There’s no digital frontier and it isn’t closing

I usually do not spend time on this blog analyzing other people’s analysis of web trends. There are bloggers who do that more often, and far better, than I do. But I read an article that I so wholly don’t agree with that I want to use it to clarify my own thinking.

Michael Hirschorn’s The Closing of the Digital Frontier (Atlantic Monthly, July/Aug 2010) has one major premise and a few historical analogies, none of which I see as workable.

Hirschorn begins by discussing the long-standing cultural trend (represented by groups like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link and individuals like Howard Rheingold and Kevin Kelly) toward a free web. Here the word “free” is used as the opposite of “expensive”. Having toured the “futurism past”, he gets to the main point:

The shift of the digital frontier from the Web, where the browser ruled supreme, to the smart phone, where the app and the pricing plan now hold sway, signals a radical shift from openness to a degree of closed-ness that would have been remarkable even before 1995.

Hischorn then describes Apple as “swimming with the tide” in promoting a pay-per-app model that closes the “frontier” of the web, where presumably cowboys like Google will try to keep the range free. The “Wild Digital West” will be no more. It has been “colonized” and is no longer “free” (by this point he seems to mean “open” rather than “not expensive”).

I thought I agreed at first. I am very unhappy with Apple. Business Week’s look at Steve Jobs as marketer extraordinare reminded me how the vision of Apple has changed over the years, and I came to the conclusion that my favorite Apple years were those between Jobs’ stints as head of the company (1985-1995). I recognize Apple now as focusing primarily on the consumer of goods for which one pays (movies, books, etc) instead of on creators. I find that very sad, and annoying to me personally, since I don’t do Windows and like to create my work as well as “consume” that of others’.

But Hirschorn’s historical parallels don’t work, and Apple’s toys are not, I think, changing the model of freedom so much as indicating where it isn’t (despite Jobs trying to characterize the new iPad as a “freeing” device). Apple does not have a “free” business model, and the “transfer” to mobile apps isn’t a transfer, but an addition. The article points out that very young people aren’t getting into this app stuff as much as expected. I can assure you the older set won’t either, if only because (iPad excepted) the screens are too small.

There is no digital frontier being fought over or colonized. The word frontier suggests an edge and the imposition of limits beyond the limits, and saying that this is a “land grab” on the order of Manifest Destiny, complete with victimized Indians (bloggers? open sourcers?) is specious. The Turner thesis of 1893, which is alluded to, did panic people and may have influenced imperial expansion, but it doesn’t provide a model for what’s happening today. I read the article three times and I can’t even figure out who the “colonizers” are supposed to be.

What’s happening as I see it is two marketplaces. One is considered “closed”, except it isn’t because you can buy anything you like. You can pay for “content”, and consume information, entertainment, the products of professional writers and artists. If we do not pay for this, there would BE no professional writers and artists. I buy my subscriptions to magazines and purchase printed books because I want their work on paper, but I can easily see the need to pay for it on the web. I pay gladly for Netflix, because I could not make a movie like “Nine” and I want the people who did to be paid somehow, even though I’m not happy at buying the DVD product itself that costs 99 cents to produce but is marketed to me at $15.

The other marketplace is one of free ideas, open source software, blogging, etc. Open exchange of ideas. The ancient Greek agora, the medieval faire, the 18th century coffeehouse. It’s a place, not a “store”. It’s where you can create and try things out before creating them for sale, as bloggers do who develop their professional writing online. It’s where you upload that stop-motion Lego animation you made yourself, or that cool Star Trek mashup.

It’s not Apple vs Google (Hatfield and McCoy?), as Hirschorn suggests — Google is ultimately a store, it’s just that it’s “product” right now is navigational with ads attached. It is not the guardian of the open web defending against Apple incursions. We are the guardians of freedom. The incursions on openness come not from Apple’s business model (however much I don’t like it) but from ISPs limiting bandwidth, privacy violations a la Facebook, and Patriot Act subpeonas. These threats to freedom (and the ongoing fight against them) suggest not so much a frontier as a cosmopolitan city, with ideas interacting everyday. That’s something I think we can keep.