Staking Claims: Pioneering the Frontier of American Consumer Culture
In his seminal 19th century essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner wrote of a “return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line.” Further clarifying his point, Turner goes on to write, “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”
In his ‘seminal’ opening address at a Microsoft Software Conference in 2006—where the overriding theme of the event was, “The Next Web Now”—Bill Gates spoke about “evolutionary new technologies” and “pioneering new approaches to network interfacing and software usability.” Further clarifying his point, Gates’ bottom line was this: “We are using software to reach out and mine new territory in terms of the customer experience—new territory that is valuable for the organization.” In essence, Gates’ words imply that the ‘customer experience’ is nothing more than an easily settled consumer landscape upon which the pioneers of Microsoft can systematically expand their business model and eviscerate competing corporations. The meeting point between savagery and civilization, indeed.
There are several ways in which the basic tenets of Turner’s essay are manifest today. The frontier is alive and well on our nation’s freeways, where my Ford Focus cruises along in the middle lane, while to my left is a Nissan Frontier, to my right is a Chevy Trailblazer, and barreling towards us all from behind is a Hummer H3, the ultimate civilian bastion of modern military/traditional cowboy pioneering. It is also actively expanding on the catwalks of successful fashion designers the world over, where the label of what is ‘hot’ or ‘fashionable’ dies and is reborn every 15 minutes. And of course, there is likely no greater current American pioneer than George W. Bush, he who blazes decidedly old-fashioned trails while completely oblivious to relentlessly modern ideals such as common sense, goodwill, and consideration for other people/nations.
Indeed, there are countless ways in which Turner’s 100+ year-old essay still holds true today. There is, however, one specific aspect of contemporary American culture that is almost identically recreating the traditional Western ideal of ‘pioneering the frontier,’ one that is just as supported by a speech from Bill Gates as it is by the immortal words of Frederick Jackson Turner. From the iPod to HD-DVD to the vastly settled frontier of the Internet, the endlessly evolving nature of American technology and its widespread blanketing over modern consumer culture is the single-most insidious pioneer of the ever-growing frontier that is today’s consumer America.
Early in Turner’s essay, the author makes mention of America’s continual rebirth, of “a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion” (60). There is no frontier as ripe for incessant evolution as America’s growing technology, where in the course of six months flat-panel plasma screens go from the exception to the standard, and where the latest advances can be purchased not exclusively at Best Buy or Circuit City, but also at Hallmark. Gone are the days of opening a birthday card to a five-dollar-bill from your grandparents. Now you can open a card and hear your favorite song playing from the microchip embedded in between the layers of cardboard. And not only that, but each card also comes with a free song download from iTunes, a gift that keeps on giving—at least for the three-and-a-half minutes it takes the song to play.
On the subject of music downloads, one of the clearest pioneers of the technological consumerism frontier is the Apple corporation and its most beloved product, the iPod. Portable music players have been used in many different forms for years—the most notable being Sony’s Walkman. Likewise, the downloading and sharing of music files online has been a popular pastime since the early days of widespread consumer Internet capability over a decade ago. So in direct correlation to Turner’s essay, the growth has been continual for many years. But it was not until Apple unleashed the first iPod in 2001 that portable music players became portable media players, capable of playing an ever-growing array of entertainment, and the ‘popular pastime’ of downloading music became an outright craze. The iPod not only expanded the possibilities of what a portable media player could do, but it also fashioned itself as the standard of ‘cool’ with its sleek style and wide range of available colors. In one moment of technological innovation, Apple took occupancy of a major consumer settlement.
In his essay, Turner makes a point to underline a peculiar contradiction within his model of the frontier as an evolutionary pattern. He notes that within the structure of continued rebirth is “a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier” (60). This dichotomy of innovation through regression is clearly manifest in America’s consumer culture, and very specifically manifest in the iPod. In the six years since its inception, the iPod has been reintroduced time and again in various new and expanded formats. First came the integration of picture storage. Then came the ability to play video. After that it was Podcasts, audio and visual programming made exclusively for those carrying iPods in their pockets. With each new evolution of the iPod—each new size, each new shape, each new capability—previous incarnations have been rendered primitive. Newer versions of the product broke new ground—a ‘new development’ on the area of the consumer landscape which iPod settled.
In terms of American social development beginning over again, the iPod has broken tremendous ground towards rendering American social development entirely obsolete. The newest version of the iPod comes wrapped up in the iPhone, which is a cell phone, Internet browser, and television in addition to all of the standard iPod features. What this new technology means is that with the exception of food and shelter, owners of the iPhone have possession of everything they need to live an entirely inward existence, not ever directly communicating with anyone, but having total access to the world. Thus, American social development is reborn—or arrested, depending on your perspective. And that, in a nutshell, is the influence of the iPod on the American consumer frontier—never has technology so greatly amassed such a vast consumer settlement and simultaneously made entertainment such an internal, pocket-sized venue.
Later in his essay, Turner discusses the succession of ‘fall lines’ used to mark the ‘natural boundary lines’ that shaped the characteristics of each successive frontier. “The fall line marked the frontier of the seventeenth century” (64), Turner writes, which was followed later by the Alleghany Mountains, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and the Rocky Mountains. “Each was won,” Turner states, “by a series of Indian Wars (65).” Therefore, each frontier is settled by some conflict, and each conflict ultimately has a winner—thereby supporting Turner’s earlier notion of the meeting point between savagery and civilization that has been at the heart of every frontier, including the technological frontier that exists today.
For evidence of these technological frontier wars, look once again to the iPod itself, which has buried a barrage of MP3 player competition. But, there are far more significant wars than that. Think back to when DVD obliterated laserdiscs, or when Dell and Gateway battled to dominate the custom-built computer landscape (heard much from Gateway lately?). Windows and Macintosh seem to have found a way to simultaneously wage a war and co-exist all at once, a sort-of peace that has emerged due to the fact that differing strengths (i.e. Windows’ word processing versus Mac’s media capability) lead many to either only need one system, or need both. However, such a peaceful war is not possible among many other technological battles, including the most hotly contested consumer Indian War of the moment: Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD.
As is the case in any frontier war, there is a settlement that needs to move forward, territory that is waiting to be claimed. In the case of the HD Format Wars, that settlement lies on the frontier line of American consumerism, where human beings are reduced to wallets in need of emptying; and that territory is quite literally the land that encompasses every home in America. Because like any form of technology, what starts as a scarcely seen, envied item very quickly becomes commonplace and run-of-the-mill. In the war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, the format that becomes run-of-the-mill first wins. And in the quest to become the standard, each sophisticated, innovative company must engage in a primitive war fought with contemporary methods. To clarify, each company must overtake the other by appearing most advanced, and therefore, most appealing.
To that end, Blu-Ray (developed by Sony) struck first against HD-DVD (developed by Toshiba) by forming the most unified front. Not only has Sony integrated Blu-Ray capability into every Playstation 3 video game console on the market, they have also been first out of the gate with Blu-Ray disc-burning drives for computers. So it appears Blu-Ray has a leg-up in this technological Indian War by most completely pushing the settlement forward; the Blu-Ray format is more readily available and is also more flexible for users. Turner wrote that humankind on the frontier “must accept the conditions which (their environment) furnishes, or perish” (61). Therefore, Blu-Ray is doing the most successful job of making consumers want to conform to their technology. In the dichotomy that is settling on the frontier, Sony is prevailing in the primitive task of bludgeoning the life out of the opposing force by prevailing in the evolutionary task of settling the greatest portion of the consumer frontier.
“Each frontier leaves its traces behind it,” wrote Turner, “and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics” (61-62). If ever there was a settled area in the technology-fueled consumer frontier that so completely embodies frontier characteristics, it is the perpetually settling frontier that is the Internet. In fact, it seems that as the World Wide Web becomes more and more settled, it becomes more and more primitive in its output. Consider MySpace and Facebook, two incredible innovations where millions of people nationwide stake their claim on several megabytes of territory in order to document their lives and connect with people. Yet how crude and immature are ventures designed to promote oneself and spy on other people? Even aside from those rather damning criticisms, how does one qualify the legitimacy of an operation that, like many open forums on the web, ultimately becomes a venue by which to sell and promote any idea or concept without a check? “The democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism… pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as benefits” (Turner 83). To be sure, the Internet gives voice to the once voiceless, but many of these voices are full of hatred of every sort—racial, religious, and sexual.
Picking up where hatred leaves off, consider the archaic nature of violence. Certainly a predominant force that permeated any frontier, the Internet is a key example of inflicting brutality through a sophisticated channel—again harkening back to Turner’s “meeting point between savagery and civilization” (60). The forerunners of the American frontier had nothing other than the clearest intentions of starting a new society when they set out to pioneer the ‘western wilderness.’ However, it is undeniable that on the road to a new society those same forerunners raped, pillaged, and plundered their way to their destination. Today’s American consumers who set out on the frontier of the World Wide Web are subject to a virtual raping and pillaging—an incessant barrage of violent pornography, ignorant prejudice, and crudities clearly of the most primitive sort clutter the interface at every turn. For every peacefully settled web site on this vast technological frontier, there are three more that completely disparage the overall landscape. For every Google there is a WhyWomanSuck.com, MILFseekers.com or Megacocksuckers.com affording men the opportunity to stake their claim on women’s bodies and what’s more, their legitimacy. In what may be the greatest irony of all, the Internet appears to be the complete reversal of Turner’s conception of the frontier—a settlement that was designed peacefully and with good intentions that then turned rotten from the inside out.
Yet for better or for worse, the Internet is the bridge that connects the world together. It is the grandest settlement on the frontier of technological consumerism, and the greatest inhibitor of maturity and true civilization. Without it life would not be so sophisticated, yet if it did not exist so many primitive notions would not be so easily disseminated. So, therein, once again lies the dichotomy of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier, the contradictory nature of an ever-evolving society. Where there is civilization there is savagery—never once can one exist without the other. There will continue to be more problems, but with them will come more solutions. As Turner theorized, “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (60). For better, for worse, or for somewhere in between, Turner was right.
“It appears then that the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them” (63). So Turner wrote, and so it truly is. Humankind has continually strived to expand its dominance in every aspect of life. In so doing, humankind has developed methods of business, communication, and entertainment that have become so evolved that a new frontier has been formed out of those methods—that frontier is technology. Over the years, the frontier of technology has expanded its dominion over humankind, as a result of the expansive power provided them by the same humankind that created it. In so doing, technology developed a new frontier that is consumer culture. And so the cycle continues—we develop the machines, the machines enslave our psyches, yet we still run the machines, all the while paying money to fuel the machines, though without the machines we would not have near as much money…on and on it goes.
This vicious cycle of man and machine speaks very provocatively to the most telling sentence of Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, written only four pages into the thirty-page document: “Hardly is a new state or territory formed before the same principle manifests itself again and gives rise to a further emigration; and so it is destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress” (63). And so the question is this: what will obstruct this technology-driven consumer progress? What physical barrier is powerful enough to stop this frontier of technology and consumerism? What, ultimately, will be the force that brings down this frontier and triggers the next period of rebirth and evolution?
Your guess is as good as my iPod’s.
(In a very timely, though ultimately inevitable turn of events, in the months since I wrote this piece, the frontier mentality paid off big for Sony. As you may or may not have heard, Blu-Ray effectively won the HD Format Wars over a month ago. Netflix stopped acquiring new HD-DVD titles. Best Buy and Amazon.com began selling HD-DVDs at exponentially lower prices. And more and more companies are now jumping on the Blu-Ray bandwagon. Congratulations, Sony, on settling a new technological frontier.)