Who Said “Technology Makes the World Smaller”?
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Who Said “Technology Makes the World Smaller”?

an embossed terracotta with a gorgon's head with some of the gorgon's hair and headcloth broken away leaving only pairs of sharp fangs, almond-shaped eyes, and curled hair
An antefix (cap for the end of the peak of a tiled roof) with a gorgon’s head from around 580/570 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The technology of mass-producing terracottas in moulds goes back to Old Babylonian Mesopotamia about 1200 years before this was made, and the headcloth shows that this Gorgon is influenced by Egyptian art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/248331 (Accession Number 10.210.44)

Today I will put on my Quote Investigator hat to ask a simple question: where did the cliche that technology makes the world smaller comes from? Back in 2005 Thomas Friedman had to torture metaphors to declare that The World is Flat because ‘the world is small’ was too common a topos in the business press. As I was refreshing my memory of the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals defending Kaiser Wilhelm’s invasion of Belgium, I noticed a familiar phrase in the pacifist counter-manifesto. That sent me to Google Books to look for parallels.

Die Welt ist durch die Technik kleiner geworden

Georg Friedrich Nicolai, Aufruf an die Europäer (October 1914) Wayback Machine

By the Contraction of the World, I mean the greater swiftness, ease, and safety with which men can pass from one part of it to another, or communicate with one another across great intervening spaces. This has the effect of making the world smaller for most practical purposes, while the absolute distance in latitude and longitude remains the same.

Hans Ferdinand Helmolt, The History of the World, Volume 1 (1901) (original German title Weltgeschichte) p. LIII https://www.google.ca/books/edition/The_History_of_the_World_a_Survey_of_a_M/nRwFAAAAYAAJ?hl=en

“The use of the horse for riding and carrying burdens made the world smaller.”

Zoe Agnes Thralls, C. H. MacFadden, Milton Venezky, Joe Russell Whitaker, eds., The World, Its Lands and Peoples (Harcourt, Brace: 1948) pp. 2, 3 https://www.google.ca/books/edition/The_World_Its_Lands_and_Peoples/xtIKAQAAIAAJ?hl=en

I can’t help but quote one more passage for its luscious language which inspired the dream-like image of dancing the world smaller.

This is a small world. We must make it smaller. And only men and good will can make it stronger.

Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe, speech to an African dance festival at Carnegie Hall before 14 December 1943 (reported by journalist Henry Simmons, quoted in Dancing the World Smaller: Staging Globalism in Mid-Century America by Rebekah J. Kowal p. 8) https://www.google.ca/books/edition/Dancing_the_World_Smaller/mx2yDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22the+world+smaller%22&pg=PA8&printsec=frontcover

So in Germany at the end of the globalization that was interrupted by the First World War, there was an idea that modern means of transportation (and practices like the post office, standardized national languages, free schooling, and standardized national law codes) were making the world smaller. ‘Big ideas’ books in English before the Second World War tended to be translations from German, French, or Russian.

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(scheduled 6 November 2023)

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2 thoughts on “Who Said “Technology Makes the World Smaller”?

  1. Andrew Gelman says:

    Relatedly, here’s George Orwell from 1945 (https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/you-and-the-atom-bomb/): “We were once told that the aeroplane had “abolished frontiers”; actually it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that frontiers have become definitely impassable. The radio was once expected to promote international understanding and co-operation; it has turned out to be a means of insulating one nation from another.”

    1. Sean says:

      More evidence that this idea was going around in the early 20th century!

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