The metaphor is an easy one, overused and perhaps even a bit overwrought. We are forging forward into a digital frontier, leaving convention behind, traveling without guides into an uncharted virtual land where progress and profits are forever around the next bend.
In the 19th century, Americans expanded into a physical frontier — a geographic edge of society brimming with opportunities and dangers and challenges and setbacks. So began the notion of manifest destiny: the idea that, no matter what, the US pushes outward to the farthest edge of the most distant place possible.
Today, almost two centuries after that term was coined, US expansionism is playing out vigorously at society’s latest cutting edge: the social space of the Internet. Friday’s high-octane, US$16 billion initial public offering of the global juggernaut that is Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is, for better or worse, the most recent example of how the new frontier has been cultivated, colonized and commanded by entrepreneurial Americans.
As the manufacturing economy reconfigures, you often hear the lament that “America doesn’t make anything anymore.” But then there’s this: Most of the world’s digital centers of gravity have been, and remain, American. Apple and Microsoft. Google and Yahoo. YouTube and Amazon and eBay. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Kickstarter. Netflix. PayPal. Akamai, the content-delivery behemoth. Intel, the internal combustion engine of the whole shebang, and for that matter, the Internet itself and the organization that regulates its domain names were both born and raised in — you guessed it — the US.
A digital manifest destiny is playing out, built upon the notion that the US’ outward expansion continues apace on the virtual frontier. What the self-defined sense of American exceptionalism built in the physical world, it is now building in the digital one.
“It’s a projection of American values — what international experts would call soft power,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
Look at what the digital space disseminates, he said: freedom of the press, of information and of assembly; knowledge and scientific advancement; free-market mechanisms and entrepreneurialism.
“It’s hard to think of a cluster of ideas and architectures that would more allow basic American cultural values to propagate,” said Rainie, co-author of the new book, Networked: The New Social Operating System.
Technological progress has always walked hand in hand with US expansion. Where would the settlement of the West have been without Robert Fulton’s steamboat, Samuel Morse’s work in telegraphy and, later, the inventions of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford? Not to mention the old-time data pipelines themselves — the postal system, the railroads and eventually the interstate highways?
In those cases, innovation helped drive development and physically shape the frontier; now innovation itself is the frontier, and the US’ tendency to glorify the inventor’s spirit remains a key engine. As Alexander Graham Bell went, so goes Mark Zuckerberg.
“In this country, you’re a hero if you invent something. To be an inventor in America, that’s as good as being an explorer,” said Julie Fenster, author of The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators and Dreamers who Formed Our Nation.