Using GIS to Analyze the Death of Distance Hypothesis

Mark Altaweel


The Death of Distance hypothesis states that the Internet will make many things that were previously limited by distance, primarily communication and transmission of information, no longer affected by distance. This was a hypothesis prominently stated by Cairncross in the book The Death of Distance.[1]

Studies Using GIS to Analyze Patterns of Spatial Correlation and the Internet

Earlier works by Wang et al. (2003) showed that the hypothesis was not accurate in relation to the Internet, where GIS analysis, which mapped distances of major hub sites associated with higher education institutions, as revealed by their hyperlinks, found that distance has a major correlation to which university sites were most heavily used. In effect, even in the Internet Age distance mattered, as sites with more Internet traffic were found in major population centers.[2] While one could argue that the earlier study by Wang et al. was conducted at a time when online infrastructure was still too new to allow other regions to become major Internet infrastructural hubs, follow on studies conducted more recently have shown the patterns of spatial correlation and the Internet has persisted. A study by Nijkamp (2013) has shown that the intensity of IP connectivity is higher between neighboring regions. Major hubs appear to develop around each other, where the location of one hub is found to be near other hubs in high population regions. At an economic level, their study showed that regions, which are well integrated with the larger global economy, are more likely to benefit from higher levels of connectivity.[3] Economic, social, and infrastructural patterns appear to form a feedback that makes even the Internet dependent on spatial patterning. In other cases, online social relationships between professionals, such as university teachers, appears to also be affected by distance.[4] These recent studies show that geographic factors continue to play a strong role in regulating social, economic, and general Internet use despite technologies that was purported to mitigate the effect of distance.

Social ties among U.S. universities. From: Spiro, Almquist, and Butts, 2016.
Social ties among U.S. universities. From: Spiro, Almquist, and Butts, 2016.


[1] For more on the Death of Distance hypothesis, see: Cairncross, Frances. 1997. The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

[2] For more on the study by Wang et al., see:  Wang, Yong, Phillip Lai, and Daniel Sui. 2003. “Mapping the Internet Using GIS: The Death of Distance Hypothesis Revisited.” Journal of Geographical Systems 5 (4): 381–405. doi:10.1007/s10109-003-0117-9.

[3] For more information on this recent study, see: Tranos, Emmanouil, and Peter Nijkamp. 2013. “The death of distance revisited: Cyber‐place, physical and relational proximities.” Journal of Regional Science 53 (5): 855–73. doi:10.1111/jors.12021.

[4] For more information on how online social relationships are affected by distance, see: Spiro, E. S., Z. W. Almquist, and C. T. Butts. 2016. “The Persistence of Division: Geography, Institutions, and Online Friendship Ties.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 2 (0). doi:10.1177/2378023116634340.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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