Cyberspace as Marchland
The picture I provided to Dan for his introductory post was taken at South Point on the Big Island of Hawaii, which my wife and I visited last month on our honeymoon. South Point is, as the name implies, the southernmost point on the Big Island and therefore the southernmost point in the United States. It is accessible only via an 11-mile-long, one-lane, barely paved road that cuts directly through a sparsely inhabited, windswept plain to the ocean. At the end of the road, the only signs of life are the makeshift parking lot for visitors, a nondescript navigational beacon, and a rickety pair of boat launches. The area is as isolated as it looks. Although other parts of the island are booming, particularly the area around Kona, the south side of the island, and South Point in particular, has been left behind. The guide books all warn against paying for parking at the nearby “Visitor’s Center;” in fact it is an abandoned building, and the people charging are squatters, not state employees. The proprietor at one of the B&B’s we stayed at told us that people go to live at South Point when they don’t want to be found.
The area is also littered with the remains of failed business ventures. One of the more spectacular of these is the wind farm just north of South Point, pictured above. I have no idea who built the wind farm, or why. But there are now several dozen wind mills standing in various states of disrepair. A few still spin, making a plaintive low whistle that you can listen to if you stop the car and turn the engine off (your entertainment mileage may vary). Most are rusted in place. Several have one or more blades missing. The scene reminded me of what Shelley must have had in mind when he wrote Ozymandias, thinking of Luxor and knowing little of ancient Egypt’s history:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The whole thing strikes me as an apt metaphor for cyberspace. Getting there requires tying South Point and Ozymandias to colonial America, turbulence, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and peer-to-peer filesharing.
In 1986, Bernard Bailyn, writing the introduction for his “Peopling of North America” project, proposed that far from being a central part of the 18th-century world, the British possessions in North America are best viewed as a “marchland,” “the exotic far western periphery … of the metropolitan European culture system.” Marchland literally means “borderland,” but Bailyn had something slightly different in mind — not a border between one region and another, as the 15th-century Scottish marchland was, but the periphery of a certain culture. He thus saw the British colonies not as the inspiring frontier Frederick Jackson Turner described, but as “a ragged outer margin of a central world, a regressive, backward-looking diminishment of metropolitan accomplishment….” The marchland was a bizarre mix of gentility and savagery, where planters such as William Byrd II read ancient Greek and Hebrew texts one day and tortured their slaves the next. The colonies featured “overt violations of ordinary civil order–Indian wars, slavery, garrison government, the transportation of criminals,” and an “almost complete breakdown of normal civility” in the back-country. But they were not simply Lord of the Flies writ large. “[U]ltimately the colonies’ strange ways were only distensions and combinations of elements that existed in the parent cultures, but that existed there within constraints that limited, shaped, and in a sense civilized their growth. These elements were here released, fulfilled–at times with strange results that could not have been anticipated.” Marchlands are the Galapagos finches of their parent cultures–strange and unpredictable and perhaps somewhat unhealthy speciation that occurs in isolation from a common root. (For an interesting historiographic review of Bailyn’s work, including the “Peopling” project, see Alan Taylor, The Exceptionalist (sub. req.), New Republic, June 9, 2003. For a critical view of the “marchland” concept, see Robert Kelley, The Westward Movement, Reconceived Within a Transatlantic Framework, Reviews in American History, vol. 15, no. 2 (June 1987), pp. 213-219.)
South Point is a marchland in this sense — a “regressive diminishment” on the periphery of “metropolitan accomplishment,” where the institutions of social order are stretched thin. But South Point, much to the dismay of entrepreneurs, appears to be a stable marchland; its status is firmly rooted in whatever conditions have given rise to it. Far more interesting, in my view, are dynamic marchlands — regions poised on the cusp of transition from one social order to another. I’ve studied a few such areas, regions on the brink of shifting cultures from mining town to business community, or from isolated small farms to plantations tightly connected to a wider economy. Under certain conditions these transitions can lead to sharp conflicts, even violence. Conflict is most likely to appear when the social and economic status of at least one group is threatened by the change underway, or threatened by the failure of such change to take place. Across the West, the pattern of conflict was repeated as early settlers in a given region clashed with elite migrants from Eastern communities looking to become big fishes in small, new ponds. Doing so required that the migrants, in effect, replicate Eastern town social orders in new communities, only with themselves on top. Some places, such as Tombstone, Arizona, however, were stubbornly rowdy, threatening to stifle the replication before it could be effected.
The pattern of change and conflict in marchlands and other communities seems to me to resemble, in at least some superficial sense, the phase transition from order to chaos that has captured the attention of several scientists and mathematicians for the last few decades. An example of such a phase transition is the onset of turbulent flow — a fluid, such as a river, may proceed in an orderly fashion down a channel; but if the flow is fast enough, and if there are blunt enough obstacles in the stream, turbulence suddenly appears past a certain threshold. The equivalent factors for transitional marchlands are the speed at which the community is changing and the friction caused by obstacles to change.
Cyberspace is often analogized to the frontier, specifically the Wild West. The metaphor is overused, but nevertheless there is some truth to it, in that cyberspace has many of the qualities of a dynamic marchland. There were the early settlers, the scientists and the students and the pioneers who built a network based on trust, scholarly exchange, and creative activity. That world is rapidly disappearing as cyberspace is used for a much broader array of communications and transactions — the whole gamut of commercial and communicative activity. But a whole framework of assumptions about the distinction between individuals and commercial organizations, and the roles and responsibilities of each, persists in the online world — assumptions such as the assumption that individual copying of music is harmless; that the ability to defend speech generally extends as far as the speech itself; that communities are distinct, with enforceable memberships, and that rumors and embarrassments tend not to cross such boundaries; that worldwide reach implies the ability to retain lawyers to parse arcane rules and regulations. That persistence is an obstacle in the stream, creating turbulence.
If cyberspace is a marchland, Larry Lessig is its Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner famously saw the frontier as the crucible in which American individualism and entrepreneurial spirit were formed; the passing of the frontier therefore had troubling implications for the American character. Lessig similarly sees the cyberspace of the pioneers as one that augurs a new age of creativity. But cyberspace needs its Bernard Bailyn. Although it has elements of the offline culture, online culture is a bizarre borderland where spammers send pornographic entreaties, dogs pose as humans, predators stalk children and stalkers stalk everyone, identity thieves roam unmolested, government surveillance programs lurk behind every router, miscreants roam anonymously and defamation is rampant, intellectual property claims are ignored by millions of squatters (a/k/a filesharers), and even the most minor transaction is accompanied by a nine-page form compelling arbitration in Nevada. Online-only businesses have emerged to serve the new needs of the pioneers — the saloons and gambling halls of cyberspace. Amidst this freakshow come the Eastern townsfolk, the offline businesses and their customers, seeking to replicate the offline world online, with themselves in charge. As Bailyn’s work suggests, they will not entirely succeed; the culture that emerges will be something different, mutated from its offline form, but still recognizable. Whereas Lessig mourns the passing of the cyberspace frontier, the ultimate but incomplete triumph of “metropolitan accomplishment” is inevitable.