The Blogging Luddite: Life in the Wild West

History always seems to repeat itself, even when we don’t think it’s happened yet. That’s more likely to be true in cyberspace history than anywhere else because people and things are just so darned connected. Time as we know it today, Craig Harm writes, seems sometimes irrelevant.

The lessons of history apply to the future too…it’s just a matter of perspective!

Take the lessons we thought we learned from our own nation’s frontier days just before and after the Civil War. Pioneers were moving west from the cities and farms of east coast America, facing a hostile environment not unlike what we face today on the frontiers of cyberspace. Usually, they didn’t even have a map – they just followed the sun! Hmm, not unlike today.

The crooks in America’s “Wild West” practiced their thieving and fraudulent ways on that “border of civilization” just as they do now. And, the good citizens of America’s western plains, valleys and mountains were just as subject to loss of property and livelihood some 125 years ago as they are today in cyberspace.

It seems that even these days we are little more than pioneers scratching around the hard scrabble of cyberspace (confounded by the often opaque processes of exchange and emergence). We have a very Western habit of thinking that we’re modern and technologically sophisticated because we’ve been using the Web and Facebook for years, but we’ll probably look back in 10 or 15 years and realize just how naive we really were in 2011.

The Facebook of 2011 may look like the wagon train of social networking when we look back from 2025!

Now, we’re all trying to sort out how to make a living in a world we so little understand, threatened at every turn by predators that don’t understand it any better than we do, but know as much about thievery and fraud as they did in the Wild West. For the most part, crooks have always been content to live day-to-day by criminal exploitation, which they would probably practice whether we had cyberspace or not.

Not so much is different except that cyberspace connects and it connects very quickly!

In early 2008, the major sponsor of SENDS (what is now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering) sponsored a workshop and White Paper called “Deterrence 2.0: Deterring Violent Non-State Actors in Cyberspace.” We talked a lot about criminal activity in the workshop, as well as cyberspace-based terrorism. We’ve posted that paper here in the SENDS website.

While the entire paper is a good read, and still quite up to date, I want to quote from one of the contributors to the study, Dr. Thomas Barnett.

Tom had a lot to say about the frontier of cyberspace in the 2008 workshop, some of which ended up in his book Great Powers: America and the World After Bush (Putnam, 2009), but below are some of his thoughts that apply to the current problem we pioneers face.

While it is true that criminals and other informal economy types tend to exploit new communications technologies faster than business or the general population…, there is no lasting or pervasive advantage that accrues to nefarious non-state actors over time, as history demonstrates decade after decade. The “Wild West” only stays wild for so long.

Tom is right that the “Wild West only stays wild for so long,” but what he didn’t say was that cyberspace and the socio-technological convergences we continuously experience keeps bringing us a new form of “Wild West” every time we turn around. Just as we get used to one, a new Wild West springs up to replace it.

Crooks thrive in the Wild West because they know how to flourish in chaos. But most of the rest of us are looking for stability, not instability…most of us don’t think like crooks, or terrorists. Should we be looking to change or should we look to somehow change the crooks? Well, for the sake of stability in civilization, let’s hope it the latter!

A real social scientist would probably have a lot more to say about how we prosper in the Wild West, criminals and non-criminals alike. I’ll keep to my lane here, but will close out with one more thought from Tom.

Having watched its territory roughly quadruple in the first half of the 19th century, America was forced to engage in massive frontier integration and infrastructural build-out. Not surprisingly, this was a seemingly chaotic affair dominated by all sorts of “uncontrollable” non-state actors, both good and bad.

The good news is that we’ve been there, done that and gotten a whole closet full of t-shirts from those Wild West experiences. The bad news is that history repeats itself, as it’s doing now in the Wild West of cyberspace. We’re living on the frontier and we’re still pioneers. If we stay resilient and figure out how to protect ourselves, we’ll do fine…we always have (and that’s history we do hope that repeats itself!).

by Carl Hunt, sendsonline.org, June 3, 2011