Two books that I recently read, Maphead and The Ascent of Money, share a central theme. Each of their authors feels that the impact and importance of his subject is not fully appreciated. I agree. Geography and finance are at the core of the progress of human history, but unfortunately they suffer from the same drawback. They are hard to personify because the do not easily submit to a linear narrative.
Take geography, in Maphead Ken Jennings points out the books are read word after word after word while maps are scanned in a variety of directions. Maps are often get children interested in geography, but few people carry this interest into adulthood. That is a shame because a solid understanding of geography contributes a great deal of understanding to the challenges facing the world today. As a species, we still very much depend on natural resources and agriculture. Understanding where resources are located, their uses, and their impacts can add insight. The Middle East is an obvious example. The South China Sea is another, America’s “bread basked” is another. Unfortunately, we have lost a very subtle understanding of how climate and the distribution of resources powers trade, and in turn how trade impacts the relationships between nations. We prefer to focus on the personalities of the countries’ leader. I would suggest the the leaders are more a the mercy of geography than they would like to admit. A web of connections is hard to tie up in an easy narrative or a human personality, and as such it is more difficult for us extract its insights.
Finance has a similar problem. Niall Ferguson argues that finance is a very much undervalued as a contributor to world dynamics. Spain’s dependence on gold bullion and the Confederate States’ dependence on selling cotton-backed bonds both had major impacts on the course of history. Yet the interconnected web of financial relationships is very difficult to put into a narrative. Movies have always struggled if they ever try to do more than scratch the surface of the financial system. It is just too complicated.
One of the challenges that we will all face as we push forward to is to make sense of these interconnected systems. Early in human history, developing sequential narratives captured much of the complexity facing the peoples lives. As technology allows people to increasing view an entire landscapes of connections rather than just a sequence of events, we will increasingly need new tools to help us to interpret these landscapes. Jennings and Ferguson point out the importance, and usefulness, of understanding both geography and finance, but we do need to do a better job of creating a context which allows these topics to be understood by anyone other than a Jeopardy champion or a Harvard Business School professor.