What the history of the Wild West teaches us about the future of the Digital Society
By Tim Cole*
When we think about the short, exciting history of the Internet, it helps to first think back to the events that shaped what we like to call the American “Wild West”. Then and now, a new world was formed, and in the beginning the only law was that of strength and willpower; that is, if there were any laws at all. But over time, the land was settled, cultivated and, finally, civilized (although Donald Trump makes one pause for a moment and consider just how far this process of civilization has come in my native country).
In any case, this all happened much faster than most people think today. The Wild West we celebrate on the silver screen, in songs and Western novels, only lasted for about 65 years and that was it!
In 1803, Napoleon was suffering from a severe cash shortage, so he sold the entire Mississippi River valley, all 828,000 square miles of it, to the young United States for 15 million dollars. That wasn’t exactly a pittance at the time; in today’s money it would work out at around 250 million dollars, but even so it was the certainly best real estate deal in history.
A year later, the U.S. government decided it wanted to find out what exactly they had bought, so they sent out two soldiers, Army captain Lewis Meriwether and his friend lieutenant William Clark, on an 8,000 mile journey from St.Louis to the Pacific Coast and back. The 33 members of the expedition and a Newfoundland dog named Seaman trudged for two years across prairies, climbed mountain ranges and forded raging rivers, in the process collecting a trove of information about the Western half of the North American continent that now belonged to their fledgling nation.
Of course, this huge and unknown territory was already populated by humans, Native Americans for the most part, and a few white trappers has also made forays into parts of it. But for all intents and purposes, 1804 was the year in which the legendary Wild West was born. Six decades later, it was all over: On May 10, 1869, the famous “Last Spike” was hammered in at Promontory Summit, Utah, marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The spike, which consisted of solid gold, was the last nail in the coffin of an epoch. Just three years later, the federal government deemed in necessary to preserve some of the last untouched remnants of the “Wild” West by setting aside three and a half thousand square miles of virgin land in parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho which they named the Yellowstone National Park.
This brief moment in time, hardly more than the blink of an eye in historic terms, encapsulates everything we know or believe we know about the Wild West: gun-toting ruffians, unshaven trappers and tough settlers, train and stagecoach robberies, Indian wars and the massacre of the endless herds of buffaloes, the Pony Express riders and the stretching of the first telegraph lines.
Less than a century later, in 1962, the greatest directors of their era, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall und Richard Thorpe, joined together to create the monumental film How The West Was Won, which celebrated a very special period in the American past, one that had already been embellished, kitsched up, glorified and turned into modern myth. Incidentally, this also marked the end of a completely different era, namely the age of epic Hollywood history films.
Will we one day look back on the early decades of the Internet in a similar way? And what will the future bring?
After all, we know what came after the Wild West; first, the farmers ploughed the land and fenced it (in 1867, Lucien B. Smith from Ohio received a patent for his invention of barbed wire, arguably more important for winning the West that the six-shooter). There came the traders, the shop owners, the saloons, the sheriffs, the judges, the surveyors, the registrars, the railroads, the highways. And over time, the land became „civilized“, law and order were established, and with it came prosperity, progress, and diversity.
In the Age of the Internet, all that still lies ahead of us. We are at a point today similar to the settlers on the banks of Big Muddy waiting to cross over into the promised land. That means all the hard work of turning the wilderness into a lush garden still lies ahead of us. But first, we will need to clean up, create order out of chaos, pass laws and make sure they are enforced, prune the excesses, lock up the bad guys, put the robber barons on a leash, make the land fruitful and life worth living.
The big data feast
All this won’t be easy, and in fact the prospects aren’t that good. The other side appears too powerful, the Googles, Apples, Facebooks and Amazons. The rules and regulations set up to protect citizens and consumers appear too puny or simply don’t exist. No matter what politicians will tell you, the Internet is still largely a legal vacuum. Guether Oettinger, at the time Europe’s “digital commissar”, was right when he told me in an interview that we need a European Civil Code that, for instance, says clearly who really owns our data.
Oettinger is worried about the future of business if, for example, nobody knows who the CAD files belong to that a manufacturer sends online to his customer so that he can print a needed spare part on his own 3D printer in order to be able to start production faster than waiting for the part to arrive by Fedex. And who do the data belong to that my car increasingly produces and that is sent to the car manufacturer every time I visit the garage? Car makers will tell you its them because you signed over the rights to your data when you accepted their terms and conditions – but did anyone tell you this?
I believe that a decent European Civil Code should not only pertain to Europe, and it should set out exactly who my data belong to: me or some tech giant in Silicon Valley?
Huge Internet behemoths and tiny startups: they all are accustomed to helping themselves to smorgasbord of information we provide whenever we go online, whether its about our purchasing habits or our most intimate moments or our secret desires and aspirations. And the feast, for them, is free, of course.
We can hardly expect them to leave the table without being forced to. They have too much to lose for that. And we can expect them to resist. They have deep pockets and mighty friends in high places, including the present occupant of the White House, for whom regulation and oversight are anathema. Besides, they’ve grown accustomed to stealing our data with impunity, to selling the information we provide them and to getting us hooked on their addictive platforms and apps. And they don’t even feel guilty about this – it’s a free country, isn’t it?
And the worst thing is that we let them do it.
The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) proposed a theory which he called “creative destruction” which he described as a basic element of the capitalist system. Capitalism, he said, is constantly destroying itself, and on the ruins innovative companies and new ideas are always being built – the old ones being relegated to the dustbins of history. According to him, disorder is the wellspring of progress and wealth.
The Internet industry constantly provides lots of new examples of creative destruction and disorder. The only difference is that everything is happening at Internet speed nowadays. IBM and Apple in the 80ies, Microsoft and Netscape in the 90ies, the Big 4, known today collectively as GAFA, in the first half of our decade, Alibaba, Uber and AirB&B in the second half: All are out to get ahead of the competition, damn the cost for the others and for society as a whole.
All of this reminds me of the “Gilded Age”, a term Mark Twain coined to describe the era of the Robber Barons – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and Vanderbilt, just to name a few. This was in the years between the 19th and 20th centuries, when the West had been won and gigantic corporate empires were built: powerful monopolies that exploited millions of people unchecked.
Over time, resistance mounted. Workers went on strike and burned factories down. The National Guard was called in to quell the riots on the behest of the Robber Barons and their friends, the most powerful politicians of their age.
Will we see similar resistance and unrest aimed at the overwhelming power of the tech giants? Will people take to the streets to demand their rights? Actually, this is already happening.
On an ice-cold day in February of 2012, 16,000 citizens gathered in Munich at the Siegestor Monument to demonstrate against censorship. They carried signs with the message “ACTA ad acta”, and their goal was to stop passage of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) which had been secretly negotiated between the United States, Japan, and the EU.
These „net activists“ (what a beautiful word!) were demanding what? The reform of copyright law?
If there ever had been a subject about which I believed the large mass of the population was completely indifferent, is would have been copyright law. Well, that just shows you. In Germany, the home of anticipatory obedience, people were demonstrating for their right to copy and share digital content without restrictions. What an awakening! „Wir sind das Online-Volk” (“We are the Online people“), they chanted, echoing the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” that hastened the downfall of the hated regime in East Germany in the 1980s.
The European Parliament subsequently rejected ACTA on July 4, 2012. So you see, it works! The voice of the people will be heard!
And the opposition is growing. In June 2015, more than 5,000 taxi drivers in Paris took to the streets to protest Uber, the ride-share service, whose market capitalization lies at $72 billion today. The cab drivers blocked the roads to airports and train stations. Smoke rose over the Porte Maillot district after irate cabbies overturned Uber cars and set them on fire. Policemen were injured.
The opposition doesn’t always stem from angry citizens. Administrators the world over are gearing up to resist GAFA and their cronies. Cities like Berlin and Barcelona are imposing serious fines on owners who rent their apartments to short-term occupants, forcing AirB&B – the world’s largest hospitality company – to accept new rules and regulations and to make sure they are enforced. In Berlin, being caught can cost you €100,000 a night! The argument is that affordable housing in Berlin is scarce.
You can think of this what you will, but for me, creating a “denunciation portal” where people can report their neighbors if they feel there is too much coming and going next do distinctly oversteps a red line. And in fact, an increasing number of jurists are calling Berlin’s policy into question on constitutional grounds. Besides, turning in your neighbors smacks of methods practiced by Nazis and the East German State Police.
I believe there must be democratic ways of roping Uber divers and AirB&B hosts back in and making them legal. This, of course, means that our constitutional state and the rule of law will need to adapt to new opportunities. What we need are rules that reconcile technology and bureaucracy – no mean task! Cudgeling protesters is not an answer. What we need today are the willingness and ability to engage in dialog and find creative solutions. If we fail in this, be prepared for more din and tumult. Blockupy was just a foretaste!
So what does all this have to do with the Wild West and the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age? Lots, I believe. Back then, the reaction against the Monopolists changed America for good. Theodore Roosevelt became known as the “Trust Buster” when he applied the Sherman Act in 1902 to drag 45 monopoly owners into court; the first time the law, which had been passed way back in 1890, was actually applied. Over time, child labor was forbidden, health and safety regulations were passed. The Gilded Age was followed by the so-called Progressive Era that spanned from the 1890s to the 1920s – and that’s what we need again today: a Progressive Era of the Internet Age.
We need a new New Deal; one which calls the perpetrators of data theft and sloppy data management to account. Today, since nobody really feels responsible, our data is too often handled in a cavalier fashion by companies who let them fall into the hands of criminals or even cooperate with them – as in the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica showed. But did you ever hear of someone from Google, Twitter, or Yahoo being fined or imprisoned because they allowed millions of user accounts to be hacked? I haven’t either.
In his new book, Technology vs. Humanity, my friend, the Futurist Gerd Leonhard calls for the formation of a Global Ethics Council to be charged with drawing up a set of rules and regulations governing how our data are treated and overseeing their compliance. I would go a step further: I believe we need a kind of Global World Inc., a joint-share entity in which we all have a stake and whose job it is to make sure that the profits derived from the sale of personal information are distributed fairly. Think something akin to employee participation. After all, we all work for the big tech companies in one way or another, the Internet giants like GAFA, the platform builders and app developers – whether we want to or not. So shouldn’t we at least be reimbursed?
Gerd Leonhard also calls for a kind of digital machinery tax, the proceeds of which should go to those who are forced out of their jobs bay robots and Artificial Intelligence. Here again, I would go further. Why not divert part of the obscene profits raked up by companies like Apple, which recently posted the largest quarterly result in history, into a world-wide relief fund to provide direct assistance to those suffering from the consequences of digitization and automation? Of course, the best idea would be an unconditional basic income for all, but at least for now, that seems to be out of the question politically. But a relief fund could at least lessen the worst effects of advances in technology, and Google and the others should pay for it! After all, they are the biggest beneficiaries; in fact, they’re the only beneficiaries, at least for now.
Maybe historians will one day look back on the “Gilded Age of the Internet” and describe it as a hectic time without rules and oversight, in which regulation gradually spread, oftentimes triggered by the industry itself because they finally come around to the notion that it is better to be part of the solution than part of the problem. A time, in which modern Robber Barons like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page were able to forge empires, just like their predecessors a century earlier, and who were equally hard to reign in – but who, too, had to submit in the end.
We all seem to believe that the Internet has been around forever, but in reality, we are still at the very beginning. Today the important claims are being staked out in key areas such as video and music streaming, navigation and Cloud services. These are the field in which the Big 4 (or 5, if you still count Microsoft in) will struggle between themselves, but also against us, the citizens and consumers. The cards are still being dealt, and nobody knows who the winners will be.
But one thing is clear: If we just muddle through like always, we will become stuck in the Wild West of the Internet. We not only need to demand our rights: We need to go to court for them; and if necessary, we will have to fight for them. The pathway to a truly civilized online world will necessarily lead to a revolution from below. We can only hope that, this time, the revolution will be bloodless.
What we need is a new sense of digital sovereignty. I mean this in a double sense. First, in the legalistic meaning of the term, namely a return of sovereignty to the digital citizenry. But I also mean it the sense of a certain serenity that comes from the feeling that we have things under control.
As a card-carrying optimist I believe we will manage this. I am confident that we will achieve a souverain and therefore peaceful transition to a digital era that is based on fairness and order, in which the right of every human being to freedom of information, but also to informational self-determination is guaranteed, in which profits are distributed justly and performance and rewards are evenly balanced.
Personally, I don’t want to live in the Wild West, and if you’re honest, dear reader, you don’t want to either. After all, we can always watch it on TV.
*TFA member Tim Cole is a tech journalist, author and public speaker. In 1995, he started his “Online Diary”, which was the first blog in Germany. His current book, “Digital Transformation”, was number one in the German Amazon bestseller lists for “economics & management” for almost half a year.