The Mythography of the "New" Frontier
by Virginia Eubanks

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.

The MLA 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.

You see, 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 technoscience.

A Mythography of the Frontier

I borrow 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 wrote:

Mythology 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)

I think 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.

Origin Story: The Frontier (1890s)

In 1844, 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.

Though O'Sullivan 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:

The 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 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.[1]

In "The 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:

  • Conquest--the pioneer was both a fighter, and a finder, an inventor of new ways;

  • Flexibility--the pioneer rebelled against the conventional, was a nonconformist;

  • Democracy--among the pioneers, one man was as good as any other, and conditions were simple and free; and

  • Individuality--the pioneer prized personal development, free of social and governmental restraint.

In large 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.[2]

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,

Scientific 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. [3]

Science 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.

The "New Frontier" (1990s)

For the 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.

Conquest + Flexibility = <>

The notion 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.

We've seen 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.

Neal Stephenson's 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,

The 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).

This emphasis 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.

In much 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.

In Informational 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,

Although 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).

Here, advanced 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."

Democracy + Individualism = Public Space?

Sherry Turkle 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.

Online environments 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.

More interesting 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.

Despite 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 of 1990:

154: Tue, Nov 27, 1990 (21:28)


Many of 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?

155: Tue, Nov 27, 1990 (21:52)


Have you 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.

169: Thu, Nov 29, 1990 (03:33)


So if 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,

Tides 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).

The only 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.

Furthermore, 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:

The 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.

Rossetto 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.

Banisters in Elevators

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.

"Skeumorphs," 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.

So what 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.

Does this 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,

Myth 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)

What would 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 empty space.


Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. 1995. "The Californian Ideology,"

Barlow, John Perry. 1996. "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace."

Barthes, Roland. 1957 (Trans 1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.

Castells, Manuael. 1989. The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional Process. Cambridge: Blackwell.

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 & Co.

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 Press.

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): 50-57

Turner, Frederick Jackson. 1920. The Frontier in American History. New York: Dover Publication Inc, 1996. (first edition 1920).

Winner, Langdon. 1989. "Technological Frontiers and Human Integrity." In Science, Technology, and Social Progress, ed. Steven L. Goldman. Bethlehem: Lehigh UP: 48-64.

[1] Gilpin, Mission of the North American people, Geographical, Social, and Political (Philadelphia, 1874),

p. 130 (quoting a letter of 1846). return

[2] Winner, "Technological Frontiers and Human Integrity, " Science, Technology, and Social Progress, ed. Steven L. Goldman, 1992: 52. return

[3] Turner, 1920: 287. return