Indulge for a moment a pet theory of mine — that the easy availability of the rapid transportation of people and ideas contributes most significantly to defining a civilization.
The rise of stable democracies coincides, at least to some extent, with the invention of the telephone, fiber-optic cables, and the unitary, hegemonic western culture that results from the combination of the two. This I have to state without support, but there’s adequate anecdotal evidence to support the theory — for both Rome and America, internal transportation bound together the imperial homeland. Eisenhower’s interstate system defined American postwar prosperity, and for the first time freed the middle class to travel cross-country at leisure. And Rome’s roads meant safe, easy trade.
On the flip side, the lack of steady informational infrastructure risks crisis. Andrew Jackson’s Battle of New Orleans — fought “after” the end of the War of 1812, but before the end of the war reached him — risked reigniting hostilities. And President Lincoln, at the outset of the Civil War, was forced into a game of constitutional brinksmanship with the Supreme Court simply because he couldn’t recall or consult Congress inside of a week’s time.
Similarly, every science fiction or fantasy series that posits a unitary society must (and does) explain the medium of communication responsible for consistent culture. Orson Scott Card’s “ansible,” though burdened by weird Mormon space-philosophy in the later books of the Ender series, is a precondition for interstellar human culture, and allows him to preserve the family structure. For Banks in The Algebraist, the discovery of an innate bridge between the stars ushers in a new era of humanity. And Simmons’ Hyperion portrays a decadent society bound by the promise of instantaneous transportation between worlds while also threatened by the crushing uniformity it creates, and how its collapse into provincialism risks tyranny. Stability only comes when unity between worlds accommodates diversity of worlds.
At the risk of overreach, this suggests a solution to our national predicament. Our current fractured, hyper-polarized politics seems to descend from a simple lack of understanding. The cities don’t understand the suburbs don’t understand the farms; the north doesn’t understand the south; and none of us are working from the same information. We live with an unprecedented volume of knowledge at our fingertips, but we use it to reinforce rather than expand our beliefs. Laws to force the diversity of viewpoints that we selectively avoid either don’t work, or violate the Constitution. But what if we could create enough shared experience, so that we want to and have to talk to each other again?
The proposal, then, is a successor to the interstate system, something to contract the space between our lives by as significant of a factor as that first project did. What form this project would take — high-speed rail, more extensive commuter lines, something new altogether — I don’t know. But proximity to difference breeds understanding of difference, and underlies the united, egalitarian sentiment that we will need, to make a few vital changes in our lives.