The global shipping industry has completely transformed our world: Today, 90 per cent of everything in your life arrives via cargo ship. These two maps prove just how dramatically international trade has increased, by comparing the oceans of the 19th century with those of the late 20th.
Ben Schmidt, an assistant history professor at Northeastern University, culled decades of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set to create a series of maps that show shipping lanes in black against a simple white backdrop.
The visualisations lay bare the sheer volume of stuff that’s trekked across our oceans these days. Two maps pointed out by QZ, in particular, illustrate the revolution in shipping. One shows routes in the 19th century:
And the other shows routes from 1980 to 1997 — when our contemporary global economy had already emerged:
The contrast is wild. It’s not just a boom in volume, but also in precision. The 19th century map is hazy and vague, with ships curling in and out of traditional routes, while the contemporary map is a study in precision mapping.
The two maps also depict a more shadowy shift, as Schmidt points out. In the 1800s, this was how America (and other nations) gleaned intelligence about the world around it:
It’s a relatively complete view, on the other hand, of something more restricted but nearly as interesting: the way that the 19th century American state was able to see and take measure of the world. No one, today, needs to be told that patterns of state surveillance, data collection, and storage are immensely important. Charts like these provide an interesting and important locus for seeing how states “saw,” to commandeer a phrase from James Scott.