happens again, it’ll be because your dollars are 1/6th as valuable and not because you’re some sage investor.
IV : Contracts, politics, art, culture, and business will never be the same.
Oh are you scared yet ? Or perhaps a little excited ? Tell me. I’d quite like to know.
The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact ; and only a similar combination (as in Israel today) can make a culture take form over a thousand natural obstacles. Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
The question then becomes : what does a civilisation without geography look like ?
That’s what I and the rest of The Most Serene Republic intend to find out. So far, it’s looking a lot less like a socialist democracy and a lot more like a monarchy with supporting aristocracy.
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- Air transportation of materials will continue to be relatively expensive until drop-shipping by drones changes the game yet again. But who knows, that could be a few decades from now. [↩]
- As you’ll likely observed, port cities such as Singapore, London, and New York have adapted to the advent of airplanes and the resulting economics pressures by redefining themselves as purveyors of finance. The world’s largest banks and stock exchanges are now located in these locales. But only for now. There’s no protecting the unbathed from the bathed, the passive from the active, the physical from the digital. [↩]