Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 23 November 2014

Is the World really getting smaller?

I had one of those thoughts that I have that seems to fly in the face of accepted wisdom, so I thought I’d air it here and wait for comments.

The World is getting smaller all the time Or is it?

My grandparents didn’t travel. At least my Scottish grandparents travelled to England. They moved from Dundee, where generations of their families had lived, to Grimsby, a distance of 350 miles. It was far enough for them to break virtually all contact with their families and go it alone. They were strangers in a strange land. 

My English grandfather was ambitious for himself and then for his only child, and so he moved up and down the country, from Norfolk to Hampshire, to Cumbria and finally to Kent where he moved to Chartwell to take up the post of Sir Winston Churchill’s gardner in 1947. He remained there until his death in 1994.

During the first fifteen years of their marriage, my parents lived in five different towns and cities before settling down when my dad was forty.

I’m not sure that either of my parents owned a passport until they were in their fifties or sixties. My mother now travels the World, although my father is no longer able to accompany her.

Most family holidays in my childhood were taken in the UK. The population was mostly stable, my school friends remained constant, and people didn’t move house often.

Travel was expensive. Europe opened up in the seventies for family holidays, but only the most well-heeled of my friends went to France or Spain with their parents. It wasn’t until I was in secondary school that I knew of anyone travelling as far afield as New York. It was expensive and glamorous, and the rest of us were envious and impressed.

That sort of travel is now commonplace. We think nothing of hopping on a plane to cross the Atlantic, and Europe is merely a train ride away. We have friends who regularly visit from Australia. As a percentage of the average income, international travel is now perfectly affordable. People regularly honeymoon and even marry in destinations in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, taking their families with them.

When the husband started writing for American companies, phone bills were expensive, written material had to be sent by fax or mail and travel cost significantly more than it does now. E-mail was not a universal medium of communication and dial-up was slow and dropped out all too often. There was no such thing as conference calling, except in the movies, and Skype was an SF dream.

Of course times have changed. The mobile phone, e-mail, Skype, the computer age and cheap travel all appear to have made the World a much smaller place than it was, certainly in my childhood. Not only do I remember TV with three channels, I actually remember life without a television or a landline in the house. Now we have two landlines, various mobiles, tablets, laptops, desktops, a smart television (very new to us and introduced by the dort) and it’s all wi-fi-ed to the World via fibre-optic technology. 

The World is very much on our doorstep. Just so long as the technology is at the other end, we can be in touch with anyone anywhere, and we have access to a bonkers amount of stuff on the internet, of course.

Here’s the thing, though: Is the World really getting smaller? Does the evidence suggest that is our genuine perception? Is that our experience? Because, I don’t think it is.

I have a couple of theories about this.

Firstly, there’s the whole First World/ Third World divide. The chasm between the First World and Third World experiences becomes ever deeper and wider. My thinking is that while we spend our time in the First World that world seems pretty small, and perhaps it is getting smaller. It’s a damned big step to cross the divide and step into the Third World, and perhaps it’s getting increasingly difficult to do that, to find meaning there, to empathise with the people, to find any kind of connection. We condescend and we walk in and take over when it suits us or when devastation occurs, but do we ever begin to actually understand? I’m not sure we ever did, but I’m damned sure it’s getting harder to understand and not easier.

What made me begin to think about all of this, though was my recent experience with young people, the dort’s generation. Their World seems very small, and it seems to be getting smaller. I wonder whether that's all an illusion, though.

They travel, but they stay within their comfort zones. They know what they like and they like what they know, and they can get that stuff anywhere in the First World. They can drink coke and eat pizza and burgers all over the First World. They can shop in the same shops on any high street in the First World, drink the same beers, wines and cocktails, dance to the same music, watch the same movies, wear the same brand of jeans, speak the same language and hook up the same smart devices to the same old internet.
Not for nothing, when we get a couple of days to ourselves,
we travel locally in the UK to somewhere lovely.
This is the Landmark Trust's Warden Abbey, Bedfordshire

The thing is, they are in touch... They are SO in touch with each other all the time. They constantly talk on their phones, message one another and Skype. They do it when they are apart for only hours, let alone days or weeks. In theory, this level of communication should make the World seem small. We are all in touch as much as we want to be when we want to be.

My feeling is, though, watching these people, that actually, being so much in touch makes the World feel like a very big place. Being able to talk to someone they saw an hour ago makes them recognise the physical distance between them. Messaging, talking, e-mailing and skyping are constant reminders to these kids that they aren’t sitting in the same room, aren’t touching, aren’t sharing the same space, the same experiences, aren’t breathing the same atmosphere. 

When the husband and I were apart at university we wrote letters and got on with our lives. Young people don’t get that opportunity and suddenly distance, any distance seems insurmountable.

I don’t know, it’s just a thought, but I’ll leave you with this.

I know a young couple who’d been dating for several months when they decided to part because they didn’t think they could handle a long distance relationship. One of them was moving away for work. It was a good opportunity, a career move not to be missed. They parted on good terms. The move meant that they would be living seventy miles apart.

Perhaps for some of this generation the World isn’t getting smaller, perhaps for some of them it feels very big and very frightening.


  1. Have you thought that in poor countries people can't afford to travel. The richer the country the people are more mobile....

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  2. I agree that "Messaging, talking, e-mailing and skyping are constant reminders to these kids that they aren’t sitting in the same room, aren’t touching, aren’t sharing the same space, the same experiences, aren’t breathing the same atmosphere". Order Essay

  3. Hello. Is the world less the issue of course rhetorical. Times are changing, and our perception of the world is changing.
    You correctly said, not so many years ago a trip to another country - the unreasonable desire of many. Now it's a trifle. Provided of course that finance allows. That did not know what the Internet, mobile phones and satellite television were.
    But they had their own entertainment. First of all - they talked, went to discos, etc. They did not hurry to live in one word.
    Modern society, with our scientific inventions and capabilities, can afford a lot. But the real communication to us, for some reason replaced the Internet ...