I was watching "How the West Was Won," the rather two-dimensional film from the 1960s, when I was realizing the movie seemed to be all about space, and how cyberspace also is a range war, a street fight, the season of conflict, the Net’s counter-cultural O.K. Corral.
Each day, the diverse members of the global Web community slug it out like overactive children on an unsupervised playground. The issues flare up daily: privacy this, security that, threats to free speech, to decency, to copyright law and intellectual property claims, threats to tax e-commerce, threats of all kinds of legislation to regulate the Web, threats of wild-eyed Libertarian rhetoric promising to keep that from happening, threats to every brick-and-mortar truth that we once cherished to be trustworthy, orderly, efficient or real.
And lawsuits, yes, lots and lots of lawsuits. What’s more, the revolution in communications innovation has led a segment of the Net nation to curse across this anarchic, stormy digital sea with a capital “C,” as in the request to “Control this, please!” Upon seeing this in print or online or hearing it from our reeling leaders, the other part of the equation, the more experienced, Net-savvy geeks, immediately plea, “Don’t fence me in!” Indeed, the Web-related news crosses our eyes like a video game called “History Repeats,” if only because the contestants resonate with such haunting familiarity.
The terrain is populated with pioneers, with homesteaders, with cybersquatters, with megalomaniac innovators that we compare to either the robber barons of yesteryear, or, the persecuted visionaries of wannabe e-topia. We have restless natives, chattels of free and easy prostitution, unlocked “back doors” in operating system software for marauding outlaws, code-slinging ne’er do wells, a devious bogey folk all politely pointed out to us by reformed “hackavists,” who paint themselves as benevolent civil servants because they claim to the wear white----as opposed to black----10-gallon hats.
Just what is it about this evergreen myth about the Old West that many find so relevant, so hip, so instructive, so seductive? In the past, the image of the cowboy has sold everything from cars to cigarettes to movie tickets to presidents, and now it’s being used on the Web. But does it ring true, help the cause of liberty that it’s supposed to mythologize? If it’s a falsehood, is holding on to an oversimplification damaging to the very same virtues it’s supposed to espouse? And if the Web is global, how does this Wild, Wild West fantasy play in London, Bejing or Bahrain … or even middle America, which abhors anarchy, smarty pants libertinism, doesn’t know a Harvard philosopher geek’s think tank from a hole-in-the-wall Web site offering electronic lotto, and never will?
Let us count the many, many ways that the metaphor can be applied as an aid to understanding the Web as a once-wild place that’s passing before our eyes, and how its center----due to the unique “nature” of the Web----cannot hold … A Beaconing Bonanza The e-commerce trading posts are well attuned to the power of myth. For example, a radio commercial for Wells-Fargo connects the dots from the early days of the Pony Express and the stage coaches that linked the frontier’s far-flung outposts, and then brings us up to date on how their pioneer legacy continues by offering home loans online. Certainly, the television commercials promoting the Internet sound like “repurposed” Horace Greeley, extorting, this time, “Go Web, young man.”
But many potential consumers believe it’s still a jungle out there: Harvesting personal data on Net user habits without getting prior permission. Having the FTC investigate the matter didn’t hurt. For a consumer out in the wild, the weapon of choice is no longer the Colt .45 or Winchester rifle. Instead, it’s anonymizing security and encryption software. Calling in the Cavalry Crossing the new frontier, homesteaders want protection from porn sites, hate sites, stalkers, from manipulators working the strings like programming puppeteers. While the “normal folk” settlers on the frontier cry for safety from insidious raids and invasions of privacy by nefarious operators big and small, U.S. government officials raise (maybe even promote) concerns about how denial of service assaults and a drop in consumer confidence over the Web can stall the booming economy.
People want sweeping powers to locate and prosecute the black-hatted hackers, as well as to investigate this new field of crime in general. Anonymous is public enemy No. 1.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, as deputy attorney general for the Clinton administration, said a decade ago he was discussing the introduction of “legal tools to locate, identify, and prosecute cyber criminals."
Any response to this prospect has always depended on an individual’s tolerance for government interference, and what they think Marshall McLuhan was thinking when he wrote, “Men on frontiers, whether of time or space, abandon their previous identities. Neighborhood gives identity. Frontiers snatch it away.” If lawmakers define their models for confinement and control in the benevolent terms of prudence, justice and public safety, Civil libertarians, with nearly fundamentalist faith in the anonymous browser on the wide-open frontier, blanch with abject paranoia.
Indeed, it doesn’t soothe such concerns when the administration and congressional leaders, preaching privacy to the masses, are constantly looking for new opportunities to invade it. For example, signed to law by Congress in 1994, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) required the telecommunications industry to design systems that comply with FBI technical guidelines to facilitate electronic surveillance. The Clinton administration’s intent on Internet regulation was a wild and wooly attempt to navigate the new internet, anything the Web could offer. At times, a laissez faire approach: self-regulatory conduct was encouraged, as was public education on “cyberethics,” and voluntary cooperation between law enforcement and private industry.
But even as Clinton announced that “first and foremost, we have to safeguard our citizens’ privacy,” CBS’ “60 Minutes” was investigating the National Security Agency’s designed and operated (in cooperation with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) global surveillance network, Echelon, which monitors international phone calls, faxes and e-mail transmissions. A report commissioned by the European Parliament accused the United States of using Echelon for commercial espionage. The NSA denied it listens in on U.S. citizens (which would in fact be illegal), that's a fantasy at best and a lie at worst for a realm that knows no borders.
Call some place paradise … To the old-timers and free-speech advocates, the threats of e-commerce far outweigh any invasive possibilities raised by the Feds, NSA spooks or whole brigades of hackers. To this group, the birth of the World Wide Web is as fondly romanticized as the birth of the Republic itself. Ah, those bygone days of egalitarianism, fraternity and liberty, to the promise of the New Jerusalem … Onward to the wild frontier, the virgin country, the uncharted expanse, served hot with an espresso at the cyber café. But then came, so the elitist fable goes, Netscape and Internet Explorer, and every man and woman became an online Lewis and Clark. Suddenly, the chat room is full of Okkies. So free-thinker’s paradise is trampled, apparently, in the mad, mad rush to turn the enlightenment salon into a cash cow. And who can argue?
That’s what mankind does with space, after all, be it outer, inner, cyber or dirt-real. Property lines are plotted, fences are posted, whole glittering dot-cities of commerce rise on the prairie. Then somebody builds a better search engine, and there’s a gold rush, followed by another great migration. Before you know it, virtual ghost towns and other old links clutter each Boolean search page, all of the wild meat is either trapped or on display at the Yahoo.com city zoo, and the once-fertile field of opportunity seems overcrowded. So-called “psychological space” seems to have been appropriated by Mammon himself. The end result is a medium that’s increasingly safe, sanitized and navigable. But it’s also as mundane as the rest of Mall America on every bleak, bland, pointless day of week.
Nice thing about the post-Dubya, Obama administration years is this: With social media, he who controls and leverages and shares information, is both a rogue cop and a hyper-pedestrian on a two-way street. Making the whole internet a kind of bee hive of humanitarian concerns, as well as, as the late novelist Edward Abbey might put it: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
(Editor's note, this piece is kind of a new take on an old idea, originating at Access Internet Magazine in the year 2,000. Thoughts along the same lines are detailed, and still relevant, in my book, "Human Search Engine," as well as "23 Roads to Mythville.")