A Historian In Cyberspace

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It is a familiar pattern. Americans, perpetually optimistic, are also perpetually disappointed. In this way, the accelerated history of Cyberspace has recapitulated the history of the country where it has most flourished. Things tend to begin with millennial visions and end in comfort, convenience, commerce, and more than a little regret and guilt. A dominant emotion of Cyberspace might be called “anticipointment,” a perpetual sense of possibility undercut by the acknowledgment that the reality can never quite live up to idealized images we have of it.

Echoes of earlier periods of American history run through much of the discussion of Cyberspace. Even as they talk about the newest and latest things, commentators reach toward familiar formulas, standards, and assumptions that have shaped much of American public and private life since the birth of the Republic. Confronted with a new medium and a new expressive freedom, Americans have seized on familiar metaphors of prophecy and analysis.

The most obvious analogy for the new information age is with the Wild West. Images of gold rushes and gunfights fill stories about otherwise humdrum business Web ventures. The other obvious analogy is with the robber barons and the Gilded Age. Bill Gates finds himself compared, depending on who’s doing the comparing, to both the rapacious Jay Gould and the generous Andrew Carnegie. Editorials attack the concentration of wealth in the new realm with a spirit the Populists would have applauded. “Five years into the e-commerce revolution,” one editorial in the San Jose Morning News , on August 1, 1999, raged, “the big dogs of mass-market retailing are throwing untold millions into the development of category-dominating megasites.” Such people watch with disgust as the democratic possibilities of Cyberspace seem to disappear as quickly as they materialize. The Americans with the least access to this new landscape turn out to be those who have the least access to the existing landscape: the poor, the black, the urban, the rural, and the old.

Economic inequality is not the only threat to democracy in Cyberspace. Many people worry more about the absence of authority than about its concentration. In the wake of the shooting spree at Columbine High School, an editorial in The New York Times noted that one of the young killers had maintained a Web site that contained directions for making a bomb, along with threatening cartoons and lyrics, posted for anyone to see. But no one did see, or if they did, they didn’t attempt to stop the outburst. “Precisely because the Internet is such a neutral, free, open and unregulated technology,” the same editorialist lamented, “it means that we are all connected, but no one is in charge. The Internet is a democracy, but with no constitution.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, of all people, would have understood. Tocqueville, who has been routinely trotted out to explain every facet of American community and character for the last 150 years, did seem to speak directly to the world of Cyberspace. Indeed, when one considers all the writers on Cyberspace, it may actually have been Tocqueville, in the 183Os, who has come the closest to capturing its relationship to the United States, because Cyberspace is a clear projection of core American hopes and anxieties.

Tocqueville’s great Democracy in America explored the paradoxes of a place where no one seemed in charge yet people behaved with remarkable uniformity, where everything seemed possible yet devoid of the joy one might expect in a land so prosperous and free. One commentator on Tocqueville, writing years before either the Net or Cyberspace had been imagined, distilled the essence of the French visitor’s argument: “The egalitarian principle takes a heavy toll from the human personality, sacrificing depth to busyness, and courtesy to vulgarity, putting easy social relations ahead of meaningful human ones, restlessness ahead of rootedness, independence ahead of authority, private decision ahead of public taste, materialist well-being ahead of the intangibles of the mind, the belief in progress ahead of a sense of complexity in society and history, and the ‘indefinite perfectibility of man’ ahead of the mystery of the supernatural.” These words anticipated, with remarkable thoroughness, the laments of many who worry about morality in Cyberspace. Every clause has been the focus of one critic or another of the new space growing in our midst. Cyberspace seems a distillation of America. Both are quick, shallow, and lonely as well as hopeful, energetic, and sociable.

LIKE TOCQUEVILLE’S AMERICA, CYBERSPACE AMERICA confronts no old order to overthrow, no virtual monarchy, church, or aristocracy to slow its spreading dominion. There is only momentum: of network, of mass communication, of consumerism, of hunger for speed, stimulation, and gratification. As in Tocqueville’s America, the government in Cyberspace is decentralized, distrusted, weak, and afraid to interfere. As in Tocqueville’s America, the denizens of Cyberspace are fascinated by any machinery faster and shinier than yesterday’s machinery. People flock together to discuss UFOs, politics, or stocks online, just as they flocked to the lodges, reform organizations, and religions they invented on the spot in the America of Andrew Jackson. The impulse is constant; only the medium has changed.