I’m a political mongrel. Over my life, I’ve voted across the political spectrum. Whenever I do those slightly dodgy-feeling political surveys, that always feel like a precursor to ads for erectile dysfunction meds or weight loss pills, I always end up being spread across the various spectra. I have tendencies that cover progressive and conservative making it really hard for the pollsters to work out which way I’ll swing in any election.

One of the areas in which my views are inconsistent is that of economics. While I like the idea of the market economy, I also have a penchant for localism and a return to artisnal approaches. While I am attracted to the efficiency benefits that an Adam Smtih-esque specialization brings, I’m also cognizant of the resilience that comes from a contrary approach.

So while I benefit as a consumer from the global market, it does leave me feeling a little bit uncomfortable at the impact it places on people and the planet. Recently that discomfort was tested as I saw some of those impacts.

On our recent European sojourn, we clocked up 5000 kilometres driving around Central and Eastern Europe. Our preference was to stick to secondary roads which, while slower, gave us an awesome insight into the various small towns and villages in the European heartland. Sometimes, however, time constraints meant we had to use highways and the difference between what we saw in these two contexts got me thinking.

The biggest difference in the roading network through Europe between my OE experience of cycle-touring in the 90s and our experience recently was the massive network of multi-lane highways that have been blasted across the landscape. Even former Soviet-block countries now sport six or eight-lane highways that cross countries with no sympathy for the landscape, the topography or the residents. We saw historical villages sliced in half by monstrous roading projects, huge viaducts built that destroyed the former picturesque views enjoyed by rural communities and a transport network that has, in one fell swoop, destroyed the viability of a plethora of rural communities.

I totally get that if you want to move products from Budapest to Brussels, or from Paris to Poprad, it’s a lot faster to do so on a road network that allows continuous driving at speed. While it’s really fun to go from village to village, all that dropping down to village speed makes a huge impact on total travel time. But all of that slowing down means that people pass through those aforementioned villages and visit their bakeries, restaurants and accommodation offerings.

The roading network that is built point-to-point between small communities is exactly the thing that keeps those communities viable. What we observed was the collateral damage caused by a roading network that is designed for big cities and long-distance. The smaller communities atrophy as the number of people passing through them craters. Meanwhile, those big arterial routes help fuel urban drift. The young people, those who will ensure the continuation of those communities, move away, doubling the impacts on those smaller communities. The net result is depressed communities that are populated by older inhabitants.

The other observation that got me thinking on our trip was the other huge development that has spread like a metastasizing tumour across the landscape. I refer to the proliferation of gargantuan distribution centres – massive single-span cavernous buildings that are the hubs of commerce. They have a perpetual mass of articulated truck and trailer units that, like ants scurrying around a colony, disgorge their contents from a far-off manufacturing base and pick up other items for a customer base somewhere else.

It was only 30 years ago, during my previous extended trip around Europe, that I got to experience the various regional differences in products and services – the famous Hungarian pickles, the incredible Danish furniture and, believe it or not, Phillips HiFi equipment actually made in Holland. Today everything is the same. Every decent-sized European city has its allotment of McDonalds, Starbucks, Ikea and Decathlon stores. Those regional differences have gone and what has replaced them is an ersatz sameness that leaves one feeling they ever left home at all.

I know it’s a plaintive cry, the Genie has left the bottle and this is what a global market looks like. But seriously, it kind of sucks. While being vanilla – whether its furniture, food or political viewpoints – may be logical specialisation, it certainly means that what is special about the differences between people is lost. And that seems a shame to me.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • I think your feelings will resonate with a lot of readers. As an immigrant to New Zealand, I am always very excited and disappointed when something from my Canadian life shows up here, with or without the price point. It’s one thing to want Starbucks, or Leucttherm notebooks, or cherry-flavour sugar-free chewing gum, but it’s something else to actually get it, and watch it squeeze out something you didn’t know you’d grown to love (coffee carts, the bookbinder in Oamaru, and I’m still waiting on the gum). Economics and ethics aside, poetically, globalization is bittersweet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.