Object 35

Circumnavigation Passport

2030, Norway

Picture a line of longitude sweeping around the world. For eight hours every day, it moves at a speed of 10km per hour; in 500 days, this line will circumnavigate the world. If you slowed it down to a walking pace, a revolution would take nearly three years. At a sprinting speed, it would take only eight months.

It's the sweep of this line that bearers of Circumnavigation Passports followed on their journeys around the world, a steady pace that prevented them from ‘skipping’ countries or regions. Their goal wasn't speed; hypersonic planes could already fly halfway around the world in four hours. Rather, the Passport exposed people to the variety and serendipity of travel in a slower, unhurried fashion, and hopefully (but not necessarily) imparted some wisdom and empathy along the way.

I have a copy of Anita Ko's CP10 Circumnavigation Passport (or CP) here. It bears seals from the United Nations, her home country of Norway, and a Braid-derived online education co-operative. The passport grants her the right to use public transport in more than 220 countries at highly subsidised rates for 500 days, based on an adaptive schedule.

By 2030, practically all passports and equivalent forms of identification were wholly digital, which made it easy to attach the CP alongside as a digital token. However, many circumnavigators requested a physical version like Anita's; call it a cliched affectation, but they saw it as an important reminder of how difficult international travel used to be, when border controls alone took two hours instead of 20 seconds. Getting your CP physically stamped was a ritual that linked you to your ancestors, and just as importantly, introduced you to interesting fellow travellers.

Other rituals and traditions developed among circumnavigators. Some made a point of attempting to travel the world in as many different ways as they could come up with, from bicycles to trains to cars to even, oddly, walking. Others declared the superiority of taking only a single form of transport, such as buses or ships; this was widely regarded as cheating unless travellers did it in an 'interesting' manner. Some particularly adventurous (or foolhardy) circumnavigators used self-powered transport to travel all the way around the world, meeting as many new people as possible en route.

Anita's CP20 documents her travels surprisingly well; her cycle along the Silk Road, her walk across Turkey, and her train rides through Europe. It contains jotted observations and sketches of places she visited and people she met and is supplemented in exhaustive detail by her digital records, kindly shown to me by her son.

Despite its professed high-minded goal of broadening young people's horizons and promoting international dialogue, Circumnavigation Passports were originally conceived as a lifeline for ailing mass-transit networks, which by the late 20s and 30s were seeing serious competition from driverless cars. Transit expert Bill Templeton explains:

"Governments in Europe and Asia were being lobbied by mass-transit executives desperate for a rescue. Because most state aid rules prevented any kind of direct help, their clever idea was for the government to subsidise non-car public transit under the guise of promoting integrated cross-border transit networks and educating the youth."

After the initial five-year CP programme ended, funding was reduced, but co-ops and private donors stepped in, impressed by the effect the experience had on the circumnavigators. One of the first major changes was to open the programme up to all ages rather than just young people. CPs were seen as a generally good and relatively cheap experience for any curious or smart person — a ritual and a trial, not unlike the pilgrimages of old. They stood in stark contrast to the pampered artifice of virtual tours and holidays. Indeed, a CP journey was regarded as being valuable if only to show the naive that physical reality was not adequately represented in virtual environments, whether by design or by technological limitations.

More positively, CPs encouraged the kinds of serendipitous insights and encounters that still elude simulation today — the rise of the sun over an abandoned skyscraper, the chance meeting with an online friend at a remote train station.

In 2051, Anita left her CP20 to her son, who carried it with him on his own circumnavigation; that's when I first encountered him at King's Cross Station in London many years ago. Travel may be easier today than it was for Anita, but the experience of following that line as it sweeps around the world is no less valuable.