Little room left on the Web frontier
November 29, 1999
by James Fallows
(IDG) -- In Seattle, when the ruling came out, it was as if the entire region had lost a modern civil war. Although no one put it exactly this way, the tone of the local news coverage made it easy to see Thomas Penfield Jackson as the victorious Ulysses S. Grant, his "finding of fact" as the surrender document at Appomattox, and the exultant government lawyers as carpetbaggers and scalawags about to ride in and do mischief in a new Reconstruction.
OK, I'll drop this metaphor now, before we have to cast Bill Gates as either Rhett Butler or Jeff Davis, and Microsoft (MSFT) lawyer, the silver-haired Bill Neukom, as Robert E. Lee. And, of course, the case is not over yet. But there was no mistaking the sense that the Union government, from its stronghold on the other end of the country, had imposed its will through force alone.
This atmosphere served the emotional needs of a region where tens of thousands of people have been enriched directly, and millions more indirectly, from what the judge has declared to be monopoly profits. Despite occasional local grumbling, the Northwest is roughly as reverent toward Microsoft as toward its two other icons: the salmon and Ken Griffey Jr., who happened to choose the same week as the decision to announce he's leaving town.
But for the rest of the country, another scene from 19th-century history better describes what is happening. In 1893, the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his "frontier thesis" of American life. The U.S. Census had just officially declared that there was no more "open" land in the American West. Lots of it was unoccupied, sure, but all of it was now mapped and accounted for and under someone's control. There was no place you could just go, stake your claim and live entirely as you chose. American culture would change, Turner said, when people couldn't so easily leave the social order but had to live with others, under rules.
Frederick Jackson Turner. Thomas Penfield Jackson. Coincidence? I think not! In a sense, the judge's finding is a "frontier thesis" of modern high-tech life. The idea behind it is that when new technologies and industries become important enough to shape the way people outside the industries live, then they will run into some of the tedious old pre-Internet rules for buffering their social effect. Before there were cars, there were no speed limits. As the impact of the auto industry grew, it led inevitably to airbags and HOV lanes. Societies will try to control anything that affects them deeply. The only major technology to have escaped this "closing of the frontier" process is the firearm.
The Microsoft rivals who gloated as they read the ruling will soon realize that it signals the ultimate end of the frontier for them, too. As a political reality, any business as important as Microsoft will be regulated in some way. (See if you can think of an exception.) So as the Internet becomes more important, guess what will occur? Here are just a few places where the frontier will inevitably close:
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