By TED ANTHONY, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — The metaphor is an easy one, overused and perhaps even a bit overwrought. We are forging forward into a digital frontier, leaving convention behind, traveling without guides into an uncharted virtual land where progress and profits are forever around the next bend.
In the 19th century, Americans expanded into a physical frontier — a geographic edge of society brimming with opportunities and dangers and challenges and setbacks. So began the notion of manifest destiny: the idea that, no matter what, the United States pushes outward to the farthest edge of the most distant place possible.
Today, almost two centuries after that term was coined, American expansionism is playing out vigorously at society's latest cutting edge: the social space of the Internet. Friday's high-octane, $16 billion IPO of the global juggernaut that is Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook is, for better or worse, the most recent example of how the new frontier has been cultivated, colonized and commanded by entrepreneurial Americans.
As the manufacturing economy reconfigures, you often hear the lament that "America doesn't make anything anymore." But then there's this: Most of the world's digital centers of gravity have been, and remain, American. Apple and Microsoft. Google and Yahoo. YouTube and Amazon and eBay. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Kickstarter. Netflix. PayPal. Akamai, the content-delivery behemoth. Intel, the internal combustion engine of the whole shebang. And for that matter, the Internet itself and the organization that regulates its domain names were both born and raised in (you guessed it) America.
A digital manifest destiny is playing out, built upon the notion that the United States' outward expansion continues apace on the virtual frontier. What the self-defined sense of American exceptionalism built in the physical world, it is now building in the digital one.
"It's a projection of American values — what international experts would call soft power," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.
Look at what the digital space disseminates, he says: freedom of the press, of information and of assembly; knowledge and scientific advancement; free-market mechanisms and entrepreneurialism. "It's hard to think of a cluster of ideas and architectures that would more allow basic American cultural values to propagate," says Rainie, co-author of the new book, "Networked: The New Social Operating System."
Technological progress has always walked hand in hand with American expansion. Where would the settlement of the West have been without Robert Fulton's steamboat, Samuel F.B. Morse's work in telegraphy and, later, the inventions of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford? Not to mention the old-time data pipelines themselves — the postal system, the railroads and eventually the interstate highways?
In those cases, innovation helped drive development and physically shape the frontier; now innovation itself is the frontier. And the American tendency to glorify the inventor's spirit remains a key engine. As Alexander Graham Bell went, so goes Mark Zuckerberg.
"In this country, you're a hero if you invent something. To be an inventor in America, that's as good as being an explorer," says Julie Fenster, author of "The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators and Dreamers who Formed Our Nation."
"The notion that 'I can invent my way out of problems' — that always fueled a sense of hope and expansion in this country," she says.
That parallel between the frontiers of the road and the mind has not gone unnoticed by politicians and leaders looking to cast America's newest progress in the context of the old. President Barack Obama, speaking to Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center last year, called for tech innovation this way: "That's the kind of adventurous, pioneering spirit that we need right now. That's the spirit that's given us the tools and toughness to overcome every obstacle and adapt to every circumstance."
The nation's digital innovators have been placing virtual progress into the context of American expansionism for years. Sometimes they're oblique about it, sometimes they're explicit. "There is never a reliable map for unexplored territory," wrote Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who in 1995 likened the early Internet to the Oregon Trail. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs put it this way in 1985: "In a society where information and innovation are going to be pivotal, there really is the possibility that America can become a second-rate industrial nation if we lose the technical momentum and leadership we have now."