The electronic frontier is closed

With the death of John Perry Barlow, it is time to start writing the history of the open web.

Usually, historians are poor analysts of current events, and poor predictors of the future. Just look at Woodrow Wilson, idealistically trying to build a world of peace after the Great War. One of the problems is that we cannot write the history until something ends*. It is too soon, for example, to write the history of school shootings in America, or of post-rational politics. We are in the middle of these things.

In 1893 at an American Historical Association conference, Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the frontier. In his view, the “wild west” was over. The western frontier had served as an escape valve throughout American history, providing a place for dreamers and those who just didn’t fit in to start a new life, take their chances. But gradually the frontier was contained, mapped by geographers, fenced by ranchers, crossed by railroads. And while imperialists might use Turner’s proclamation to support their own internationally expansionist goals, the point was that the wild west was done, and therefore it was time to write its history.

So now it is time to write the history of the open internet, the electronic frontier, as Barlow called it. As in the wild west, the freedom that marked the early web would be contained, civilized, and gradually controlled by commercial and government interests. As it closed, the shift in the nature of the space gave birth to new threats. Where on the open web bad disruptors were restrained by the community, commercial spaces made possible abuses never seen before, and controlled by no one. From trolls to cyberhacking to international meddling in elections, the enclosed spaces themselves gave rise to horrors.

In its obituary of Barlow, The Economist quoted from his 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” :

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.

Sometimes historians get to experience historical change themselves. While never a computer expert, I learned in the 1980s the mysteries of ProDOS and the Apple IIe. To me, computers were only sophisticated word processors, each generation enabling me to correct errors and write faster. Using Netscape in the late 1990s, I began teaching history on the wild web, grading assignments by email and posting lectures in HTML that I learned from a book.

In education, the wild west began to diminish with the advent of the learning management system, and I spent the next dozen years or so fighting to keep online college classes free of the imposed pedagogy inherent in these systems, even as I learned to use them myself. I also dreamed that the artisan way of doing things would survive the growth of mechanized online teaching. Blackboard and now Canvas are the educational equivalents of Facebook and Google – entities that began with a worthy goal but now manage information in controlled commercial spaces. And, as with the web in general, this control paradoxically encourages the worst elements to emerge. College courses, for so many students the opportunity to think freely, now feature a level of standardization and accountability that Henry Ford would have envied.

I still believe, like Barlow, that the freer the space, the less opportunity there is for abusing our fellow human beings. But all that has passed. It is time now to write the history of the web that was open to all, when everything was possible, where the disembodied voice spoke to a world that wanted to listen and learn. Historians take dreams and wrap them up, explaining events in a way that gives meaning and context. So this is a wrap: the electronic frontier is closed.


*Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France may be the one exception to this rule.

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