Cyberspace as Marchland

Wind Farm at South Point, HIThe 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.)

Road to South PointSouth 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.

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8 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    Bruce,

    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 Match.com) 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.