All Roads Lead to Peace

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.


  1. As a small note, the idea of an ansible is actually from Ursula Le Guin’s debut novel, ‘Rocannon’s World’, although it’s been used by lots of other writers afterwards, including Card.

    But if you’re interested in the role of communication and diversity in how societies evolve, especially within the legal field, I’d highly recommend checking out the German philosopher and social scientist Jürgen Habermas. He’s not the easiest author to read, but very rewarding once you begin to understand what he’s taking about.

  2. I think you’ve got the right idea but you are thinking 2-dimensionally. The solution, IMO, is visual communication through the internet. We’re already seeing this on a very, very small scale but what I would advocate is video conferencing avalable in every school in the country. I would create a network of sister schools that represented diversity of race, income and geographic locales. Team-based projects are already common in schools. What if you took your basic middle school project (one of my favorites was designing our own country) and created teams of six to work on it – but that actually entailed two teams of three in different schools, in different states?

    What if kids in one school could take the kids in the other school on a virtual field trip of their hometown?

    This is just with kids. Imagine the possibilities with adults if done correctly?

    1. Mike, I love it! That’s a great idea. I have to run… but….. more later.

  3. I’d like to echo AKjeldsen’s suggestion that you read some Habermas, and point you at my own favorite philosopher as well: Hume. The second Enquiry explores what I think is the root cause of the divisions you correctly point out here. Basically, we aren’t very good at thinking of people removed from our immediate circle of acquaintance as, y’know, people. I can find a more specific citation if you’re interested, but that means going in to my office today and I have plans with this bottle of bourbon right here.

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