The Turner Thesis Revisited: The Electronic Frontier

By Cathleen White
Originally presented to the Electronic Culture & Communications Forum at the Popular Culture Association Conference, 1998
© 2020

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner made an historic speech at the Columbian Exhibition. In his address, he spoke on a theme which would form the focal point for the rest of his career: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s hypothesis was that the frontier was the single most important influence on the development of the United States and its values. He spoke of it in for the first time shortly after the census of 1890, when a report from the Census Bureau proclaimed, “the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. . . . it can not, therefore any longer have a place in the census reports.” Thus, with a few strokes of a pen, the frontier officially ceased to exist. Turner quickly began to assess the importance of the frontier to America’s past and to question the impact that such a closure would have on the country in the future. His investigation into the meaning of the frontier to the United States carried Turner through the rest of his career.

Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” had a number of important components. First, Turner viewed the frontier as a constant for three hundred years. The boundaries of the frontier shifted and moved as the population of the US expanded and important discoveries were made: tobacco can be a cash crop, gold exists in California, the desert that is the Great Plains can be farmed. Secondly, Turner differentiated between different classes of frontiersmen and settlers. He viewed settlement as a continuous process begun by explorers who surveyed the new terrain. They were followed by pioneers who established the first outposts of civilization. Pioneers were followed, in turn, by settlers and entrepreneurs who turned the wilderness into an extension of society. Turner saw this happen repeatedly throughout US history, from the arrival of the Pilgrims through the conquering of the Appalachians to the conquering of the Indians and the closure of the West in the 1880s. The roles played by the expanding frontier were many. According to Turner, the frontier served to “Americanize” new immigrants and resocialize Americans who venture out onto it. This process of adaptation resulted in the development of many of the characteristics that today are considered typically, if not stereotypically, American: independence, ingenuity, and individual initiative, among others.

One of the most intriguing components of Turner’s theory is his description of the Frontier as a “safety valve,” or to use his phrase, a “gateway of escape.” One of the major functions served by the frontier was that it provided a place of refuge for the people who could not function in the crowded, settled eastern lands: the urban poor, the misfit, the malcontent. When one no longer felt a part of “civilization,” the free, abundant lands of the West provided a ready haven for the discontented, a place to start over unfettered by the expectations and constraints of society. Of course, as Turner pointed out, civilization follows closely on the heels of the pioneer. Eventually, social constraints will catch up to the escapee. However, it is possible for the pioneer to help shape his surroundings and community. At various times and places, groups of like-minded settlers banded together to form communities of their own design—beginning with the Pilgrims in the 17th century and continuing through the Mormons in the 19th. It should be noted, however, that these relatively homogeneous communities survived only as long as they were permitted to do so by an encroaching population.

Frederick Jackson Turner used numerous examples from different eras of US history and from various regions to illustrate his basic tenets about the importance of the frontier. In fact, one of the most frequent criticisms of Turner has been that he had a very limited repertory and was, consequently, very repetitious. Turner did, however, point out something vital and enduring about the American psyche: we need the frontier, or at least the illusion of the frontier, as part of our national identity. In the latter half of this century, Alaska was admitted as a state with the unofficial nickname “The Last Frontier.” John F. Kennedy called his vision of America’s future “The New Frontier.” Gene Roddenberry christened space “The Final Frontier.” Within the past twenty years, attention has focused on the most recent incarnation: The Electronic Frontier.

Histories of the development of the Internet are numerous and range from the brief summary found in Time magazine in 1995 to recent books by Michael Hauben and Julian Dibbell. Scholars have begun to apply Turner’s frontier theory to the Internet within the last three years. Beth Scannell investigated the development of virtual reality communities on the Internet as a new manifestation of the frontier mentality in her thesis “Life on the Border: Cyberspace and the Avatar in Historical Perspective.” Rod Carveth and J. Metz proposed a number of theories about the impact of the Internet on American Democracy based on their analysis of Turner’s theories about the effects of the frontier on the development of American democratic principles in their article, “Frederick Jackson Turner and the Democratization of the Electronic Frontier.” I propose to add to this field of investigation by exploring yet another aspect of Turner’s thesis: his concept of the frontier as a “gateway of escape,” a “safety valve.”

The explosive growth in the size and use of the Internet is well-documented. From its humble but ambitious beginnings as a decentralized command military command system through its use by research institutions and scholars to its current social, political, and commercial uses, the Internet has exploded in terms of access and content. The question to ask is “Why?” What has fueled the growth? What has encouraged the average man, woman, child or senior citizen to venture out onto the Electronic Frontier? For some the answer is to find information. Those people often see the Internet as a vast digital library. But, for many, the motivation is to make contact with other human beings. Commercial uses need little explanation: their purpose is to expand the marketplace. Sometimes the contact is limited to the personal web page, a statement of “I compose, therefore I am.” Consequently one can find the electronic equivalent of the vacation slide show readily available. Others, however, use the Net to find other like-minded individuals for social or political purposes. These people, then are using Cyberspace as a sphere in which to construct new—albeit virtual—communities. Some of the communities, which have developed, consist of marginalized individuals or groups who are taking advantage of the relative anonymity of the Net in order to engage in deviant behaviors. A recent study, for example, showed that 44% of visitors to the most popular Internet pornography source were married and 15% were company executives. Because of its higher level of discretion, the Internet provides opportunities which many might not avail themselves of in “real life.” Other Netizens engage in different forms of deviance, including associating themselves with extremist political groups or causes. Whereas these individuals may be isolated in corporeal society, in the virtual realm they can find compatriots and fellow travelers with the click of a button. While these individuals may hesitate to don white sheets or swastikas in their hometowns, they may do so with virtual impunity in Cyberspace.

It would be reasonable for an outsider to posit that such marginal groups and communities feel disenfranchised in “the real world” due to their status as minorities. But do the groups in question see themselves as disenfranchised? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Furthermore, an obvious question to ask about these Electronic Pioneers is whether or not they see themselves as pioneers. Is this a conscious movement? If it is a conscious movement, to what extent does the awareness extend? For many groups and individuals, the answer to the question is affirmative. And the affirmation often reflects Turner’s safety valve theory: people are flocking to the Internet because they see it as untamed and available for homesteading.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about these people is that they come from all sides of the political spectrum. Republicans often claim that the media is controlled by liberals, Democrats blame conservatives, liberals cite corporate big money, and corporations focus on activists. John Parry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, wrote, “We must seek our future in the virtual world because there is little economic room left in the physical one.” In so writing, he echoes Turner’s essay of a previous century. While many Netizens share Barlow’s views on the Internet, not all of them share his political perspective. There is a sizable and growing right-wing extremist presence on the Net.

One of the common threads that run through right-wing extremist ideologies is the idea that that the mainstream media is controlled by their enemies. The enemies include, but are not limited to foreigners, Big Brother, wealthy corporate elites, Liberals, and, most unoriginally, Jews. Consequently, because of this level of control, many groups view the Internet as their best hope of reaching the public at large. The most commonly linked-to page which explains this point of view is “Who Rules America?” which was published by the Research Staff of National Vanguard Magazine. The main target of their exposé are the Jewish owners, publishers, and directors of many of our largest media outlets. This, according to the article, explains why the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus and the National Alliance cannot get fair treatment via the mainstream media. Christian Identity minister and Posse Comitatus activist James P. Wickstrom explains, “We have learned that a basic multi-media approach is important. Use the same mediums [sic] your opponents use to reach the same people. The Internet, for example is proving to be very useful. . . . We have learned to communicate with an increasingly apathetic audience using mediums [sic] they are already comfortable with.”

Some organizations use the World Wide Web for more than just propaganda and press releases. Many groups, including the KKK and the Aryan Nations, use it as a recruiting tool. The National Alliance offers a dating service where “you can meet someone who looks, thinks, and acts like you,” providing you subscribe to their racist beliefs. Almost all groups offer merchandise for sale, ranging from books on home arsenals to cassettes of significant speeches. Perhaps the most frightening and insidious use of the Net is as an information-gathering device. Some of the sites are closed to non-members, requiring the curious to reveal personal information in order to gain admission. Many sites track visitors with “cookies” left by visitors’ computers. A person armed with the cookie and a few services provided free of charge on the Internet—such as WhoWhere which will locate e-mail addresses; 411, which will locate phone numbers and addresses; and mapping services which provide a map to a person’s house—can now locate almost any person who has visited his site. Of the information-gathering functions used by groups on the Web, the scariest is The Nuremberg Files, a site dedicated to collecting information on abortion providers and pro-choice activists. Their stated purpose is to gather such information as is available in anticipation of the day when their targets will be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Their files include names of spouses and children, pictures of homes and workplaces, and even license plate numbers. Like other extremists, the operators of the Nuremberg Files site see this as their best hope of reaching a wide audience and gaining members and support.

Not surprisingly, extremist groups oppose efforts to limit material accessible via the Internet. Like the westward-bound pioneers of the previous century, many Netizens understand and value the perceived freedom of the Electronic Frontier. The Blue Ribbon Free Speech campaign is supported by vastly divergent groups and individuals. It is, perhaps, the one issue of agreement among such diverse people. Electronic Pioneers understand, perhaps because of their knowledge of the myth and history of the real frontier that the frontier is, perhaps, a finite, and, therefore, valuable, commodity. Some understand, perhaps intuitively, that the Internet serves a vital purpose in this age: that of allowing people, even those with objectionable views, to be heard. As John Parry Barlow describes it, “Today another frontier yawns before us, for more fog-obscured and inscrutable in its opportunities than the Yukon. It consists not of unmapped physical space in which to assert one’s ambitious body, but unmappable, infinitely expansible cerebral space. Cyberspace. And we are all going there whether we like it or not.”

I believe that Turner was correct in his assertion that the frontier is a necessary component of American life. Granted, the nature of the frontier changes according to the observer. To scientists and sci-fi aficionados, the “Final Frontier” might be space. To an environmentalist or biologist, the frontier might be the ocean or a proposed greenway. To a hacker or desk jockey, the frontier might be the realm of ones and zeroes flowing through the tenuous umbilical cords of the Internet. In any case, Americans seem to need to invent new frontiers while simultaneously inventing new ways to conquer the existing ones.

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