Digital Frontiersmen

Many cultural theorists have reflected upon the tendency of American citizens to consider their individual rights in terms of a frontiersman identity – we can see this most prominently in the fascination with the Western genre. We seem to love the idea of being solely responsible for our own safety, reputation, success, and overall lifestyle, while being quick to reject anything that impinges upon our ability to retain control over these aspects of our lives.

I read an article this morning that asserted that in modern American life this frontiersman-like sense of identity is less pervasive than it used to be, citing all the usual suspects when it comes to social change: the internet, the economy, and the emergence of new types of international conflict. This is not a baseless claim, but I think it misses a larger point – the frontiersman identity is more than just something we derive from watching John Wayne movies and relishing our 2nd amendment rights. It is a core narrative that is practically part of our DNA as Americans.

The frontiersman ideal is intrinsically tied to viewing the past with rose-colored glasses. On an actual frontier, any chance to reflect upon the positive qualities of this state is stifled by more present concerns; such is the nature of total responsibility for one’s well-being. It is therefore only possible to idealize this state in retrospect, and these concerns inevitably fall by the wayside.

I bring this up because I think we’re currently seeing something similar happen in regards to internet regulation. The push to keep the internet unregulated is predicated on the notion that it once existed as a digital frontier – one free of government influence in which everyone had an equal chance to create any type of content without fear of penalty. The actual history of the internet tells a different story, but that is of little importance in regards to what people want from the internet today. For some, the goal now is to use various types of encryption and workarounds to bring this ideal to reality. Of course, it is almost certainly impossible to completely divorce the internet from government regulation and monitoring, and this presents an important question: which would be closer to the ideal? Modern digital escape attempts from the government’s watchful eye, or the early stages of web 1.0 as it actually existed?

And then perhaps the most important question of all: is either even ideal in the first place?


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