Monday, April 27, 2009


Not long ago, something I’d written was peer-reviewed as part of being vetted for publication. In it, I wrote about the problem of keeping order in cyberspace, and one reviewer criticized me for not analogizing cyberspace to the Old West.

I submitted my response to that reviewer’s comments – and the comments of the other reviewers – to the press considering my manuscript. The editors were apparently happy with my response, at least happy enough to publish what I’d written. What I found a little unsatisfactory is that my response didn’t make its way to the person who’d advocated the Old West analogy.

I didn’t find it unsatisfactory out of pique, at least I don’t think that was the reason. I think I was aggravated because I didn’t get the chance to respond to the person and debate the utility of the Old West analogy. So I decided to do a blog post on the issue.

I don’t know who first came up with the idea of analogizing cyberspace to the Old West (a/k/a Wild West). I did some searches and found that the analogy was being used in articles at least as far back as 1995. Maybe it was in use before that, maybe not. It’s been around for a long time, and still crops up in articles about cyberspace, usually articles dealing with the presumed lawlessness of cyberspace.

My first question is why do we need to analogize cyberspace to anything? Why can’t we just approach cyberspace as . . . cyberspace?

I think our inclination to analogize cyberspace to the Old West – or some other place – is a function of how we experience it. As we know, cyberspace isn’t a “place” at all, at least not in the physical sense. It’s an experiential reality, not a physical reality. That is, it’s made up of the sum – and often transient – total of our experiences, which take the form of digital communications (oral, visual and text). We use those communications to interact with each other – and sometimes with automated systems – and, in so doing, “experience” cyberspace as a distinct and discrete part of our lives.

Which brings me back to my question: Why do we need to analogize our experiencing cyberspace to being in a specific physical place? I think it’s because we have a rather limited conceptual repertoire. Except for cyberspace, all the experiences I will have in my life will occur in a given place; it may be a mundane place (my home, my office) or a more or less exotic place (a foreign country, a domestic location I don’t/can’t frequent except once, say) or a transitory place (an airplane or train or hotel). When I think of an experience, I inevitably think of a place; our experiences are grounded in, and consequently associated with, “places.”

We see that in our dreams. Conceptually, I suppose, we could have perfectly abstract dreams . . . dreams in which our experiences were not situated in dream spaces, the more or less skewed versions of physical reality that serve as the stage for whatever goes on in a particular dream. People may or may not dream in color, but I suspect we all dream of places. As I write this, I’m trying to conceptualize an experience that would not be grounded in a place, and I find I can’t. Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect not.

It follows, then, that we analogize our experiences in – and of – cyberspace to being in a particular physical place. To paraphrase William Gibson, cyberspace is a consensual hallucination orchestrated and shared by millions of people. More precisely, cyberspace is the sum total of discrete hallucinations that are orchestrated by congeries of people, congeries that shift in size and constituency. When we contribute to orchestrating the hallucinations that create and sustain cyberspace, we need a way to think about what we’re doing . . . and that brings us back to the spatial analogy.

Think about it: How do we refer to our participation in cyberspace? We say we’re “going online” or we’re “in cyberspace”. “Going” and “in” are terms we use to refer to action that is grounded in physical reality. I go to work; I’m in my office.

Why do we analogize cyberspace to physical reality when we don’t use a spatial analogy for the comparable experience of talking on the phone? I don’t say I’m “going into phone space” when I’m making a call or joining a teleconference (I hate teleconferences). We seem to experience telephone communication differently from cyberspace, at least for as long as the two remain separate experiences. I’m not sure why that is.

Part of it probably derives from the fact that for over a century a phone call only involved two people. So a phone call was really just a conversation, a remote conversation but still a conversation between two people, both of whom were situated in discrete parts of physical space.

I wonder if things would have been different if the phone had not evolved as a one-to-one mode of communication. When telephones were new, in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, they were used to broadcast news and music. You could sign up to listen to an orchestra playing (live, of course) or to get news via your phone. For some reason, that broadcast use of the telephone never caught on, maybe because radio came along and seemed to do the same things much more efficiently.

Somehow I doubt that phones could ever have evolved into a version of cyberspace, even if the notion of using them for more than one-to-one (or teleconferences) had caught on. You wouldn’t have had the visual aspect, which I think is an important element in experiencing communicative reality as an analog of physical reality. And I don’t think purely oral communication could have sustained an experiential reality of the complexity that we see in cyberspace; oral communications are, after all, transient.

I digress. I need to get back to my real point – the Old West analogy for cyberspace. I’ve made my argument as to why we seem to need to analogize cyberspace to A place. That brings us to my second question: Why the Old West?

I think people tended to analogize cyberspace to the Old West because it was a familiar analogy (especially to those of us in the U.S.) and because it captures the notion of being in an experiential environment in which the rules that govern us in the real-world either don’t apply at all or are relaxed. So, as I recall, many of the early articles written about cyberspace analogized it to the U.S.’ Western frontier on the grounds that, like the Old West, it was a place (the term is inevitable) where there wasn’t much, if any law . . . or, maybe, where there wasn’t much in the way of law enforcement.

As I’m sure we all know, cyberspace is pretty lawless compared to the contemporary physical world. Many people, including me, have written about why law enforcement finds it difficult to deal effectively with many of the things that go on “in” cyberspace. It’s much easier to be anonymous or assume a pseudonym in cyberspace than in the real world; and cyberspace transcends the boundaries of nation-states, which hampers law enforcement’s ability to pursue law-breakers even if they are able to identify them.

I could go on about the challenges cyberspace creates for law enforcement, but that’s not my point in this post. If you want to read more about that, check out some of my articles or my latest book.

My point finally, is that while I think spatial analogies are inevitable, I don’t think the Old West is the best spatial analogy for cyberspace. The Old West analogy assumes that cyberspace is a frontier, like the Western part of the U.S. in the nineteenth century or like Australia during the early years of its colonization. defines a frontier as “the land or territory that forms the furthest extent of a country’s settled . . . regions.” That’s what the Old West was: The Eastern and Southern U.S. states had been settled and civilized for a long time. The challenge the U.S. faced was extending the law that applied in the Eastern and Southern states to the Western areas of the country. That process was facilitated by the fact that the people who lived on the frontier had come from the settled parts of the country where the law was enforced; they had experience with the rule of law and, for the most part, wanted to see that rule applied to the areas where they now lived.

I think all of that makes the Old West analogy inapt: it’s a lot easier to expand law and law enforcement into areas that are owned by and therefore under the absolute control of a sovereign nation than it is to institute law and law enforcement in a “place” – a world” -- that has neither. I don’t see cyberspace as a frontier than can be civilized by exporting U.S. law or European law or Asian law or an amalgam of global law (assuming such a thing could be created) “into” cyberspace because I see cyberspace as a vacuum when it comes to law and law enforcement.

The analogy I prefer – and it has its own imperfections – is to Europe in the early Middle Ages, what some have called the Dark Ages. It’s not a perfect analogy because it was an environment in which law and law enforcement had existed but disintegrated with the collapse of the Roman Empire. The reason I prefer the medieval analogy is because the world that evolved (or devolved) after the Empire collapsed was one in which there was no generalized governing structure and therefore no consistent, reliable order; there was law, but it was parochial, just as governance was parochial.

The medieval analogy is far from perfect, but since I can’t come up with a real-world analogy based on a “place” in which there had never been any source of law and law enforcement, it’s the best I can do. As I argued in an article I published a few years ago, I don’t think any human grouping can exist and survive without having some system of law and law enforcement to guarantee the stability people need to carry out the activities essential to their survival and the survival of their group.

At least that has always been true in the physical world; since cyberspace is in a sense a luxury, in that we inhabit it by choice rather than by necessity, perhaps my argument does not apply there. Perhaps cyberspace can – and should – survive in a state of greater or lesser chaos, in which people depend on themselves and perhaps some associates for their security. That’s pretty much what it came to in the Middle Ages.


Loki said...

Oddly enough, I find I disagree with the notion that there is no law in cyberspace. In fact, I think there is more law, and effective law enforcement, in cyberspace than there is anywhere in the real world.

Of course, this depends on my definition of "law". In this case, I'm looking at "law" as something that determines your possible actions. In cyberspace, laws are made up of sets of software instructions that determine precisely what you are allowed to do.

Security flaws could be analogous to legal loopholes; and server software, from Apache to Microsoft Server 2008, is the the law. You can even buy extra private security guards, in the form of Snort or the like.

What is great about cyberspace, is that if software (or laws) is well designed, then police or enforcement becomes unnecessary, because the laws *are* the enforcement.

Cyberspace *is* a new frontier - one in which we can each write the physical laws we which to allow people to interact with us by; and in which there need be no difference between physical rules and law.

(I'm not quite sure how to place DoS attacks in this framework yet though)

Susan Brenner said...

That's a very thoughtful post.

Thank you.

I'll think about it for a while and get back to you.

Anonymous said...

@Lokkju You'd be interested in Lessig's Code 2.0 (2006) in light of your comments.

Professor Brennan, great post. I've often felt that the Wild West metaphor didn't capture enough.

Luke said...

A very interesting post. It makes me wonder if our language for the internet will shed analogies as newer generations come of age for whom a networked existence is native. Untethered from the desktop computer and identifiable online communities, typical internet use seems to make less and less sense as a 'place' and we'll think of place-based analogies in the same sense as "motor coach" or "talking pictures".