Manifest destiny and its first cousin, American exceptionalism, aren't popular notions everywhere. The idea of U.S. domination in everything from cultural frontiers (Hollywood) to geographic ones (outer space) can set the world on edge. Just as irritatingly to some, America's ability to occupy these spaces rests upon not only actual innovation but the oomph to amplify it on a global level — in effect, to shout the loudest in a crowded, if now virtual, room.
"Manifest destiny justifies a certain behavior. One could call it rapaciousness on one end, but someone else could call it being an entrepreneur, being a founder," says John Baick, a historian at Western New England University in Massachusetts. That reflects back upon the original manifest destiny imperative to push outward at all costs; expansion, on any frontier, can also mean overrunning the people who are already there.
What has helped this dominance along? Is it the American penchant for R&D, which fuels innovation? The rise of venture capital over the past half-century, particularly in places like Silicon Valley? Is it the combination of creativity and Barnum-style snake oil that matured into the marketing culture that helps define America today? Is it the nation's higher-education system, which has vigorously pushed the relationship between technological innovation and entrepreneurialism?
Or — and this is where it really gets interesting — is it the ability and willingness of an increasingly connected planet to adopt American innovation and take it to a global level, encouraging U.S. digital expansion in the process?
"We might look at our contributions . and fail to see that what really helped them to take off in many cases was the participation of other people globally," says Joel Kline, an internet developer and digital strategist who teaches business technology at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.
Last year in southwestern China, long a hotbed of brand-name electronics knockoffs, a fake Apple Store turned up — an entire store. A blogger's photos depicted an elaborate lookalike operation complete with Genius Bar, hardwood floors, Helvetica-typefaced signage and sales associates in blue T-shirts who apparently actually thought they were working at the real thing.
Think about that. It wasn't enough to fake the gadgets. The counterfeiters wanted to fake the FEEL of innovation that Apple markets so adeptly. The entire process, exported by an American digital company, had been swallowed whole. It was the idea that was being sold. Something intangible, but very real — the foundation of the virtual economy.
"People say, 'Oh, you've got to invest in the tangible things — land, gold and silver, other precious metals.' They're solid," says Rich Cooper, vice president for research and emerging issues at the National Chamber Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's think tank.
But, he says, "In this new era of exceptionalism, you're now on an entirely different plane. You're not holding dirt. You're not holding a piece of real estate in your hands. You can't touch it and taste it. It's an entirely different medium, and that's hard for people to understand and accept."
The American frontier's most renowned historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, made his name writing about the end of it. In 1893, he proclaimed the frontier closed, finished, conquered, settled. But he hardly thought that meant the end of manifest destiny.
"He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased," Turner wrote. "Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise."
That remains the case, even if that field is now composed of an endless stream of ones and zeroes and Zuckerbergs that, to Americans, represent the latest evidence of the old story of exceptionalism — the desire to lead the world, now from a shining SimCity upon a hill.