Stories, Learning & Place

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Homesteading the Digital Frontier
   Making Places for Citizenship

When the United States government transferred vast regions of the American West from public to private ownership through a series of homestead acts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a world that had become clogged and burdened with the inertia of old governments and old bureaucracies was suddenly young again. All the kings were dead.

The future was open. Everything might be different. People around the world reconsidered their prospects and many headed for the frontier, leaving behind regimes that no longer seemed to work.

In the West, they formed new towns, created new institutions, developed new traditions and practices, and raised their children in a world that, though it grew out of the old worlds, was unlike anything that had existed before. It was a world of huge opportunity and daunting risk. Entering it was a entering an epic adventure.

For the most part, things that worked were variations on things that had worked before. Towns that thrived did not invent themselves from nothing. They drew on the experience of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. But they were able to make it new because they had before them a world not yet organized into the fiefdoms of the past.

I find the sublime hurly burly of the American West a useful metaphor for thinking about what is happening today through digital technologies. The empire of network news has just suffered a significant blow from guys in pajamas, and new heroes and legends are forming. Digital red light districts are growing apace, without the citizenry quite knowing what to do about it or whether anything can be done about it. Entrepreneurs are rounding up stray resources and driving them across borders to fresh markets. People from distant lands are encountering each other for the first time, and old ways and new ways are being put to the test. Industry is laying new rails and inventing new ways of organizing and new ways of peddling goods. The world is in flux, a kaleidoscope of danger and promise.

The earth is young once again.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/18 at 05:22 PM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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