One of the interesting things about moving are all the objects you rediscover, whose existence you had completely forgotten. I’ve just been sorting through my paperwork, hoping to find things I can now discard, and I came across the following essay that analyses why metaphors of the “frontier” and the “revolution” came to be adopted to describe internet technologies – and that also analyses how these metaphors actually may have impeded the sort of libertarian political ideals the metaphors invoked.
I have been struck for some time by the early (and, for some, continuing) faith that the technologies underpinning the internet would, by themselves, make regulation of internet speech and of intellectual property impossible. This faith in many ways replicated the faith of an early Marxism – of the sort the Frankfurt School came to criticise – that believed that the development of mass production would, in and of itself, usher in a more emancipated society. I decided to explore some of these issues in the following article.
Life then moved on – shortly after I wrote this, I finally managed to escape what had at one point looked like becoming a permanent stint as an IT consultant, and to move back into my more “traditional” community sector work – and I never got around to revising the article and submitting it for publication. I’m sure the scholarship in the field has now moved on considerably, rendering the piece most likely no longer viable for an academic journal (if, in fact, it ever was viable). I have also moved on, making some of the claims below no longer feel fully accurate or well-expressed. Still, I’m struck by the resonance of some of the basic concepts for the work I’m doing now, and thought the article might be worth airing on the blog.
I’ve spliced the main body of the text below. It’s a bit longer than the standard blog post, but not so vast as the original version… I’m happy to provide a full (and properly annotated) version of the piece on request.
You Say You Want a Revolution?: Metaphors of the “Revolution” and the “Frontier” in the Commercialisation of Internet Technolgies
Abstract: The core characteristics and purposes of internet technologies have been reinterpreted in several distinct phases over the course of the internet’s brief lifespan. Initially developed by government and academic institutions during the Cold War as a means of ensuring the continuity of military communications in the event of a nuclear war, the internet emerged as the “poster child” technology of globalisation and privatisation in the late 1980s and 1990s. Now, in the aftermath of the dot com boom, and in a period of heightened anxiety over the economy and national security, internet technologies are being reinterpreted yet again – as technologies whose potential is being held back by the very freedoms the technology seemed necessarily to embody during the boom era. This article examines the ways in which observers have attributed often contradictory qualitative characteristics to the same technology at different times, and uses internet technologies as a case study for the cultural plasticity of technology – for the ability of the same technology to be interpreted and deployed in socially divergent ways. For this reason, the article suggests, it is crucial to understand the broader social, political, and cultural context within which technologies are appropriated, in order to set appropriate public policies governing the use of key technologies.
I. New Wine in Old Skins: Finding a Vocabulary for Technological and Social Transformation
During periods of rapid social transformation, our inherited language can struggle to express the meaning of new concepts and experiences. Evidence of this struggle can often be found in those brief periods when competing metaphors and neologisms attempt to burst the bounds of our existing language and enable us, not only to express new experiences and concepts, but also to define, shape, and integrate them into our broader social lives. This struggle occurs, not simply because existing words cannot capture new meanings, but also because the meanings themselves are “up for grabs”. When we have not yet achieved a social consensus on the meaning of a new concept or experience, our choice of metaphors, phrases, and words cannot be purely descriptive – our choice of language involves a stance in broader social debate.
In the heady days of internet commercialisation in the late 1980s and 1990s, we can see evidence of such a struggle in the burst of competing metaphors used to describe the internet. A range of metaphors and neologisms were deployed during this period, both to explain the internet to those who had never used the medium, and to capture and define its essence for those who already participated in internet communities. The wide variety of metaphors bears witness to the fact that the internet introduced new concepts and experiences whose social meaning and significance was still to be defined.
The “information superhighway” appeared to be the metaphor of choice within the Clinton administration, and was commonly used to promote the commercialisation of the internet within governmental and business circles. By extrapolation from Tim Berners-Lee’s name for his hypertext environment – the “World Wide Web” – “web” metaphors were also widespread. “Cyberspace” was often used in more literary descriptions and in descriptions of communities on the web. The term also quickly became politicised in some of the earliest resistance to the commercialisation of the internet, when the term was chosen for John Perry Barlow’s ‘A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’.
Running through most of these competing discourses, however, were two very powerful, very pervasive metaphors: the metaphor of the revolution, and the metaphor of the frontier.
The metaphor of the revolution expressed the stance that the internet represented a radical break with what had come before – and, by extension, that old rules did not apply to the new medium. This metaphor also suggested that the medium was transformative – that it would react back on the society from which it came, emancipating that society and bringing forth new and unprecedented opportunities and freedoms.
The metaphor of the frontier reinforced and complimented the metaphor of revolution. The frontier imagery evoked the wild west, a vast pristine territory open to colonisation by mavericks and pioneers, a realm of limitless resources, free of the restrictions of established society – including restrictions imposed by the economy and the law.
In the rapid expansion that resulted from the commercialisation of the internet, many people heard these metaphors before they encountered the internet itself. The metaphors shaped their expectations – and, because the metaphors were ready at hand, also shaped how many perceived and understood their actual experiences of the internet. Even for those already involved in the internet, these metaphors provided a widespread and easily referenced framework for expressing how they understood their activities in the medium.
That these metaphors of revolution and of the frontier resonated so broadly, suggests that they fell on fertile cultural ground. Here, it is significant that both the initial development of the internet, and its commercialisation, were driven by US government, business, and academic community. Images of the internet’s technological dynamism – and especially metaphors of the wild west, the frontier (and the gold rush) – could draw upon on longstanding and widely accessible popular cultural traditions that would immediately resonate with much of the US population.
These same traditions were arguably being reinforced in precisely the same moment by broader sociological transformations that had nothing to do with internet technologies: the globalisation of the market, the transformation away from a manufacturing economy, the move from heirarchical, assembly-line driven mass production to more decentralised “just in time” production and distribution systems. These dramatic transformations reinforced the pervasive sense that a revolution was under way – that old models of the economy and of the relationship between government, business, and labour were “dinosaurs” that impeded innovation and the ability to respond in the new frontier of the international market. It was widely perceived that these transformations called for a new organisation of government and industry – a reorganisation whose exact outlines were unclear, but whose essential elements seemed to be greater privatisation, globalisation, decentralisation, and flexibility. It is these elements that many people then read into internet technologies, assisted by the metaphors of the revolution and the frontier.
II. Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss?
It was not inevitable that the internet should come to be perceived in this way – as the poster-child technology for the New Economy. If anything, the history of internet technologies should have weighed against it.
The core internet technologies were developed during the Cold War era, when a packet-switching network was conceived as a way for a technology to internalise a fundamental distrust and paranoia about the reliability of technological infrastructure, to pass messages through a network whose infrastructure might be partially destroyed in a nuclear exchange. Internet protocols were designed with a philosophy that would have done any Cold War espionage project proud, with each protocol capable of carrying out its own tasks and passing data along to the next protocol – whatever that protocol might be now or in the future – without any knowledge of the inner workings of other protocols. The design concepts underlying both the protocol stack and the overarching notion of a packet-switching network were designed to ensure redundancy and fault tolerance in a “global” network environment, where no part of the global network could be trusted.
Although there was certainly a “global” orientation to internet technology as it was originally conceived, global society at that period was organised very differently than in the later era of “globalisation” – in distinct and relatively closed nation states, organised in a polarised world around the two dominant superpowers. The technology was therefore initially conceived and implemented as a tool for the US military to ensure its chain of command even in the midst of a nuclear conflict, and was later extended to US universities. The technology was developed largely through government direction, and often within academic communities unconcerned with its economic potential – a model for R&D that would sit at odds with the rhetoric of privatisation and the glorification of the entrepreneur that would become dominant in the period when the internet would be commercialised.
Looking solely at the values that motivated its development, and the institutional climate within which it was developed, it would seem surprising that the internet would be so broadly embraced – and that it would generate such excitement and capture so much of the imagination – in a period in which those very values and institutional climate were being broadly rejected. Indeed, if the internet had continued to be perceived and widely interpreted as a vehicle for US government and academia, as a military tool to ensure US security in the event of a nuclear attack, and as a system purpose-designed to mistrust the global environment, it is questionnable whether it would have been as widely embraced into the 1990s.
III.How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb?
Several key decisions, however, enabled the internet technologies to transcend the climate in which they were conceived. The moves to open the internet to commercial traffic and also to privatise key governing institutions of the internet – decisions that were themselves influenced by the broader political and cultural climate – were key enablers, opening the way for a reinterpretation and broader adoption of internet technologies. By divorcing the internet from the US government, these decisions made it possible to interpret the internet as a “universal” technology – as a global, in the sense of international, infrastructure – well before this claim had any basis in fact.
The way that the internet was opened to commercialisation, as well – with several different telecommunications companies involved in developing key infrastructure – also paved the way for one of the most often-repeated early observations about the internet: that “no one owns it”. While literally true, in the sense that a number of major players owned components of the internet infrastructure, such that no one company could be said to hold a monopoly over the internet, this statement implied far more.
Commentators often jumped from the observation that ‘no one owned the internet’, to far broader claims. It was as though the absence of direct government control, alongside the absence of a clear corporate owner (as existed for the private networks like AOL or Prodigy, about which no one made these sorts of claims), left commentators at a loss to explain how the internet “worked” as a social institution. The statement “no one owns it” was therefore often juxtaposed to fairly radical interpretations of what this lack of ownership and government control might mean. Various commentators concluded (usually approvingly) that the internet was anarchistic (Elmer-Dewitt 1993, Chott 1997), that it offered total anonymity (with a presumed total lack of accountability),(‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’ 1993), that it was lawless (Elmer-Dewitt 1993, Sampson 1997), that it was open for the mavericks and pioneers who were ready to stake their own claims to the new territory (Allman 1993, Conhaim 1993) – that it was, in short, something akin to a “World Wide West”.
In this context, aspects of internet technologies that derived from Cold War distrust of the global environment – the redundancy of the packet-switching network and the independence of the various protocols in the TCP/IP protocol stack – came to be reinterpreted for the era of globalisation. If the need to re-route packets around damage caused by nuclear conflict no longer resonated widely, the need for flexibility and for agile adaptation to the changing circumstances of the global economy were acutely-perceived.
In this period in which businesses came to be organised more like networks, and operated within a less predictable, less controllable environment, it was a short leap for businesses to recognise their own organisational philosophies in what would appear to be the organising principles of internet technologies. The concept of the packet-switching network, which lacked a fixed map of network boundaries and which enabled rapid changes in the flow of information in response to local blockages without the need for centralised coordination and decision-making, meshed well with a business culture in which Taylorist assembly lines and factory mass production were being phased out in favour of decentralised production and distribution of goods, with a heavy reliance on outsourcing and “just-in-time” delivery to enable rapid response to unpredictable demand.
Internet technologies would eventually evolve into useful tools to help businesses confront many of the problems this new economic environment carried in its wake. Even before internet technologies were useful, however, they could resonate and appear compatible with organisational styles and with the sorts of challenges businesses were anticipating from globalisation.
The experience of “revolution” – of the overturning of an old organisation of government, industry, and social life – which had been incubated within the broader process of social transformation, meshed with the experience of rapid technological development. Both processes reinforced one another. Lay and experienced observers alike drew the conclusion that the technology was the driving force of the broader sociological shift, and that the cultural values bound together with the sociological transformation derived necessarily and inseparably from the technology. In a distinctively capitalist twist on theories of technological determination, many observers spoke as though the revolution was inevitable – the “bricks and mortar” businesses, and the social, political, and industrial organisations associated with them, would be inevitably washed away by the transcendent internet technologies and by the values these technologies appeared to carry with them.
IV. You Say You Want a Revolution?
On this side of the internet boom, it would be too simple – and too self-aggrandising – to claim that this belief in the transcendancy of internet technologies were naive, or that commentators and business leaders ought to have known better than to jump to such conclusions. The metaphors of revolution and the frontier were too dominant and too widespread to derive from simple failures of perception or analysis. I have argued that these metaphors resonated for a reason – for many reasons – to the largely American audience who embraced them so widely in the late 1980s and 1990s, and I have suggested reasons the metaphors may have been as pervasive and as convincing as they were.
At the same time, the end of the boom makes it easier to see certain weaknesses in the metaphors of revolution and of the frontier – not because we have suddenly become more clear-headed than commentators from just a few years ago, but because we are operating in an altered social and cultural space, characterised by a new set of historical experiences and the values that seem appropriate to them. Paramount among these new experiences are economic uncertainty – and particularly concern about whether our deviation from “old economy” principles has placed the global economy into crisis – and the resurgence of fear concerning national security (albeit a different kind of fear than what characterised the Cold War).
Whether these concerns will remain as strong as they are at present remains to be seen. At the moment, however, it is perhaps understandable if so many commentators perceive and evaluate the metaphors of revolution and the frontier negatively, as examples of the sort of thinking ‘that got us into this mess’. The danger is that the wisdom of hindsight will lead to more than a sober re-evaluation of the potentials of internet technology – that, in a cycle that one commentator described as “first the hype about its [the internet’s] rise, then the counter-hype about its fall” (Leonard 2002), we will throw away the valid insights of the boom, even as we recognise that the potentials of the technology were more limited than many originally believed.
In this climate of pessimism about the potentials of the internet, the character of internet technologies is being reinterpreted again. This time, however, the core perception is no longer that the key characteristics of the technology will – or should – drive transformations to other social institutions. The core debate is over how to change the technology to meet key social priorities: for stronger protections for private property – and hence less of a frontier or “commons”; for better security – and hence less anonymity; for greater control over content and online activities – and hence less freedom of expression and association. All of these proposals have implications for how decentralised, universal, and global internet technology is – or will be allowed to be into the future (Cerf 2002, Mann 2001).
The present debates over how to bring internet technology in line with current social priorities have highlighted many ways in which the internet was actually never as global, as decentralised, or as universal as the rhetoric of revolution and the frontier implied. In retrospect, the global, universal character of the internet was perhaps more a hope for what the internet could become, than an accurate description of its reality – let alone a correct understanding of the values internet technology would itself necessarily impose. For its part, the internet is once again proving more resilient than any particular set of cultural values that have shaped it particular periods: the technology is once again being reinterpreted, this time as a technology whose biggest constraint is actually the lack of enforceable property rights, decentralisation, low levels of security safeguards, and low level of legal regulation that once seemed intrinsic to the technology.
That internet technologies can prove so plastic – that they can survive and demonstrate their usefulness in such different cultural climates – is a testimony both to the resilience of the technology, and to how few limits the technology actually imposes on how it can be socially appropriated and deployed. The corrollary is that the technology itself provides no guarantees of a revolution, the preservation of frontier values, or any of the traits associated with each wave of metaphor. Instead, social choices – the decisions of businesses and individuals, as well as governmental actions – will determine how the technology is used, and which values are promoted through that use.
This concept – that social choices will determine how the internet is used – could seem emancipatory in its own right. Certainly, the notion that a particular technology inherently promotes certain values offers very few options for social actors: either use the technology, and deal with the consequences, or refuse to use the technology, and perhaps retain some decision-making power.
In practice, however, the realisation that the internet was not a revolutionary force, and did not technologically mandate the creation of a new frontier, has been disempowering, at least in the immediate term, for many individuals and groups.
In part, as one commentator has argued, the original faith in the power of internet technologies is actually to blame for the current disempowerment: the belief in technological determinism, that the internet was inherently revolutionary and intrinsically unregulatable, did not equip its adherents to mobilise for political action, to formulate arguments and lobby for a particular vision of the internet (Mann 2001).
In part, many groups who would benefit from a deployment of internet technology to achieve a universal, democratic, commons (as well as their less socially-redeeming counterparts (Orenstein 2001)) are not as well-positioned to fight for their beliefs in the current climate – they lack the money and the resources of the commercial interests arrayed against them. The conviction that the technology itself prevented certain forms of regulation was useful for these groups, who might struggle to participate in a social debate over the uses of technology on an equal footing with large, well-financed, and politically-connected adversaries.
At the same time, these groups must fight against a cultural current that reverses many of the priorities from the days of internet commercialisation. Advocates for values chracteristic of the boom often read as though they are swimming against the current in warning that many good qualities are being thrown out in the rejection of the boom’s excesses – including perhaps the capacity for innovation, creativity, and flexibility, the process of turning power over to consumers, a more egalitarian organisation of the corporation, principles of universal accessibilty to information, and many other values that were integral aspects of the boom era – and were reinforced by the rhetoric of revolution and of the frontier. Their argument is difficult to make because the downsides of the boom are integrally tied to the same rhetoric: the revolution, with its associated images of unbridled progress bursting through existing limitations, and the frontier, with its associated image of limitless resources and the inevitable corrollary of the gold rush, are both now implicated in current anxieties over economic and even personal security.
In the manner similar to how the rhetoric of revolution and the frontier tended to wash away objections in the late 1980s and 1990s, that rheotic now taints everything once associated with it – in effect creating the grounds for an instant objection. Dismissive – and historically quite inaccurate – comments that link the revolutionary and froniter rhetoric to “hippies” and “the 1960s counterculture” are now quite common – assimilating the far more recent faith in the internet revolution, which extended through the mainstream government and business communities, with a defeated (and socially marginalised) revolutionary movement much farther in the past.
These dismissive comments – and the framework of perceptions that underlies them – testify to the psychological distance many observers have apparently achieved relative to forms of perception and thought that would have been quite common even a few years ago. Individuals and groups that seek to preserve key values from the boom period must somehow span this psychological distance – and thus far have not located a suitable set of metaphors for communicating their goals, without evoking a whole set of discredited associations from the boom era.
If the present trend seems to be toward greater awareness that society can control technology and choose the freedoms technology will grant, I am suggesting that this trend is no more aware – and also no more blind – than the earlier conviction that the technology would drive the adoption of specific freedoms. Both are conditioned by a set of historical experiences, articulated culturally in specific ways – and both could be transcended by an analysis of why certain arguments, certain stances, certain metaphors, and even certain technologies appeal to us when they do, in the way that they do. Awareness of the factors that influence us – that cause certain things to resonate with us at certain times, but not at others – would help us to formulate a strategy for the appropriate social use of technology that could transcend the limitations of our particular moment in history.
By helping us see more clearly the issues and images that are more relevant for us than they have been for others, this approach can enable more conscious, self-aware decisionmaking about the social uses of the internet and other technologies. In a technologically and socially dynamic world – where even at the “broad strokes” level of this essay I can posit three distinct cultural moments in the course of some forty years – this approach can help us avoid the dismissal of promising potentials from an earlier period, even as we gain insights about new potentials. The process of social transformation and technological change represents “progress” only if we can learn from what came before – preserving the worthwhile insights of earlier periods, in addition to rejecting what has been demonstrated by history to be wrong or premature. Without greater insight into our own historical moment, we can remain too caught up in the present, and progress can be difficult to achieve.
Through the small example of the internet technologies and their quite different appropriation across a relatively short span of time, I have tried to demonstrate the wide factors beyond the technology itself that can influence a technological trend. I have also tried to suggest that we can play a larger and more conscious role in setting technological (and other) trends – but only if we remain aware of the broader social context within which we make decisions governing the social use of technology.