The American approach to communications research informs much of the debate and policy making surrounding the Internet. This makes an understanding of the themes in this line of theory important to any discussion of Internet as a public sphere.
Communications research in the United States has its origins in the 1880s with the work of Dewey, Mean, Park, Cooley and Ford, called "the Chicago school". Basing their view on Herbert Spencer's organic conception of society, they posited the idea that communication and transportation were like the nerves and arteries of society.
This "had been realised in the parallel growth of the telegraph and railroad: a thoroughly encephalated social nervous system with the control mechanism of communication divorced from the physical movement of people and things". The Chicago school saw the new communications as a way to create a unified nation and a unified culture: "a great public of common understanding and knowledge" (Carey, 1989:143).
They viewed communication as more than information circulation and they developed a concept of communication as the process in which people create a culture and maintain it. Significantly, the idea of the public sphere as a concept which allows rational-critical debate and action was a central notion in their thought.
The Chicago school theorists saw communications as a new frontier. They saw particular significance in the way that frontier people who were previously strangers created community life afresh in the new towns of the West.
They saw this process of community creation as the formative process in the growth of American democracy (Carey, 1989:144).
Virtual Communities is subtitled "Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier". It cannot be entirely coincidental that Rheingold has often been pictured wearing a cowboy hat.
The extent of the frontier concept in Rheingold's thinking can be seen in the following text about the birth of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
"I remember the night the chain of events began. None of us could have known at the time that it would involve the FBI and Secret Service and grow into the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But it did have a kind of western frontier feel to it from the beginning." (Rheingold 1993: 252)
John Barlow recalled the same event as follows:
"So me and my sidekick Howard, we was sitting out in front of the 40 Red Saloon one evening when he all of a sudden says, "Lookee here, what do you reckon?
I look up and there's these two strangers riding into town. They're young and got kind of a restless, bored way about 'em. A person don't need both eyes to see they mean trouble...". (Barlow, 1990)
Many people have expressed the hope that the Internet can be a public space free of interference, both from government control and commercialism:
"For those rugged, libertarian individuals who dare to venture there, the realm of cyberspace will reactivate the lost magic of a mythological past. For Timothy Leary, ...cyberpunks are the strong stubborn individuals who have inherited the mantle of the early explorers, mavericks, ronin and freethinkers everywhere" (Stallabrass, 1995:18).
It is clear that Rheingold's work and that of many other Internet enthusiasts is informed both by the Chicago school, libertarianism and by romantic notions of the American Wild West. This has significance for the development of the Internet, as these notions have great resonance for many Americans.
Highways and utopia
I will now trace the ideas that contribute to technological utopianism in America, with emphasis on communications technology and the metaphor of the superhighway.
The Chicago school saw communications technology as a way to improve politics and culture and a way to invigorate democracy. Carey comments that this was part of an unbroken tradition of thought on communications technology he calls the "rhetoric of the technological sublime" (Carey, 1989:144).
Narrative of progress
In the USA, the growth of technology is seen as part of a larger narrative of progress. Communications technology development expands knowledge and freedom, democratises culture and erodes monopolies of knowledge.
"…it is the story of the progressive liberation of the human spirit. More information is available and is made to move faster: ignorance is ended; civil strife is brought under control; and a beneficent future, moral and political as well as economic, is opened by the irresistible tendencies of technology" (Carey, 1989:148).
It is interesting to trace the connection between transport and communication technology in the USA. Communication between American colonies was slow, and they communicated with one another via London.
After the war of 1812, America began to build 'internal improvements' in transport and communications in an attempt to unify the country, or connect the east with the west.
"In fact, what developed was the same pattern of communication of the colonial period but now with New York replacing London as the central element in the system" (Carey, 1989:152). This helped to build New York's place as the centre of trade, transport, communication and power in the United States.
The United States implemented its policy of improving communication over long distance as a form of power (Carey, 1989:156). This policy continues today, with television programming, movies and the spread of the Internet.
In 1834, Jefferson posited a network of highways which would open new lines of communication between the States, and cement their union by "new and indestructible ties" (Carey, 1989).
Information superhighway metaphor
In 1994, Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, made remarkably ambitious claims for the Internet, using the "information superhighway" metaphor:
"The Global Information Infrastructure ...will circle the globe with information superhighways on which all people can travel. These highways ...will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community.
From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and - ultimately - a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet.
The GII [Global Information Infrastructure] will spread participatory democracy. In a sense, the GII will be a metaphor for democracy itself."
He saw "…a new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the GII will create" (Gore, 1995a: 4).
It is particularly telling that Gore refers to the information superhighway in this context - an explicit combination of transport, communication and power. He makes a direct connection between the new communication technology and an increase in economic progress.
It is interesting to note that President Dwight Eisenhower created both the Interstate Highway System and ARPA, the starting point for the early Internet (Driscoll).
Ideological battle - superhighway
Zoe Druick comments that there is an ideological battle represented by the word 'highway':
"Highways are the new world paving its way towards the frontier. Highways are liberation, equality, mobility, autonomy, facility, connection, speed, direction, communication, excitement...
The irony in all this idealism around the highway is that we have all had the opposite experience: traffic jams, accidents, the disintegration of post-WW II infrastructures. The point is that the highway is part of a very old narrative of progress completely separate from our everyday experience of actually existing highways" (Druick, 1995).
Another interesting idea is to explore what highways would be like if they were similar to the Internet:
A highway hundreds of lanes wide. Most with pitfalls for potholes. Privately operated bridges and overpasses. No highway patrol. A couple of rent-a-cops on bicycles with broken whistles. A minimum of 237 on-ramps at every intersection. No signs. …Ad hoc traffic laws. Some lanes would vote to make use by a single-occupant-vehicle a capital offense on Monday through Friday between 7:00 and 9:00. Other lanes would just shoot you without a trial for talking on a car phone.
…Some are built around 2.5 horsepower lawnmower engines with a top speed of nine miles an hour. Others burn nitroglycerin and idle at 120. No license plates. …Flatbed trucks cruise around with anti-aircraft missile batteries to shoot down the traffic helicopter. Little kids on tricycles with squirt-guns filled with hydrochloric acid switch lanes without warning. No off-ramps. None. (Chapman)
These comments point out how ridiculous the highway metaphor is; nevertheless, it persists because it taps into the idealistic narrative of technological progress.
Claims being made for the Internet as a global force for democracy have been ambitious, though with time they have become more realistic.
Communication has often been viewed as a means of attaining utopia, forming a springboard to a more widespread democracy that functions more effectively. Mark Surman comments that:
"With every swell of the techno-revolutionary wave, there are at least three ideas that pop up:
The idealism around the Internet is not only the old discourse that accompanies new technology, it is also trying to change inegalitarian aspects of the social structure. It is hoped this will be achieved by the production of a counterculture that stems from the new possibilities of technology. (Mattelart and Piemme, 1980: 328).
Surman points out that when cable television was introduced in the 1960s, it was meant to "improve education, prevent crime and urban decay, break down social isolation, help people to communicate and enhance democracy" (Surman, 1995).
However, most of the things predicted for cable TV, such as education, community action and services, have not eventuated (Besser: 60).
Newt Gingrich, extreme-right Republican leader of the House of Representatives at the time, and his advisers the Tofflers, explained their views in Wired magazine on the new technology's libertarian potential.
They did not advocate the electronic agora, but predicted that the new electronic media would produce an electronic marketplace.
"In cyberspace, ... market after market is being transformed by technological progress from a 'natural monopoly' to one in which competition is the rule" (Barbrook and Cameron).
It seems that new communications technology can reflect any dream. These recurring narratives of progress primarily function to repackage existing social structures into a new technological form, endorsing current power structures (Druick, 1995).
Protecting the new frontier
The notions I have discussed in this section combine to create a powerful argument: the Internet is the new frontier, and we should encircle it with our metaphorical wagons to protect it from whomever might be marauding: government, big business, Big Brother, etc.
The last few years (to the time of writing, 2002) have seen this frontier approach fade somewhat and straightforward commercialism take on more prominence, and yet these attitudes remain powerfully influential.