Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 7 / November 1, 1994 / Page 10

The Last Link:

Cybernauts in the Electronic Frontier: Pets on a Leash

by Stephen Doheny-Farina (

A colleague of mine upon moving to upstate New York from the midwest told me how amazed he was to see occasional news reports describing normal, healthy, experienced, and skilled backpackers who got lost and died during backcountry trips in the Adirondack Mountains. He said he never would have imagined that in the northeast it was possible for such a person to get lost unwillingly. "It hit me that there's still some wilderness left up here," he told me.

In contrast, a recent New York Times piece by John Markoff shows how electronic communication is eliminating the possibility of anyone getting lost anywhere. After describing the case of a hiker using a cellular phone to call in sick to an office in Manhattan while standing atop one of the Adirondack High Peaks, Markoff suggests that as the natural frontier is closed, a new, virtual frontier has opened. He quotes John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that promotes citizens' rights in cyberspace. "That's the thing about cyberspace," notes Barlow. "It's the last frontier and it will be a permanent frontier. It's infinite and it's continuously changing."

Regardless of the virtual violence of flaming and the "go where no one has gone before" hype of cyber-adventuring, the Net, I think, is not a frontier wilderness at all.

In "Civilizing Cyberspace: A Contemporary Reconsideration of the 'Turner Thesis,'" Susan Mallon Ross (1994) begins the important job of unpacking the electronic frontier metaphor. Ross compares the cultural dynamics of the Western frontier with cyberspace and argues that the "usefulness of the analogy is limited and, perhaps, limiting." There may indeed be some interesting similarities between the two spaces, but, Ross argues, we may be better off if we develop alternative metaphors with which to interpret this phenomenon we call cyberspace.

Ross's argument has gotten me thinking about the power of the frontier metaphor and I'm wondering whether or not it involves a transference of meaning that doesn't apply. Let me play polemicist and try out a stark counter-argument: Regardless of the virtual violence of flaming and the "go where no one has gone before" hype of cyber-adventuring, the Net, I think, is not a frontier wilderness at all. In fact, the Net represents the pinnacle of domestication.

The electronic frontier metaphor fools us into thinking that as natural frontiers become evermore remote from our lives, there is another kind of nature, another kind of wild place where we can develop and express our human potential. For example, Markoff speculates about this shift:

"If wilderness plays an important part in kindling the human spirit, perhaps as it vanishes people are reinventing it in different ways.

"In the future with the earth encircled by satellites and everyone wired together by digital links, the new back country may become the world of artificial computer networks known as cyberspace. One can already become lost for hours in the neck of the Internet called the World Wide Web, pointing and clicking a trail through a maze of hypertext documents and digital pictures."

Unfortunately, what is silent in this image of emigration into the so-called electronic frontier is our utter surrender to technology maintained and controlled by others. This is a sign, not of frontier, but of containment, not of our independence, but of our domestication.

Humans are the most domesticated of all animals, argues John Livingston, a Canadian naturalist in his book Rogue Primate (1994), because we have become completely dependent upon ideas--nurture, technology--over nature.

"There are many visible earmarks of domestication. One, however, must be stressed above all others, and that is the matter of dependence. All domesticated animals depend for their day-to-day survival upon their owners. . . . The human domesticate has become equally dependent, not upon a proprietor, but upon storable, retrievable, transmissable technique. Technology provides us with everything we require. Knowledge of how-to-do-it sustains us utterly. And since none of us knows how to do everything, we are further dependent upon the expertise of countless others to provide even the most basic of daily necessities. . . . Without knowledge of how-to-do-it, or access to someone else who does know how, we are irretrievably helpless." (p. 14)
Networked virtual realities--from usenet groups to MOOs and MUDs to interactive, head-mounted, body-wired VR systems--are shining examples of "storable, retrievable, transmissable technique." They are quintessential domesticating engines hiding beneath frontier-like facades. As daily life becomes ever more virtualized and simultaneously ever more removed from the natural world, the domesticates of the Net become like the domesticates Livingston sees in nature: placeless. "Nowhere may the human presence be seen as fully integrated and 'natural' because wherever we may be, or however long we may have been there, we are still domesticates. Domesticates have no ecologic place, and they show it consistently and universally" (p. 57). Furthermore, in achieving our domestication, we strike a bargain. We get protection from natural enemies while giving up our place in nature. "Domestication confers special gifts, the most important of which is relative freedom from the pressure of natural selection, meaning at least temporary immunity to many normal ecological constraints," says Livingston. "In return for these gifts, we have handed back, as it were, the quality of natural, integrated belongingness" (p. 13).

In physical space communities we are forced to live with people we may differ with in many ways. Virtual communities offer the possibility that we can construct utopian collectivities-- communities of interest, education, tastes, beliefs, and skills. Indeed, the prospect of carving new, better virtual communities out of new territories taps into western mythologies of settling frontiers. The natural frontier has been long since settled, say the cybernetic hypemeisters. Leave it behind and settle the new electronic hinterlands. Surrender to the virtual. (Give in to what Kroker and Weinstein deride as the "will to virtuality" promoted by "the virtual class.") What the hypemeisters don't say or don't realize is that this frontier metaphor deceives us. It conjures up Americana images of the individual lighting out for the territories, independent and hopeful, to make a life. But what is hidden by the metaphor is the cybernaut immersed in virtual worlds, neither self-reliant nor liberated, but utterly dependent for existence on technology created, provided, and sustained by others, living the isolated life of the placeless domesticate. ¤


Stephen Doheny-Farina is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Clarkson University where he teaches courses in rhetoric and electronic media.

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