Home > Uncategorized > Mapping the Contemporary Iron Curtain

Mapping the Contemporary Iron Curtain

Last winter, an intern at Facebook created the above graphic, which represents ten million “friendships” on the social networking site with a thin blue arc connecting the real world locations of the users. The result was astonishing. By plotting this data, Paul Butler created a recognizable world map, which displayed not only Facebook friendships, but also continents, oceans, and countries. Paul wrote about the project and commented, “What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships.” Yet, a cursory inspection of the map is enough to realize that the lines often DO imitate political boundaries. Although they do not represent borders themselves, the Facebook map reinforces their presence and significance in our lives, which is perhaps more profound than we realize.

Look at this map carefully and you can clearly see the shadow of East Germany in a significantly less-dense field of Facebook users. This map suggests that despite our increasingly globalized civilization, political borders still determine the way we live, work, and socialize in a way that is self-perpetuating.  By examining a variety of contemporary maps, it will become clear that although the Iron Curtain fell 21 years ago, it is still a deeply felt reality beyond the traditional political map of Europe.

Consider this map of Europe (above) during the Cold War and compare it against the subsequent maps. You’ll see startling similarities.

Contemporary Maps and Statistics

The most startling examples are economic. Unemployment is higher, and income is lower almost across the board in areas once behind the Iron Curtain. Most strikingly, note the presence of our phantom East Germany, sharply distinguished from its western counterpart in each map.

Unemployment Rate

Average Weekly Hours

GDP per Inhabitant

Internet access and broadband connections in households

The map to the left is about internet access, and how prevalent it is an given region. Again, notice the significant gap behind the Iron Curtain. This statistic seems like the odd man out, but is likely rooted in the economic struggle Eastern Europe faced under Communist rule, and the subsequent discrepancy in technological and industrial development. It also goes a long way toward explaining our Facebook graphic-it’s difficult to have online friendships when you don’t have internet access.

Pupils at primary and lower-secondary education, as a percentage of total population

Here’s another off-topic statistic: countries once behind the Iron Curtain are more likely to have a lower percentage of their population in school at the primary and lower-secondary levels. What does this mean? There are fewer young people in the East. Especially, less young, educated people. The problem of young talent fleeing the East was a large factor in the construction of structures like the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall. It continues to plague these regions today, and the trend will probably continue as long as GDP and economic well-being (and internet access!) is at stake. And this time, there’s no physical border to stop them, only this invisible one, which lures migrants across.

It’s also important to note that there are a lot of maps and statistics from Eurostat that DO NOT show any sort of lingering east/west divide. These include things as diverse as: farming structure, transport infrastructure, and fatal diseases of the respiratory system. And, many statistics can be attributed to things like climate that are much larger than any political border.

However, the maps and the data they represent suggest that overall, Eastern Europe, specifically countries that were east of the Iron Curtain, are still behind their Western counterparts, economically and technologically. Furthermore, it is the lingering effect of Europe’s division that is to blame. Quite frankly, many people would not find it surprising that countries like Poland, Belarus, even the Czech Republic are a bit behind. Yet, the repeated appearance of the phantom East Germany on these maps is strong evidence that the gap is directly related to the Iron Curtain and its continued legacy.

The Recession and Conclusions

This issue has been dragged into the spotlight in European responses to the recent recession. As bailouts and debt were first hotly debated in 2008, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek both voiced their fears of a new divide in Europe. Their countries’ economies are struggling, yet they desperately wish to avoid more debt owed to Western Europe. Gyurcsany actually invoked the term “iron curtain” while Topolanek warned against “new dividing lines” and a “Europe divided along a North-South or an East-West line.” Unsurprisingly, the recession hit hardest in weak economies once behind the Iron Curtain. As the Eurozone struggles to pull itself together, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore this touchy fact.

What can we learn from these maps?

  • The Iron Curtain lives on as an economic and social gap between East and West Europe and remains tied to an identifiable place on the map.
  • Political borders go way deeper than bureaucracy and citizenship. They permeate all aspects of economics, society, daily life, and will continue to do so long after their demise.
  • Is the gap self-perpetuating? When considering the data represented in the above maps in conjunction with the Facebook graphic, it’s easy to make the case that the Iron Curtain has spilled into a younger generation, despite the march of globalization. If this is true, it’s hard to predict when its legacy will no longer negatively impact the present day economics and overall well-being of Eastern Europe, especially in under the pressure of a global recession that threatens the stability of the European Economic Union.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 24, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I think the mere fact of the persistence of borders is something that needs to be pointed out again and again, especially given what I believe is the romantic desire of so many people (Butler, the journalist/bestselling author Thomas Friedman, and a number of scholars who should really know better) to celebrate their supposed irrelevance.

    Because I’m an Americanist, I can’t help comparing this to the persistence of racism in the U.S. We’re eager to celebrate the progress we’ve made–the end of de jure segregation, the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement, the increasingly broad awareness of, and sensitivity to, casual expressions of prejudice. But when one looks at statistical evidence of poverty, incarceration, unemployment, and yes, maps of where people live, it is clear that de facto segregation persists (and has even gotten worse, in some respects, over the last few decades).

    It seems to me that the main difference between the American notion that racism is a thing of the past and the romantic view of globalization exemplified by Butler’s willfully blind reading of the Facebook map is that the former view has no standing among academics and serious thinkers. I don’t think the latter view should, either, but it does–which is why I’m so pleased to see you responding to it with these insightful observations.

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