Cyberspace as Marchland

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:


    This is the most interesting and insightful blog post I’ve seen in a while. The blogosphere can’t do it justice.

    That being said, it’s still wrong. (Insert smiley or some similar thing here.)

    First, why the cyberspace exceptionalism, especially wrt the “framework of assumptions?” I’d suggest that many of the framework of assumptions are common off as well as online. Individual copying of music existed long before the internet, free speech absolutism existed long before the internet, distinct communities with enforceable memberships surely existed long before the internet (and I don’t know who thinks that all communities are distinct and with enforceable memberships even on the internet), etc.

    For that matter, predators and stalkers, identity thieves, and government surveillance are not something special about the internet. J. Edgar Hoover didn’t need the internet to spy on the citizenry. The modalities of identity theft are many-splendored in meatspace and cyberspace, and the classics are non-cyber misbehaviors like dumpster diving, pickpocketing, and stealing of cash register receipts. Lord knows that meatspace has no shortage of nine-page forms compelling arbitration in Nevada.

    Second, aren’t some of the “assumptions” arguably true? And not necessarily “assumptions” either way? For example, there is actual real scholarly work on the harm, or lack thereof, of individual copying of music.

    What if cyberspace is nothing but a structural gloss on basic cultural forces that have always existed? The architectural malleability that represents one of Larry Lessig’s great insights permits more of them to come to the fore, but there’s still the basic human relationships that existed beforehand.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    Thanks Paul for your compliments, and thanks for pressing me to explain more of what I meant; maybe I can answer your questions to your satisfaction or maybe not, but either way there is more detail to be had.

    I think you’re quite right that there is nothing fundamentally new about any of the problems I described; and this is in keeping with the “marchland” metaphor. Slavery, warfare, prisons, etc. all existed before the British colonies; it was not their existence that gave the marchland its character, but their prevalence and the way they transformed (according to Bailyn) Old World culture on the western Atlantic rim.

    I’m making the same sort of argument about cyberspace. The conceptual framework I referred to is the equivalent of European and African cultures pre-“peopling” of North America: it developed in the absence of the Internet and the Internet’s capacity to greatly reduce the cost of information creation and transfer. In that conceptual framework, certain assumptions were made: for example, that entities with the power to publish millions of documents worldwide also have the power to hire lawyers to interpret complex regulations and to defend their actions anywhere the documents should appear. I’m not talking only about copyright here, but to take a copyright example, we have cultural and legal norms that say that private copying and use of songs is no big deal; but commercial copying and use of songs is a big deal and needs in many cases to be licensed. Or, to switch to privacy and defamation, we are still dealing with common pre-Internet assumptions about harmless gossip, on the one hand, and the amount of effort and the type of actions it would take to seriously damage someone’s reputation. Those norms used to safely coexist, mostly in the background without calling much attention to themselves, but they do no longer. I’m not saying they are so much “false” as obsolete.

    So I think I agree with your last paragraph that what I am describing are “basic cultural forces that have always existed;” but I disagree that cyberspace is a “structural gloss” on those forces. Rather, I think it is a changed environment that exposes and brings into conflict inconsistent beliefs that have been long held safely apart.

  3. Paul Gowder says:

    Oooh, I see. I partially misunderstood your post then, and particularly the “framework of assumptions” part.

    I guess then my only big gripe with your post (apart from the fact that emotionally, I’m with L.L. in mourning the frontier) is that cyberspace seems to be missing the (fundamentally) one-way and (fundamentally) separate relationship with meatspace that the marchland had (I think?) with the old world. Unlike the colonies, there’s no real distance between cyberspace and meatspace. It would follow that there’s nothing preventing cyberspace from influencing meatspace as much as the other way around. Why is it inevitable that the culture of “metropolitan accomplishment” will triumph over the internet, instead of the culture of the frontier triumphing over “the offline businesses and their customers?”

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    Paul, that’s a really good point and I need to think more about exactly how this works. We’re already dealing with a bit of a conceit to begin with when we talk about cyberspace as a “place;” as I think Jack Goldsmith pointed out, we don’t talk about “telephone space” or “TV space.” Cyberspace is a communications medium; it does not have inhabitants who live there and nowhere else, and so it’s probably not accurate to talk about cyberspace having some sort of culture that is sharply delineated from IRL culture. But nevertheless, I do think of it as a forum, as the historical marchlands I’ve looked at, in which people are thrown together in new ways and old assumptions overthrown. And I think to the extent there is an “online culture,” it is a distended version of offline culture; and that much like Bailyn was suggesting about the colonies, the result of that distension will be, even after the violence and the bizarre behavior ebbs, the culture that remains behind will be fundamentally altered from what came before. I agree with you that this means that the offline world will change along with the online world; as for which will have the most influence over the final product, I don’t have much more right now than a hunch.

  5. theimbroglio says:

    Not that I want to bring down the level of discussion here, but I found your photo and description of the South Point windfarm so depressing I had to find out more about it. I was happy to learn (scroll about halfway down) the windfarm is supposed to be “repowered” and come back to life bigger and better than ever later this year.

    Perhaps it won’t turn out to be such a stable marchland after all…

  6. Bruce Boyden says:

    Interesting, Imbroglio, thanks. The disclaimer on the photo, “The wind turbines installed at South Point may or may not be different,” is kind of amusing. Having been there, I can attest that the wind turbines installed there are indeed different, i.e., mostly non-functional.

    I looked briefly for more info on the Apollo Energy Corporation, and found this page, which indicates that the current owners bought the wind farm in 1994 and plan to replace the existing 37 towers with 14 new ones. But I didn’t see any evidence of that occurring yet.

  7. Frank says:

    The marchland analogy is brilliant, though I fear the direction you’re taking it in. I just hope that “metropolitan accomplishment” includes both “perfect control” (where absolutely necessary) and “info-anarchy” (where that levels unjust inequalities of access).

    The following comments are based on my comments on Julie Cohen’s Cyberspace as Place–a piece I’d definitely recommend (I think it’s coming out in Columbia this year).

    I think the main reason for cyberspace’s lawlessness (and freedom) is anonymity. I’d love to hear more of your view of the place of anonymity in cyberspace–is it a dangerous Ring of Gyges that must be minimized at all costs? will that be an aspect of “metropolitan accomplishment?” or do we value, ala McIntyre in con law, some forms of anonymous speech?

    Anonymity, invisibility, and systematic “filtering out” of certain “others” pose interesting issues here. For example, an internet dating site (like or social networking site (like Friendster or MySpace) might be seen as an amazingly convenient and empowering virtual “meeting place” that de-emphasizes the “lookism” or “localism” of daily life and permits one to find others on the basis of more refined affinities (like, say, a common reading list, musical interests, etc) On the other hand, the importance of pictures on such sites and location information replicates realspace meeting places. And some are also an astonishingly effective tool for racism, “size-ism,” or any other form of discrimination—one can simply filter out, say, all individuals who are a certain race, over a certain height, etc., in one’s “search.”

  8. Bruce Boyden says:

    Great comment, Frank, thanks. I think you’re right to “fear” the direction I’m taking this. :-)

    On anonymity, that’s obviously one key feature of cyberspace that makes it different than real-space transactions; others are the ones I mentioned, the ease, speed, and reach of transmitted information. Anonymity in particular makes it difficult to enforce the boundaries of community or group membership, which leads to destabilizing mixes of groups — everything from the persistent comment troll, to predators on MySpace and AOL chat rooms, to children accessing porn, as Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in Reno v. ACLU points out. But of course, none of the phenomena I’m discussing are entirely negative — perhaps not even mostly negative — which is what makes these issues genuinely difficult. The same instability allows people from different demographic backgrounds, who might never meet or talk in real space, to come together (or be forced together) and hear each other’s views. Unless you believe Cass Sunstein. It also, less controversially, allows the expression of views that otherwise would have no good outlet, e.g., criticism of employers.

    I hesitate to use another analogy, because I think I’m just reaching into a grab-bag of illustrations rather than making an argument, but this reminds me of the status-undermining nature of mobility in the nineteenth century, as described in Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women (1986). Haltunnen’s book, which I’m sure I’m about to butcher, argues that mobility disrupted traditional ways of marking social status among strangers, by disassociating appearance from one’s history in a given community. In a new or greatly expanded city formed mostly of recent arrivals, history was no longer a useful indicator of status, and con men in particular were able to capitalize on this by dressing well and appearing well mannered. This led to attempts to reliably transmit status through, e.g., the rise of fraternal organizations. Tombstone, for example, had several.

    Reva Siegel might view the rise of fraternal organizations as “preservation through transformation,” see “The Rule of Love”: Wife Beating as Prerogative and Privacy, 105 Yale L.J. 2117 (1996), but I’ve always had a less negative view of “transformation.” I don’t know the history of fraternal organizations all that well, but I’m willing to bet they were easier to break into than simply becoming a member of the elite in a static community. While “transformation” may have preserved elite status, I suspect it was weakened and fundamentally altered in the process.

    The same with anonymity. I don’t see the level of anonymity we have now (which is less perfect than most people seem to realize anyway) persisting for much longer, at least not at the architectural level. I see that level of anonymity as a “marchland” feature. But I do think that, like the “marchland,” that anonymity will not be totally eradicated, either, and that its effects will live on in both online and offline culture, which will eventually become one.