The American Frontier and Open Source Software

As I was doing research on the frontier, I was shocked at how many articles that had been written on how the frontier had shaped American Culture.  Evidently, there was a famous article written about just this! It was entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History. In his article, he discusses how different life in America was compared to life in Europe. The main difference, Frederick Jackson Turner argues, was the frontier found in America. This land was free to individuals who were simply willing to go out and take it. This free land was almost like a magnet that pulled men from the east to the west. They came as typical individuals who brought their cultural morays, but soon found that their traditional way of living simply would not suit life in the frontier.  Suddenly the skills that they had developed for a traditional economy simply were not useful in an economy based in self-reliance.  Individuals had to learn to develop more practical skills that would help the survive, rather than rely on the skills that society had placed emphasis on.

As more and more individuals moved west, civilization eventually emerged but it was much different than the civilization before this. According to this article, “Turner believed that many of the characteristics associated with the American people were traceable to their experience, during the three centuries required to settle the continent, of constantly “beginning over again.” Their mobility, their optimism, their inventiveness and willingness to accept innovation, their materialism, their exploitive wastefulness—these were frontier traits; for the pioneer, accustomed to repeated moves as he drifted westward, viewed the world through rose-colored glasses as he dreamed of a better future, experimented constantly as he adapted artifacts and customs to his peculiar environment, scorned culture as a deterrent to the practical tasks that bulked so large in his life, and squandered seemingly inexhaustible natural resources with abandon. Turner also ascribed America’s distinctive brand of individualism, with its dislike of governmental interference in economic !unctions, to the experience of pioneers who wanted no hindrance from society as they exploited nature’s riches. Similarly, he traced the exaggerated nationalism of the United States to its roots among frontiersmen who looked to the national government for land, transportation outlets, and protection against the Indians. And he believed that America’s faith in democracy had stemmed from a pioneering experience in which the leveling influence of poverty and the uniqueness of local problems encouraged majority self-rule. He pointed out that these characteristics, prominent among frontiersmen, had persisted long after the frontier itself was no more.”

After studying more and more about how exactly the frontier shaped American culture, it became very apparent that this type of revolution has happened in the much more recent past with open source software. The traditional “civilization” of programing was very rigid and structured.  For a while, it seemed as if who you knew was much more important than the skills you had. As the frontier of open source began to emerge, more and more people shifted their time and talents westward. Suddenly, the only skills that mattered was your ability to accomplish a task. Names, faces, and achievements (other than ones that dealt with other open source projects) didn’t matter as much as programming skill. One of the direct results of this open source movements was the dot com era.  During this time, there were very little “social rules” governing what was and what wasn’t acceptable on the web. As a result people adapted traits that were very similar to those adapted by individuals who settled the frontier.  In fact, I’m going to restate the frontier traits and explain how each of them tie in directly to traits that early dot com individuals exhibited.

Mobility: Because the frontier was so unknown, it was not uncommon for someone to settle in an area and find that their land was unusable for one reason or another (for example, you could have settled near a fault line). Consequently, you would have to get up and leave. In the dot com era, individuals would hop from company to company faster than websites were emerging! Every day created a radical change in the online business landscape. If you wanted to survive, you had to constantly adapt.

Optimism: Lets look at for an example of this. According to the Wiki article on Amazon, “the company did not expect aprofit for four to five years.” FOUR TO FIVE YEARS! That is a long time when you are talking about your livelihood! But they were optimistic and believed they could do it. (In case you were wondering, inc was founded in 1994 and didn’t turn a profit until fourth quarter 2001)

Inventiveness: Because the internet was a new place, there were virtually no set ways of doing things. Every website needed to be programmed essentially from scratch. Every web developer created a new way of solving similar problems. This was the bane and boon to this time period.  Because of this, many web standards (like php) grew into maturity as they were implemented on hundreds of websites.  But this also meant that hundreds of hours were wasted doing repetitive tasks.

Willingness to Accept Innovation: First, A YouTube video explaining this very concept.

when a good idea surfaced, there was no need for years to pass as the idea was polished.  Rather, open source developers and dot com professionals adopted early, and innovated often. If something wasn’t working, they would change what they were doing. There was no need for a company to wear a proverbial pleather jacket for 5 years if it was brought to their attention that it wasn’t working.

Materialism: This is a bit of a stretch, considering there is very little material on the web.  But companies would fight for traffic. They wanted to get as many users as possible viewing their pages.  They would do just about anything to get more traffic on their websites.  When discussing business with their friends, this seemed to be the only thing that was discussed.Even after the dot com burst, materialism was evident in those who were involved with the internet. In an article that was published in June 2005, Jonathan R. Laing said, “Once [dot com] stocks fell, real estate became the primary outlet for the speculative frenzy that the stock market had unleashed. Where else could plungers apply their newly acquired trading talents? The materialistic display of the big house also has become a salve to bruised egos of disappointed stock investors. These days, the only thing that comes close to real estate as a national obsession is poker.”

Their Exploitive Wastefulness: Along with epic business moves during the era, there were likely billions of epic fails

. The mainreason for this was because of the lack of structure in online business. Cash burning was so prevalent that businesses were bound to fail. Most companies were fighting so hard to get traffic, that they forgot that a business was about making money.  In their mind, they figured that they could make money after they had the traffic, and didn’t think far enough ahead to figure out how that money would be made.

It amazes me how the civilizations on the world tend to go through cycles.  The Dot com/Open Source Movement seems to me as just an extension of the frontier movement that had happened generations before.

– The beginning of this post post was largely based off a post that can be found here


One thought on “The American Frontier and Open Source Software

  1. Pingback: 42 « Hakuna Matata

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