The Masses (periodical)/Volume 1/Number 2/Breaking Barriers

Breaking Barriers
By Wilhelm Ostwald
Drawings by Wm. Washburn Nutting

SCIENTISTS have reason to believe that the solar system was first a gaseous sphere, which slowly turned into a fluid, and finally became a solid. After this, life sooner or later appeared on the different planets, and scientists connect man's appearance with that state of the earth in which it consists of a solid framework partly covered by the fluid ocean and entirely surrounded by the gaseous atmosphere. It was on the solid parts that man first moved. He required an incalculably long period of technical development to obtain some degree of power over the fluid element. That old chicken-hearted poet, Horace, even in his day, centuries on centuries later, was still aghast that a man could have had the idea to embark on the open waters. Contrast that with the present, when a trip across the Atlantic is so safe and pleasant that I, for my part, would far rather spend two weeks on the sea than two clays in a railroad coach. A sea trip is cleaner—and safer.

Now we stand at the threshold of a third period, when man is making the gaseous part of our world accessible to us. There is no doubt that this signifies a new epoch of civilization. Hitherto we all lived a bi-dimensional existence on a surface. Henceforth the third, the spacial, dimension will come more and more to be the arena for man to move upon. This will give rise to entirely new conditions of existence and entirely new problems, the solution of which will make us quite different beings from what we have been.

Once, to make the nature of spacial dimensions clear, Helmholtz assumed the existence of beings that lived in space of one or two dimensions. Such beings are points on a line, or whole lines, and all they can do is move forward and backward on a line. If two points A and B move on a line, they can meet but never pass each other, and no change can take place in this, their spacial relation. That relation can no more be altered than we can alter our time relations. If your wife happens to be older than you there is no possibility by any operation of which man is capable of making her younger or you older.

The beings confined to a space of two dimensions, however, are able to avoid contact with one another. But if one of them or a group of them is hemmed in by a line that cannot be crossed, they are held captive. They cannot get out.

This is essentially man's condition at present on earth, especially upon the solid part of the earth, on which boundary lines can easily be drawn. The same cannot be done on the watery parts. Consequently the ocean is a powerful agent for setting men free and joining them together. Just as water has the power to dissolve some solids, so the ocean acts as a solvent on the rigid political forms into which men are divided, and which keep them apart. A process of diffusion among the various human groups was brought about by travel on the seas. That process is continuing at an increasing rate, and is no longer to be checked.

This agent of diffusion has been known for thousands of years, but has been effective for only several hundreds. And now we are looking forward to another, the air. We can foresee the time when it, too, will be effective. In keeping with its gaseous character, its influence upon diffusion will be incomparably greater. The inevitable result will be an entirely new relation between the individual and society.

Surfaces are separated by lines, spaces by surfaces. Our countries are surfaces, and hitherto it has been comparatively easy to separate them by linear confines, and so preserve tariffs and military and linguistic boundaries. But after the third dimension has become accessible it will be absolutely impossible to maintain these divisions. Every country would have to be surrounded by walls as high as Mt. Blanc (even this, after a time, may not be high enough) to prevent the smuggling of lace, pearls and progressive ideas.

So in the flying machine I see a powerful instrument for bringing about the brotherhood of man. In effectiveness it far surpasses its predecessors. This is not a sentimental, but a technical observation. I am not raising the question, "Is diffusion of men desirable, and if so, to what extent?" Whether we wish it or not, the process will take place. We cannot prevent it. And that is the condition we have to reckon with.

Of course, progressive people will look forward to such a future with pleasure. The conservatives will regard it with distrust, disinclination, and even hatred. The reason that conservative sentiment has as yet scarcely been aroused is that the consequences of the introduction of the flying machine are not yet easy to foresee. Besides, the conservatives do not fully believe in the reality of such things as flying machines, and so fortunately lose the chance of using the power they have to nip aviatory enterprise in the bud. In fact, history is playing one of its ironic tricks upon the conservatives. There are conservatives who are advocates of war, and war is a remnant of an earlier, coarser state. It is therefore upheld by those who have some interest in preserving the old, or, at least, in retarding inevitable progress. Now, these conservative partisans of war are eagerly furthering the perfection of the flying machine, which stands for man's technical progress, because they expect that the conquest of the air will produce an extremely effective mode of warfare in the future. We will let this go, because we can anticipate the true and final results.

And the final results will be that under the pressure of circumstances we shall give up all those linear boundaries which artificially divide territories allied to one another geographically and economically. What man who thinks and feels in terms of energy is not impressed with all the pitifulness of our life when he sees what a vast amount of energy is spent upon preserving boundary lines? Consider the Austrian provinces, for instance, those countries upon whom nature has been so lavish. Would anybody be the loser if they were to give up their frontiers? No. On the contrary, everybody would be the gainer. The same is true of all lands. Each artificial boundary is necessarily a thief of energy. To maintain a boundary line requires an expenditure of energy; so it does to cross a boundary line. And that energy might be applied to much better purposes.

Then, pray, why do we keep up boundary lines? For the same reason that a tailor sews two buttons on the tails of every man's dress-coat. The two buttons don't button anything. There are even no buttonholes to match. There was a time when the two buttons were of some use on a coat that reached entirely around the body. The front flaps could be buttoned back on them to leave the upper legs free. On a dress-coat there are no front flaps, and the two buttons are absolutely unnecessary. But like a rudimentary organ, the remnant of a previous stage of

development, they continue to hold undisputed sway on the back of every dress-coat, and no man ventures to obey logic and tell his tailor not to sew them there.

Who is the gainer if I have to change my money in coming from Canada to the United States? The land, the climate, the people are practically the same. But man raises artificial differences, differences energetically unproductive, and maintains them with the same devotion with which the tailor defends the position of the two buttons on the dress-coat against anyone who would dare to question it.

Yet we are constantly witnessing the fall of one artificial barrier after the other. Universal mail service will lead irresistibly to a universal stamp, and next to universal money. The German Empire in its formation ripped off one of the useless buttons when it abolished customs duties among the states composing it. The Franco-Prussian War hastened the process, but did not give it its direction. Its course had been fixed long before. And Bismarck, be it remembered, almost exhausted himself struggling to remove at least a few stones from the road to a future customs-union with Austria. The insurmountable obstacles he encountered were a shortsighted doctrinarianism and the need for agrarian protection against threatened competition.

The United States of the World—the idea is a dream of the remote distance. Those of us who have at heart man's liberation from unnecessary ills do not venture to confide our dream to our neighbors. They will accuse us of chasing chimeras. But intercourse in the third dimension is inevitably realizing our dream. Boundaries that cannot be maintained in practice are doomed to disappear. So the question no longer is, "Will boundaries pass?" but, "How and when will they pass?"

The sum and substance of my observations is that the opening up of the third dimension to travel is a fundamental cause of a fundamental change in our social conditions in so far as these are affected by the mutual relations of the great political states.

There has been a constant development tending to the internationalization of a larger and larger number of affairs hitherto considered private to each nation. One example is science, which has been almost completely internationalized. The conquest of the air will suddenly add vastly to the sum of international values and interests. This will set free for cultural purposes enormous stores of energy previously consumed in maintaining frontiers. Energies latent in the wide masses of the people will be made available for all mankind by appropriate cultivation and development.

A further result will be the spontaneous advance of civilization characterized chiefly by increased socialization of thought and feeling. The rate at which this development will proceed will be determined in the main, it is evident, by the biological law of laziness, that is, by the fact that an organism requires some time to adapt itself to new conditions. That time can be shortened, but not beyond a certain minimum. In this respect man has made remarkable progress. The rapidity of modern man's mental adaptation is incomparably greater than it was even two generations ago.

So much for the social effect of travel on the third dimension. Now, as to the effect it will presumably have on the individual. Again I cannot help but rejoice. Here, too, the prospect seems bright.

Compare chauffeurs with "cabbies." The two seem to form distinct classes. The chauffeur has character in his face. His eyes look keen, his movements are rapid and controlled. His whole body gives token of his great readiness to react. The cabby's features are dull, and his words and gestures slow, in conformity with the none too intellectual demands of his profession. Why this difference? Chiefly because half the brains needed in driving are in the horse's head. If the driver falls asleep, the horse has enough sense to save both of them from an accident.

As for the chauffeur, he alone is responsible. If he ceases to guide the machine for a single instant, he risks life and limb. His brain must ever be on the alert. He may not leave the least movement to the machine's discretion. For little recks the machine if it and all its occupants go smash. Thus, the chauffeur tends much more than the cabby to develop into a real man, that is, into a being who no longer expends his muscular energy in direct effort, but only in guiding great external conquered energies.

Why does the burlak, in Russia, the man who tugs boats on canals, seem to stand on so low a level of humanity? Because he uses his energy as mere raw energy. And an ox can do the same. But I have the sincerest respect for the man at a switchboard. He requires but little energy to move the levers, yet on occasion his presence of mind and rapidity of judgment will prevent incalculable misfortune.

We are wont to lay many evils at the door of technical progress. But now we see that to compensate, it in the end raises human worth by opening up activities to man more in keeping with his character. Future man will be as different from men nowadays as the chauffeur from the cabby. The use of the bicycle has made workmen much keener and readier. Similarly, we may expect that the flying machine will produce a comparatively even greater advance in the typically human characteristics.

The flying machine has already counted its scores of victims, pioneers ready to risk death. And it will produce many more before a flight in the air will signify as little as a bicycle ride. But the beings that will soar in the air will and must be a superior race. Nerves, sinews, and muscles must be of the highest type in order to cope with the new demands, and the most careful economy of one's powers will be a self-understood condition of life, since the failure of them for the fraction of an instant will involve risk to life.

But this is not all. It is to be expected that man will learn to fly like the sea-gulls. Sea-gulls can dart through the air at tremendous speed without a single movement of their wings. That is, the motor will be needed only at the start, for certain turns, and for rising. On the whole the flight will be accomplished without considerable expenditure of energy, yet very swiftly. As a result, our standards of distance will change. Men will be able to live more scattered, and so in conditions worthier of them. The wounds that the development of machinery in its early stages produced, the horrible misery of the great cities, a higher stage of technical development will surely heal.

We saw that in keeping with the physical character of the air travel through the air will greatly facilitate and augment diffusion between nation and nation. And now we see that it will effect the same for individuals within communities.

And so we look forward happily, as the poet says, to "a world far too vast for men to be divided."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1932, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 90 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.