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April 26, 2009

Did the telegraph bring peace?

In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage presents two quotations (pp. 103-104) prompted by the creation of transatlantic telegraph cables. The first is from Henry Fields:

“It brings the world together. It joins the sundered hemispheres. It unites distant nations, making them feel that they are members of one great family…An ocean cable is not an iron chain, lying cold and dead in the icy depths of the Atlantic. It is a living, fleshy bond between severed portions of the human family, along which pulses of love and tenderness will run backward and forward forever. By such strong ties does it tend to bind the human race in unity, peace and concord…it seems as if this sea-nymph, rising out of the waves, was born to be the herald of peace.”

The second is unattributed:

“The different nations and races of men will stand, as it were, in the presence of one another. They will know one another better. They will act and react upon each other. They may be moved by common sympathies and swayed by common interests. Thus the electric spark is the true Promethean fire which is to kindle human hearts. Men then will learn that they are brethren, and that it is not less their interest than their duty to cultivate goodwill and peace throughout the world.”

The obvious lessons are, first, that our enthusiasms are sometimes wildly wrong, and, second, that technology by itself doesn’t determine its effect.

And yet I wonder if the tele-utopians were entirely wrong. It is undeniable that the 150 years between the deploying of the telegraph and the rise of the Internet have been unimaginably bloody. So, in that sense, the telegraph heralded the opposite of peace.

That correlation — more communication, more war — certainly means that communication technology doesn’t bring peace. But communication technology may still be an instrument of peace. Peace — IMHO — ultimately comes from understanding that we share a world about which we care differently. The only feasible peace is a noisy peace. We only get there via communication. And I believe that overall communication technology has made us more aware of the unresolvable noisiness of the world. Simple-minded colonialism is no longer in vogue. There is an increasing understanding that no one religion or form of government is going to sweep the table (although those who think it’s their way or the highway to hell are still working their horrors). Our hearts and minds are closer to the conditions of peace than they were before the telegraph, although our governments, religions, and economic systems still have a long way to go.

No, the world is still a mess, and the warriors still tend to rise in power. Yes, communication technology enables armies to deploy on new and vast scales. But also: Peace comes from the recognition of difference that communication makes possible. The tele-utopians were comically wrong, just as are cyber-utopians who think the Net will automatically create peace. But both are also right to rejoice. The threading of the world through communication is the most fundamental condition for a noisy peace, which is the only type of peace possible in a world characterized by difference.

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