Friday, April 18, 2008

The Turner Thesis Comes to Cyberspace

The Turner Thesis, described in its Wikipedia entry as "the conclusion of Frederick Jackson Turner that the wellsprings of American exceptionalism and vitality have always been the American frontier, the region between urbanized, civilized society and the untamed wilderness," was very popular when I was in high school and was probably the motivating force behind newly-elected President John F. Kennedy's vision of a "new frontier." We do not hear very much about it these days; and it appears that in my blogging I have invoked it only once and then when I was quoting from a book proposal I had prepared for a project that is still not going anywhere. In the recent past Deadwood may have come closest in bringing the Turner Thesis back into national consciousness (without every mentioning it explicitly, of course). I brought this up when I was writing about my first impressions of J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, which, among other things, declared The Seven Samurai to be "no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state." Since Kurosawa's film was, in many ways, an homage to the classic Westerns of John Ford, I responded to Coetzee's text with the observation that Deadwood had similarly elevated the genre of the Western to an exploration of issues also concerned with "the origins of the state." This morning Tim Goodman was grousing in his TV Repairs column for the San Francisco Chronicle about HBO's failure to deliver on the promise of Deadwood movies that would "close out the narrative" (my phrase, not Goodman's), after David Milch moved on to his John From Cincinnati project; but Goodman may not have realized that any narrative true to the real story of Deadwood could not be anything but a downer.

Think about Milch's original project as fundamentally a narrative about two men whose respective moral compasses point in opposite directions: Seth Bullock (who quickly discovers that "once a lawman, always a lawman") and Al Swearengen (who sees and exploits the profit motive in unchecked liberty). Both men come to Deadwood to escape the expansion of "the state," not only through institutions of governance but also through the institutionalization of that profit motive (embodied in the character of George Hearst). (In real life, as we learn from his Wikipedia entry, Hearst actually embodied a merging of these two institutions, when he was appointed to represent California in the United States Senate.) While the HBO series ended with Hearst's "retreat" from Deadwood, taken as a dramatic endorsement that Deadwood would continue to be Deadwood, any continuation of the story would have had to dwell on how Deadwood ultimately ceased to be Deadwood in submission to those two institutions consuming it.

I have written all of this as a prologue to current thoughts about the future of the Internet, motivated in part by the invocation of Deadwood in the Blog Wars documentary I discussed yesterday. When Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, I doubt that anyone could have conceived that a vision of a new frontier would be fulfilled by the Internet. Yet that is what happened, and it is why it makes sense to think of Deadwood as a metaphor for the blogosphere. This morning, however, Andrew Donoghue filed a report for CNET, which should remind us that, if Deadwood has come, then the Turner Thesis cannot be far behind (to put a slight warp on Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"). In other words the forces of "urbanized, civilized society" are encroaching on the "untamed wilderness" areas of cyberspace. True to the Deadwood narrative, this message is coming from a representative of that institutionalization of the profit motive:

U.S. telecommunications giant AT&T has claimed that, without investment, the Internet's current network architecture will reach the limits of its capacity by 2010.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on Web 2.0 this week in London, Jim Cicconi, vice president of legislative affairs for AT&T, warned that the current systems that constitute the Internet will not be able to cope with the increasing amounts of video and user-generated content being uploaded.

"The surge in online content is at the center of the most dramatic changes affecting the Internet today," he said. "In three years' time, 20 typical households will generate more traffic than the entire Internet today."

Cicconi, who was speaking at the event as part of a wider series of meetings with U.K. government officials, said that at least $55 billion worth of investment was needed in new infrastructure in the next three years in the U.S. alone, with the figure rising to $130 billion to improve the network worldwide. "We are going to be butting up against the physical capacity of the Internet by 2010," he said.

He claimed that the "unprecedented new wave of broadband traffic" would increase 50-fold by 2015 and that AT&T is investing $19 billion to maintain its network and upgrade its backbone network.

Cicconi added that more demand for high-definition video will put an increasing strain on the Internet infrastructure. "Eight hours of video is loaded onto YouTube every minute. Everything will become HD very soon, and HD is 7 to 10 times more bandwidth-hungry than typical video today. Video will be 80 percent of all traffic by 2010, up from 30 percent today," he said.

The AT&T executive pointed out that the Internet exists, thanks to the infrastructure provided by a group of mostly private companies. "There is nothing magic or ethereal about the Internet--it is no more ethereal than the highway system. It is not created by an act of God, but upgraded and maintained by private investors," he said.

The ensuing question period made it clear that many in the audience saw this forecast as a stake in the ground in the debate over Net Neutrality:

Although Cicconi's speech did not explicitly refer to the term "Net neutrality," some audience members tackled him on the issue in a question-and-answer session, asking whether the subtext of his speech was really around prioritizing some kinds of traffic. Cicconi responded by saying he believed government intervention in the Internet was fundamentally wrong.

"I think people agree why the Internet is successful. My personal view is that government has widely chosen to...keep a light touch and let innovators develop it," he said. "The reason I resist using the term 'Net neutrality' is that I don't think government intervention is the right way to do this kind of thing. I don't think government can anticipate these kinds of technical problems. Right now, I think Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem."

Net neutrality refers to an ongoing campaign calling for governments to legislate to prevent Internet service providers from charging content providers for prioritization of their traffic. The debate is more heated in the United States than in the United Kingdom because there is less competition between ISPs in the States.

Content creators argue that Net neutrality should be legislated in order to protect consumers and keep all Internet traffic equal. Network operators and service providers argue that the Internet is already unequal, and certain types of traffic--VoIP, for example--require prioritization by default.

"However well-intentioned, regulatory restraints can inefficiently skew investment, delay innovation, and diminish consumer welfare, and there is reason to believe that the kinds of broad marketplace restrictions proposed in the name of 'neutrality' would do just that, with respect to the Internet," the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement last year.

In his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln reminded all who would hear that we cannot escape history (and we can thank Aaron Copland for keeping that message alive by including it in his "Lincoln Portrait"). However, while Lincoln's address did not have this specifically in mind, what we really cannot escape is the inevitability of governance and the regulatory authority of governmental institutions. Swearengen and Bullock tried their best to escape it, but the Deadwood that nurtured their escape eventually capitulated. Similarly, as I mentioned yesterday, the blogosphere is full of voices that have fumbled over questions of governance; but that fumbling does little more than stress the capacity of regulation to sort things out when complex problems are at stake.

If governance is inevitable, how, then, are the institutions of governance in cyberspace to be constituted? Without trying to promote HBO as a "classroom for our times," I would suggest that this is where we need to set aside the Deadwood narrative and turn instead to John Adams. We need to remember how much passionate and painful debate went into not only our Declaration of Independence but also the composition of our Constitution once that independence had been won; and we need to remember that the debate did not cease with the ratification of that Constitution. Internet evangelists get so carried away with the prospect of the Internet as a functioning anarchy that they become positively sybaritic in their rhetoric; but, as I observed yesterday, they celebrate Deadwood through a deliberate blindness to the dark side of its history. If we are to recognize that cyberspace has now become a social world unto itself, then we can no longer inhabit that world guided by nothing more than myopic self-indulgence. Like our Founding Fathers, we must begin to take on difficult questions that will engender unpleasant arguments in the hope that, however painful the process may be, it will ultimately address the needs of cyberspace government with a social system as robust as the one that our Constitution has provided for our own country.

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