Settling a Technological Frontier

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Technology as Frontier

When trying to understand the relationship between technology and human institutions, between software and management, few things offer more surprising insights than the American Frontier. We tend to associate this frontier with rugged individualism rather than computing machines or institutions. The stories that we tell of frontier settlement tend to emphasize the accomplishments of lone individuals, who are struggling to tame a rough and wild country. Miners defending their stake. Homesteaders building a place for their family. Lone sheriffs standing tall against bands of outlaws.

We should note that the American frontier was largely settled with new technologies and new technological disciplines. Steamboats opened the Louisiana purchase to settlement and they also demanded a new kind of engineer to design safe high-pressure boilers. Railroads drove the settlement of the Intermountain west and forced engineers to learn how to manage a complex network of resources. Telegraphs tied the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic cities and created the first class of engineers who worked solely with electricity.

Yet, beyond specific technologies and roles for engineers, the story of the American Frontier conveys larger technical lessons, the lessons of how new things force us to define new relationships with people and new kinds of organizations. In years, few writers captured that dynamic better than did John Perry Barlow (1948 – 2018) in his 1991 essay “Coming into the Country.”

A frontier is not a wilderness. It is not an empty place or a pristine environment, though it usually has fewer people than a civilized city and more native plants and animals. Rather than looking at people or wildlife, we define a frontier as an area that has weak or unsophisticated political, social or economic institutions. It might lack a government that can fully enforce the law, or schools that can adequately prepare children for adult life, or markets that can interact with the fully mature markets that operate in other parts of the country. However, a frontier is also a land under active human development. Its residents are working to strengthen law enforcement, create more sophisticated schools and build competitive markets. A frontier is a frontier because it is dynamic.

In 1991, cyberspace could safely be called a frontier. Computing technology had created new places for human activity but few of these places had strong institutions. The Arpanet, the research network funded by the U. S. Defense Department, was arguably the oldest, and had the most sophisticated users. It supported a few institutions but these were limited organizations that could not always survive a challenge to their authority. It offered little economic activity beyond the production of scientific results and the development of new technologies for the network itself. It had a number of social groups but there were discussion forums that could not tolerate unruly members. When a member made disruptive comments, they were usually ejected from the groups. In fact, most network institutions were supported, at least in part, by homogeneity, by people who shared common backgrounds, common education, or common histories or all three. Few were strong enough to include a diverse population and protect the rights of minorities.

The cyberspace of 1991 was also an environment that was under active development. In Europe, Tim Berners-Lee was creating a new set of network tools that used hypertext. These would open cyberspace to a much larger and much more diverse population. In the United States, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee was writing legislation that would create the modern Internet and allow commercial transactions. Furthermore, American institutions were starting to adjust their ideas so that they could operate within the world defined by these new technologies. The American court system had only recently exercised its authority over network transactions. The Federal Courts had founded Cornell graduate student Robert Tappan Morris guilty of misusing government supported networks. His crime had been to write a small program, called a worm, that could move through the network and gain access to computers without permission. As it spread, the worm reproduced itself and ultimately brought network computers to a halt.

When Morris was charged, he was supported by defenders who claimed that he done no wrong and hence the courts had no jurisdiction in the case. They claimed that Morris was doing technological work to demonstrate the shortcomings of the network. The court disagreed with this argument demonstrated its authority over network activity. It convicted Morris and imposed a punishment on him.

In this environment of 1991, John Perry Barlow stated that “Cyberspace is the homeland
of the Information Age, the place
where the citizens of the future are destined to dwell.” He argued that cyberspace was indeed a primitive frontier, a place of “savage computer interfaces, incompatible communications protocols, proprietary barricades, cultural and legal ambiguities.” He argued that it needed rugged pioneers, people who could help adjust the “old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context.” These pioneers would build the institutions that connected cyberspace to the greater society.

Barlow was a native of Wyoming, a state that regularly told stories of the time that it had been part of the American Frontier. As he described cyberspace, he echoed the ideas of the historian of that frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner. Shortly after Wyoming had become a state, forming the government that would end its frontier status, Turner had argued that the frontier was the central experience of American life. He wrote that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier.” He claimed that “this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward-with its few opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.” While many historians have argued that the American experience has been also shaped by forces beyond the frontier, most have conceded an important role for that frontier.

Wyoming needed roughly forty years to transform from a frontier to a state. Cyberspace needed nine years to accomplish the same thing. By 1994, it was starting to attract large numbers of the general public, people who had little understanding of network technologies. Four years later, it acquired both the technologies and policies that sustained commercial transactions and business institutions. At the turn of the millennium, it supported organizations that conducted most of their activities with network technologies but fully engaged conventional institutions.

The concept of the frontier is useful because it moves us away from looking at technology as the sole transformative force and gives us a better understanding of how we must adjust to radical change. The frontier experience is really a conversation, a conversation of adjustment. This conversation begins when people discover new methods to expand human endeavor, new ways to produce goods, to conduct transactions, to divide the common weal. These methods involve some component that seems to fall outside of existing rules and institutions. So those involved with these methods have to conduct a conversation with the leaders of the established society and determine how new methods will interact with the old. This conversation can often wander quite far from technological issues and raise questions that have bedeviled society for hundreds if not thousands of years. As Barlow noted, these questions can involve “property, expression, and identity” as well as the legitimacy of governments, the control of markets, and rights of individuals.

By themselves, such issues are difficult to address. They are complicated by the fact that this conversation between technology and society returns us to a primitive state. We find that neither side can completely understand the other. Engineers may understand how a new technology operates but it cannot completely articulate the implications of that technology. The managerial or social leaders can express the needs or limitations of existing institutions but rarely grasp all of the ways that those institutions are touched by new technologies or new methods.

Furthermore, this conversation cannot be improved through superficial changes. Frontiers are settled by living, by learning the nature of conflicts and the shortcomings of existing institutions. We cannot get engineers to understand social implications by giving them a quick course in communications nor can we make political leaders apprehend the consequences of new methods by giving them a short lecture on technologies. Barlow argued that cyberspace needed to be settled by those with technical skills. Computer scientists “are almost certainly more knowledgeable about the legal and cultural ambiguities surrounding digital communication and property than your computer-phobic fellow citizens,” he claimed. “You are thus well suited to the task of civilizing cyberspace.”

The experience of the past twenty-five years has pointed to a grain of truth in Barlow’s argument and also revealed its weakness. Those who have settle the land of cyberspace and built the big Internet institutions have all had at least a little technical training. At the same time, we have seen very clearly, that the most successful leaders of this field possess a broader set of skills that helps them get the full advantage of the new technology and understand what that technology is doing to their neighbors. The American Frontier was not settled by engineers. Indeed, as the intermountain west moved towards civilized life, those with engineering skills fled the west for places where they could better employ their abilities. Those who did the hard work of settling the frontier, were those who could grasp the full breadth of human experience.

The technological frontier will remain central problem even though John Perry Barlow’s Cyberspace has been settled. New technologies provide new ways of conducting the business of society but those same technologies return organizations to primitive conditions, situations where rules and operations need to be adjusted, and where the residents need to understand each other better. Such work is rarely simple or straightforward. Any success is achieved through experience and by viewing the change from the broadest possible perspective. That is the frontier experience the Internet created. That is the frontier experience we will see again as new technologies move into our lives.

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hwms.coverart In the Podcast How We Manage Stuff:

A more dramatic explanation of Technology as  Frontier and an appreciation of John Perry Barlow.