I have to
admit that when I gave a version of this paper at the Modern
Language Association convention in San Francisco last year,
I was not entirely prepared. I didn't have an opening for the
paper, and as late as an hour before my panel, I was still struggling
for a meaningful way to begin. I was immeasurably relieved,
then, when I arrived at the Fairmont Hotel, a bit early and
notes in hand, to work out that critical first paragraph.
convention is held between Christmas and New Year's every year,
and the Fairmont is world-renowned for their once-a-year holiday
stunt of turning one of the main rooms off the lobby into a
life-sized gingerbread house - freshly baked and quickly shellacked
gingerbread, gumdrop wainscoting, hard candy stained glass -
the whole bit. And they had scheduled my panel in the gingerbread
room. And I thought: Perfect.
sometimes I see cyberspace as the gingerbread walls and candy
trim stumbled upon by frightened children lost in the woods
of global free-market capitalism and millennial anxiety. And
I think it is wonderfully appropriate to be presenting this
paper--a fairy tale of high tech--here at Media In Transition.
Because what I'm interested in, and what I'm going to talk about
today, is fable, folklore...or more exactly, modern mythologies
of the Frontier
the term mythography from biblical & folklore studies to
describe what I do. Instead of just trying to interpret
myth, I'm interested in how it is inscribed in our material
culture. Mythography implies a process of "becoming real"
that incorporates stories, tropes, things and spaces in ways
that I find very useful; it allows us to trace a literary technology
or linguistic practice through its expression in material objects,
social practices, and spaces. What do myths have to do with
science and technology? They seem, at first glance, to be wholly
polar opposites. Compared to technology--our always speeding
outward edge--myth seems dull, listless, insignificant, and
rigid. In his 1978 work, Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi-Strauss
is static, we find the same mythical elements combined over
and over again, but they are in a closed system, in contradistinction
with history, which is, of course, an open system. (1978: 40)
that myth only seems static because it is recursive:
it shifts and changes according to audience, environment, social
needs, cultural tensions, but the change is mitigated by the
repetition of tropic translation mechanisms. It feeds into itself
in a reflexive, iterative, self-referential loop. Myth is a
threshold device - a translator between what is and what can
be. I'd like to start, then, by looking at an origin story.
Story: The Frontier (1890s)
James K. Polk was elected president by rallying Americans under
the cry of "54'40 or Fight," a promise to set the
disputed border of the Oregon Territory at 54 degrees, 40 minutes
by diplomacy or war. Implicitly, Polk was asking the country
for a mandate to expand the American territories in every direction.
In 1845 John L. O'Sullivan coined the phrase "Manifest
Destiny," arguing for the Anglo's superiority and right
to rule all non-white nations in the Western hemisphere.
coined the phrase, it was largely wealthy Quaker William Gilpin
who popularized the concept with the American people. Gilpin
followed his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, in a theory of succession
of empires arising along a "hereditary line of progress"
which found its zenith in the westward thrust of American expansion.
He wrote of the nation's growth in zealous religious terms:
American realizes that 'Progress is God.' The untransacted destiny
of the American people is to subdue the continent--to rush over
this vast field to the Pacific Ocean...to change darkness into
light and confirm the destiny of the human race...Divine task!
Immortal mission! The pioneer army perpetually strikes to the
front. Empire plants itself upon the trails.
Significance of the Frontier in American History," Frederick
Jackson Turner connected the free and noble spirit of the American
character with this ideal of evolutionary, progressive movement,
and to continuing contact with primitive society found in the
geographic frontiers. For Turner, this character was shaped
by the pioneer ideals of:
pioneer was both a fighter, and a finder, an inventor of new
pioneer rebelled against the conventional, was a nonconformist;
the pioneers, one man was as good as any other, and conditions
were simple and free; and
pioneer prized personal development, free of social and governmental
part, though, Turner's 1893 essay was intended to announce the
closing of the frontier, and therefore the end of a "great
historic movement" and of the independence, self-sufficiency,
and profitability that Turner believed had characterized it.
As such, "The Frontier in American History"
is shot through with resonant overtones of anxiety. Langdon
Winner posits that, fearful of the concentrations of wealth
and social class-division in the industrial centers of the Northeast
and the demise of land-based opportunities for endless expansion,
Turner suspected that America would fall prey to the corruption
he believed characterized Europe.
In his 1910
essay "Pioneer Ideals and the State University," Turner
made an attempt to salvage the frontier mythos after its geographical
basis had disappeared. He did so by conflating pioneer ideals
with the aims of burgeoning industrial technoscience, naming
students of science and technology heirs to the legacy of the
westward-moving pioneers. He wrote,
farming must increase the yield of the field, scientific forestry
must economize the woodlands, scientific experiment and construction
by chemist, physicist, biologist and engineer must be applied
to all of nature's forces in our complex modern society. The
test tube and the microscope are needed rather than the ax and
rifle in this new ideal of conquest. 
and technology would be the new frontier; hope could be invested
in the "inventive capital" of industry. Perhaps because
the closing of the geographical frontier dovetailed so nicely
with the rise of a system of interchangeable labor and rapid
mass-production under Fordism, technology became one of the
most meaningful expressions of America's progress, prowess,
and future. The faith invested in the landed frontier was eclipsed
by faith in technological progress, and as a fundamental part
of the national destiny, it carried with it a history of what
progress was supposed to mean: conquest, flexibility, individualism,
and a materialist and profit-oriented democracy.
"New Frontier" (1990s)
last seventy years or so, Americans' ideas of progress and power
have been firmly rooted in scientific innovations: the automobile,
the airplane, the telephone, the television, atomic power, the
microprocessor. Perhaps the latest and most seductive iteration
of that faith is the internet. We don't have to look far to
see the internet conceptualized as the "new frontier."
Examples abound: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and its
"Pioneer Awards;" books like High Noon on the Electronic
Frontier and Civilizing Cyberspace; high tech corporations
like Frontier-Global-Center; the Wild, Wild Web; John
Perry Barlow's "homestead on the web." My concern
here is that certain kinds of metaphors call into being certain
kinds of policy, certain kinds of behavior, certain kinds of
social structures. What I would like to do in the limited scope
of this paper is give you an example or two of the ways I see
Turner's predictions being written into the social and material
structure of the internet, and to explore what kinds of policy
and behavior are being enabled by reliance on the frontier ideal.
+ Flexibility = <www.everything.com>
that transportation and communications infrastructures draw
the world together into a 'global village' is nothing new, and
in the United States, the idea has struck particularly fertile
ground. In 1849, while arguing for an internal transportation
network that would rival maritime trade routes, William Gilpin
suggested that a Pacific Railway would expand the field of human
activity across national boundaries and blend the vast space
from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic to Europe and the Americas
"under one international relationship." Of course,
Gilpin's plan to draw together the nations of the globe with
a transportation network under US economic control was more
than an attempt at confraternity. Gilpin's move bespoke other
motives: a desire to challenge the political power of Europe,
to create a more substantial domestic commercial network, and
most importantly, to open markets in China, Japan, Polynesia
and South America. The rhetoric of the frontier--whether it
is reflected in the pioneer's flexibility, the railroad's world-reach,
or the universalistic discourse of modern communications technologies--has
always been part and parcel with the maintenance and reproduction
of a capitalist world system.
the same Janus-faced rhetoric rise around the internet. We live,
we are told, in a postboundary, tightly connected, ever-shrinking
world: AT&T reminds me "It's all within your reach;"
MCI that communications technology erases those befuddling "isms"
of class, gender, or racial identity; IBM provides "Solutions
for a small planet." We are also told that the internet
is naturally democratic, naturally communicative,
naturally egalitarian, and that it will inevitably
cover the globe. We have here a 20th century remix of Benton's
hereditary line of progress, conceived in terms of naturalized
technological progress and shrouded in quasi-revolutionary rhetoric
about connectivity and equality.
epic hacker travelogue "Mother Earth Mother Board"
(clearly patterned after colonialist narratives of the 19th
century) illustrates the tension between utopian communalism
and imperial intent. For Stephenson, the natural evolution of
a universal, global, unifying computer--what he calls Mother
Earth Mother Board, or simply "The Computer"--is only
hindered by the bad laws and customs of other (that is, non-American)
countries. He writes,
Computer is fully digital once again, fully automatic, and faster
than hell. Most of it is in the United States, because the United
States is large, free, and made of dirt. Largeness eliminates
troublesome borders. Freeness means that anyone is allowed to
patch new circuits onto The Computer. Dirt makes it possible
for anyone with a backhoe to get in on the game. The Computer
is striving mightily to grow beyond the borders of the United
States, into a world that promises even vaster economies of
scale--but most of that world isn't made of dirt, and most of
it isn't free. (1996: 53).
on evolutionary change masks an insidious rhetorical practice,
a natural fallacy, which insists that technological and economic
imperatives drive inevitable progress, not human agency or democratic
decision making. The hardware, argues Stephenson, is ready;
it is cultural technology that is found lacking.
internet discourse, progress and conquest are suspiciously tightly
coupled. When combined with the pioneer ideal of flexibility
(translated for 20th century use as flexible accumulation of
capital) and framed in terms of the 'new frontier' this mix
becomes even more troubling. The concept of progress as social
evolution is deeply embedded in the metaphors of the "new
frontier." Turner masked the political and economic impetus
and consequences of conquest in his pioneer ideal--the genocide
of the Native American population, the exploitation of the natural
environment, the aggression towards other nations with colonial
holdings--by defining conquest as progress, discovery, the invention
of new ways of life. The conquest of the frontier, for Turner,
was about evolution, not aggression. This conceit is equally
visible in Stephenson's epic, and like Turner, Stephenson insists
that this world-wide reach will have a naturally democratizing
and egalitarian effect.
Cities, Manuel Castells has done a particularly adroit
job of proving why this may not be the case. Castells complicates
the generally accepted idea that high tech communications systems
are decentralizing power structures and deterritoralizing workplaces.
He argues that the information economy is not as dispersive
as it would seem at first glance, that it in fact concentrates
high-level decision making power in major cities while globalizing
"back office work" like data entry, telemarketing
and technical support. The consequences of this organizational
logic--the space of flows--are far-reaching because the more
organizations depend upon flows and networks, "the less
they are influenced by the social contexts associated with the
places of their location" (1989: 170). It is under this
logic that Bill Gates can assure the readers of his opus, The
Road Ahead, that,
the speed with which the infrastructure is brought directly
into homes will correlate in large part with the per capita
gross domestic product of the country, even developing countries
will start to see connections into businesses and schools that
will have a huge impact and start to reduce the income and technology
gaps between societies. Caribbean countries such as Jamaica
and the Dominican Republic are already linked to North American
countries by fiber cable so that their low-cost data entry services
can be on-line. In Latin America, Costa Rica stands out as both
a provider of data entry services and a host to multinational
corporations (1996: 270).
third world countries are the "hosts" and providers
of inexpensive labor for first world corporations, just as they
played exotic object for the explorations of the hacker tourist.
Dangerous, low paying, or tedious labor is out-sourced to offshore
maquiladores while postindustrial nations celebrate their
connectivity with the universalizing logic of "Net Day."
+ Individualism = Public Space?
opens her popular essay, "Virtuality and Its Discontents,"
with a description of what anthropologist Ray Oldenburg calls
a "great good place," the local bar, bistro, or coffee
shop "where members of a community can gather for the pleasure
of easy company, conversation, and a sense of belonging"
(1995: 233). While Turkle herself seems to have doubts that
this ideal can be found in cyberspace, the metaphor of internet
communities as bars or coffee shops is a common one, one that
has at least roundabout roots in Habermas' conception of an
ideal speech community.
are most often characterized as public places. Further,
online communities are presented as places where, because most
of the interaction takes place in simple ASCII text, people
ignore significant "visual" markers of difference--race,
gender, age, class, physical ability--to create a global community
based only on content of character. In other words, the quick
technological fix of "nonembodied" communication through
ASCII text is supposed to provide us with the status bracketing
that Habermas so desires, and on which his fantasy of an ideal
rational-critical speech community relies. However, in "Does
Internet Create Democracy?", Alinta Thornton argues that
markers of difference are not always visual. She questions the
fulfillment of status bracketing--where participants put aside
their differences in status and engage in rational-critical
debate as "equals"--online. Thornton points out the
many factors that must be preconditions for a "bracketed"
debate online: computer literacy, typing ability, linguistic
'correctness', leisure time, and wealth. So, for Thornton, Habermas'
ideal is not attained (at least not yet) in cyberspace.
to me than whether or not we're fulfilling Habermas' (somewhat
questionable) criteria online is the question of what constitutes
the public space of the internet. More importantly, I'd like
to ask who is authorized to set the terms of discourse within
it. Like Turner's frontier, Habermas' speech community developed
with complicated restraints on who could legitimately occupy
it, while maintaining an outward appearance of openness. I'd
argue that the internet has developed similarly, and that this
space is not open, but rather policed by gender, racial, and
class assumptions. These assumptions, in turn, only authorize
certain kinds of discourse within many of the social
spaces of the internet.
the popular rhetoric of post-nationality touted by many netizens,
who counts as 'native' matters. In cyberspace, there is great
prestige in early involvement. The immigrants of cyberspace
are "newbies," often unfamiliar with the technology,
excluded and policed by the restrictive societal norms that
have been set in place by early adopters. For this reason, new
users commonly congregate in more user friendly, if slightly
less robust, online services like AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve.
Members of smaller and more exclusive internet communities generally
look with disdain upon members of these larger, more commercial,
and easier-to-use services. Often, newbies are condemned for
causing a deterioration of the intellectual climate on the internet,
congesting the networks, and congregating in inferior services
(besides the fact that it's the mature users, the full-screen-video-streaming
bandwidth hogs that are actually congesting the networks). For
example, the following exchange took place on the WELL in November
Tue, Nov 27, 1990 (21:28)
us, elsewhere on The WELL, lament at the general apathy and
ignorance of the people, and are even willing to pin it (correctly)
on the media and the schools. But we're somehow loathe to
note the same trend toward homogenization and centralization
and control in our own media, or we suppose it's just going
to go away...or at least, we can. But what about the rest
of our citizenry? Do we REALLY always want to be a minority?
Or is there a will and a way to ensure that the mass media
of the future become as challenging as they can be, by ensuring
their openness to controversy and diversity?
Tue, Nov 27, 1990 (21:52)
been to the mall lately? Face it, we always WILL be a minority.
Further, most of the population seems eminently happy with
and entitled to homogenization. As long as the non-homogeneous
are left alone to go about their business in peace, I think
this is fine.
Thu, Nov 29, 1990 (03:33)
Prodigy wants to be a specialist operation where people consciously
choose the role of being bovine consumers who browse what
is fed them and then make polite moos over the pleasant qualities
of the fodder, well, fine, let them!... it takes no effort
to drop off Plodigy [sic] and get on The Well, once you know
how to use the interfaces.
The reason why Plodigy [sic] has so many subscribers and The
Well so few has something to do with advertising, but a lot
more to do with the average intelligence and educational level
of the respective subscriber populations. Face it friends, we're
a hell of a lot smarter and more knowledgeable about most things,
than most people in this country. Our level of discourse is
very very different (by which I don't mean better or worse).
We come from a very small segment of society, and will probably
always be a minority. As long as our rights are respected, I
can see no problem with that. If the masses want fodder instead
of food, that's their right, as long as they're not messing
up the (physical or cyberspace) ecology for future generations.
Turner scapegoated Eastern European immigrants in a similar
way, blaming them the deterioration of the American way of life
in the East, writing,
of alien immigrants were surging into the country to replace
old American... increasingly foreign born, and recruited from
nationalities who arouse no sympathy on the part of capital
and little on the part of the general public. Class distinctions
are accented by national prejudices, and democracy is thereby
invaded (1920: 278-9).
way for these masses to legitimize themselves is by assimilating
as rapidly as possible to the existing social structure of the
internet. Once on the frontier, newcomers, like Horatio Algiers
heroes, must be prepared to work hard to shed their newbie status:
the WELL suggests that new members lurk in the discussions for
several months before becoming active members, so that they
can become accustomed to the social norms before they participate.
This way of policing the norms of discourse and deciding who
counts as 'the public' belies the rhetoric that the internet
connects us all, in a single boundry-less speech community,
without those bothersome ism associations.
reactions to perceived governmental intrusion into cyberspace
are often met with paranoia and libertarian fervor. This sort
of backlash actively precludes programs which must be considered
in terms of social groups, not individuals, that would equalize
economic and cultural access to these expensive and largely
bewildering technologies. Examples are plentiful--when "cyber-libertarianism"
was critiqued by English hypermedia scholars Andy Cameron and
Richard Barbrook in their article "The Californian Ideology,"
Louis Rossetto, editor of Wired, said in response:
utterly laughable Marxist/Fabian kneejerk that there is such
a thing as the info-haves and have-nots - this is equivalent
to a 1948 Mute whining that there were TV-haves and have-nots
because television penetration had yet to become universal,
the logical conclusion being that, of course, the state had
to step in and create television entitlements.
forgets that even in the United States, we do in fact have television
entitlements. It's not access to the commodity that we subsidize,
but access to the tools of cultural production. We have the
increasingly beleaguered and endangered public television and
radio system, which is often the only access to the media available
to people with minority (or uncommercial) opinions. (By the
way, I'm very suspicious of the fact that public media in this
country are being dealt death blows left and right at the same
time that everyone is declaring the ultimate triumph of self-publication,
free expression, and DIY culture on the internet.) The libertarian-inflected
internet utopia only allows for a public composed of consumers
of technology, a more egalitarian vision would assure equal
right to the production of culture.
In her 1999
work, How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles calls
attention to threshold devices in technology design, which she
calls skeumorphs. She borrows the term from archaeological
anthropology to describe a design feature that is no longer
functional but refers back to an earlier manifestation of the
artifact. We see these all the time: one example was pointed
out to me by David Thorburn, who has written that his 92-year-old
father remembers driving an early Ford whose leather dashboard
included a pocket for the handle of a buggy whip. They turn
up in cars a lot - Hayles mentions the vinyl-molded faux-stitching
on the dashboard of her own car. My own personal favorite is
the continuing installation of banisters in elevators.
Hayles writes, "visibly testify to the social or psychological
necessity for innovation to be tempered by replication."
(1999: 17) I'd argue that the myth of the frontier has become
our skeumorph for new technologies, and with it, we are replicating
a culture that we may want to rethink. Hayles also points out
that because they involve transformative technological processes,
skeumorphs are not neutral. Metaphors are also maps. Rules for
use. Myth is a flexible thing, but within the play of meanings
wend threads of decision, power: determinations as to what are
the objects of discourse and how they will be described. These
kinds of decisions facilitate or limit our behavior, justify
or preclude certain policies, include or dismiss people, cultures,
beliefs, other discourses. They may float, but tropes also matter;
they mean, and in meaning become thingly, instantiated. The
medium may not be the message, but the myth is. Or at least,
a myth is a message.
witch lives inside this candy cyber-cottage? What do we construct
when we conceptualize the internet as the 'new frontier'? This
tropic transfer implies a certain set of symbols and icons--like
homesteading, gunslingers, the rugged individual, robber barons,
and Manifest Destiny--with which we frame the discourse around
these technologies and with which we begin to formulate the
social relationships and arrangements that must exist in order
to maintain and reproduce them. Despite public conviction that
we are entering a whole new world, facilitated by the global
information infrastructure, what we seem to be doing is reconstructing
and reinscribing a frontier mythology, with all the limitations
and biases--exclusionary social practices; a default monoculture
of white, male property owners; violence, colonialism and conquest;
and an exploitative economy based on monopoly capital and a
racial/global division of labor--that the metaphor implies.
mean, then, that the internet is doomed as an experiment in
democratic participation and control? Quite the opposite. Looking
at the internet mythologically means looking at it as a heteroglossic
system. In Mythologies Roland Barthes writes,
is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way
in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to
myth, there are no 'substantial' ones. Everything, then, can
be a myth? Yes. I believe this, for the universe is infinitely
fertile in suggestions. Every object in the world can pass from
a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation
by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which
forbids talking about things. (1957:109)
it mean to tell a different myth? We need to think of the internet
not as an empty canvas on which individuals play out their utopian
fantasies nor as a wilderness ready for conquering and settling,
but as a public collaboration, a communal correspondence.
We need to create a new mythology, one that prizes community
responsibility over personal freedoms, egalitarian principles
over profit, and open access (economically and culturally) over
Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. 1995. "The Californian Ideology,"
Barlow, John Perry. 1996. "A Declaration of the Independence of
Barthes, Roland. 1957 (Trans 1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and
Castells, Manuael. 1989. The Informational City: Information Technology,
Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional Process. Cambridge:
Gates, Bill. 1996. The Road Ahead (Second Edition), with Nathan
Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Gilpin, William. 1873. The Mission of the North American People:
Geographical, Social, and Political. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott &
Habermas, Jurgen. 1962 (Trans 1989). The Structural Transformation of
the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans.
Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman:Virtual Bodies in
Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1978. Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of
Culture. New York: Schocken Books.
Rossetto, Louis. 1995. Response to "The Californian Ideology."
Stephenson, Neil. 1996. "Mother Earth Mother Board," Wired Magazine,
Vol 4 No.12, December.
Turkle, Sherry. 1996. "Virtuality and its Discontents: Searching for
Community in Cyberspace," The American Prospect, No 24 (Winter 1996):
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New York: Dover Publication Inc, 1996. (first edition 1920).
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Science, Technology, and Social Progress, ed. Steven L. Goldman.
Bethlehem: Lehigh UP: 48-64.
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people, Geographical, Social, and Political (Philadelphia,
p. 130 (quoting a letter of 1846). return
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and Human Integrity, " Science, Technology, and Social Progress,
ed. Steven L. Goldman, 1992: 52. return
 Turner, 1920: 287. return