The tech industry actually is a lot like the Wild West but not in the ways you might think
Strap on your spurs and pull up those chaps! The U.S. government and the tech industry are gearing up for a good old-fashioned Wild West showdown — but not in the way you might think.
During Twitter’s and Facebook’s congressional hearing on Wednesday last week, Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey answered questions on Capitol Hill about online privacy, election interference, political bias, and more. The members of congress interrogating the two tech leaders did not just accept their apologies and move on, though; to prevent against future breaches of user data and the spreading of misinformation, some members of Congress indicated that regulation was hurtling the tech industry’s way.
“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said.
Senator Warner’s comparison might have been hyperbolic. But it got us wondering: how similar to the tech industry is the Wild West? And, if we’ve lived this history of bringing an unprecedented, rules-free world under federal control before, what can the end of America’s Wild West teach us about what comes next for Twitter, Facebook, and Google?
Professor Richard White is a Stanford University historian who co-founded Stanford’s Center for the American West, and who specializes in American Western history and the history of capitalism. In a recent phone call with Mashable, Prof. White said that Senator Warner’s comparison between the “Wild West” and the regulatory changes facing the tech industry was actually a good one, though not in the way Warner probably meant it.
“The West can serve as a cautionary tale, explaining why regulation is necessary,” Prof. White told Mashable. “But also why you’d better keep a very close eye on the people who are actually shaping these regulations, and who they really benefit.”
The Westworld-esque “Wild West” as we imagine it never existed. Instead, Professor White explained, the true story of taming the West tells the tale of regulating the groundbreaking technology of that time: the railroads. So reigning in America’s Wild West in the mid-1800s had more to do with regulating runaway tech corporations than it did with capturing bandits. And the achievements, and mistakes, of that period in our country’s history, can teach us about what to expect from our technological and political moment today.
Hold onto your cowboy hats.
The below has been edited for length and clarity.
Mashable: Recently, on Capitol Hill, Sen. Warner implied that regulation was coming for the tech industry, by comparing the tech industry to the “Wild West.” As a historian of the “Wild West,” does this comparison make any sense?
Prof. White: It could be an apt metaphor, but not for the reasons he thinks.
Most of the time when I see “Wild West,” it refers back to the sort of western movement — the image of the sheriff coming in to town and putting an end to all this violence. That’s fine if you want to use a movie metaphor.
But if you want to use a comparison to the actual West of the mid and late 1800s, then you get an apt analogy between railroad corporations and the big internet companies — both the ones who run platforms, and the ones who control content. The West that I know in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, was by and large the domain of corporations who had gotten favors from the federal government, and had been able to use federal subsidies and technologies and also enter into corrupt bargains with the government to give them a lot of control over the western landscape. That’s where I think you have a closer analogy.
So the Wild West of sheriffs and bandits never existed? Where does that conception of our history come from?
It comes from two things: A series of novels in the late 19th century, and Western movies in the 20th century. The image of the Wild West is an image that’s been created by motion pictures. That’s what Americans see, it’s what they grew up on, it’s been transferred to other areas. But it’s not a vision that comes from the actual history of the West. There was violence in the West, but most of that violence was directed at Indian peoples, at Mexicans. It wasn’t these showdowns in main street kind of stuff.
So what was the West like actually, and what similarities do you see with the tech industry?
The first things to come through the great plains, rocky mountains, and deserts were corporation-run railroads, subsidized by the federal government. They existed only because the federal government needed them to establish transportation, and they set up what at that time was a way to move people, goods, and information — in much the same way that the internet moves people, goods and information.
And railroads had a lot of unregulated control in the West. There was a huge amount of insider dealing, and a huge amount of draining off of profits. And there was no alternate means of transportation really, so these corporations had a lot of power. It’s much like the internet today. You might not like it, but this is the choice you have.
So railroad corporations were dominating the West, and pretty much making the rules. How did this affect the people living in the west?
They ended up garnering a huge amount of public hostility.
People needed them — they didn’t want railroads to go away, because they needed them. But they saw the corporations as exploiting them, taking advantage of them, taking away profits that should belong to small businesses. What was supposed to have been this open gate to transportation instead turned out to be a toll gate, and the tolls had to go to the people who were providing the railroad tracks, and they’d been subsidized by the government, and they had friends in the government.
So there was a huge resentment against railroads for the amount that they dominated both commerce and government, and that led to a reform movement in the 1880s, 1890s, early 20th century, which was aimed at bringing the railroads under federal and state regulation and control.
How did this affect American government at the time?
In the sparsely populated states in the West, corporations had a greater income than the states they operated in, and they employed more people than the state governments. Yet they still depended on having those states on their side, so they could be regulated or not regulated in ways that were advantageous. So, they started to intervene with politics.
The railroads seamlessly involved themselves in the political process. A politician who might have appeared to be regulating the railroad, attacking one railroad, was really doing it at the behest of another railroad with whom he’s in bed. After a while, people stopped being able to trust why anybody was acting the way they did. It became insider politics, with exchanging of favors, and it began to corrupt the whole political system so that people began to lose faith in the politics itself.
This is why the gilded age in the 19th century can seem so similar to today. It’s the same kind of utter disenchantment with politics in the sense that politicians are not only looking out for themselves, but they’re very often looking out for corporate interests who are behind business interests.
So what ended up happening with the railroads, and what can that tell us about what comes next for internet regulation?
The Interstate Commerce Commission began to intervene to set railroad rates, to say what permissible practices are, to set up a series of general regulations, to try to ensure an even playing field for everybody who has to use the railroads. Of course, nothing ever goes smoothly, these bureaucracies don’t work initially, but by the early 20th century, by and large they’ve gotten a functioning ICC, which will bring these roads under more control.
So, regulation just worked!? Once the federal government got involved in not letting the railroads make their own rules, it was fairer to everyone?
Well, the other thing is the railroads themselves began to cooperate. They didn’t oppose it, because they began to think, we do need a system which will in fact make all of this coherent. And particularly as the players got bigger and bigger, this allowed a few big players with government regulation to be able to still dominate the industry, so they didn’t really oppose it. Railroads did not want nationalization, but they were willing to undergo regulation, especially when they saw that this regulation could in many ways serve their interests.
The danger of this, of course, is it created a high bar of entry to be able to get in. Usually regulation comes when things have been sorted out already, when the whole landscape is already dominated by a few very big players, and those big players recognize the danger to their operations. And that might be a place we’re in today.
What were some of the pitfalls from this process of regulating the railroads that we can learn from, as we start to regulate internet companies?
The major pitfall we have is that the people who control railroad corporations and the people who control internet corporations are not stupid. At a certain point, they’re going to recognize and accept regulation. They are then going to intervene with the government to make that regulation work for their benefit, much more than for the benefit of the consumers who pushed forward the regulation. So just by getting regulation does not mean that you are going to get the ends you wanted for regulation. The people who are pushing for it are going to have to be very very vigilant, because otherwise they’re going to find that the regulations they achieve are going to be better than the world they just left behind, but they’re not going to be the ideal world that they wanted. And that the corporations are not going to give up the kind of power that they have.
So we have to be wary of the benevolence of these companies as we go forward. History tells us that we’re going into a regulatory process. But the extent to which that regulation is successful will depend upon how much consumers keep their eye on the ball, as opposed to letting the corporations themselves dictate the kind of regulation.
Yeah, you don’t want politicians and the corporations in the room alone.
The internet isn’t going away any more than the railroads are. People want the internet, and they want the railroads, but that’s not really the point. The point of regulation is not necessarily the technology itself, but how these technologies function, how they work. That’s what people have to have some sort of control over.
And history has shown us that as technology develops and then begins to dominate, it’s the American people and government that get undermined, and the corporations that benefit.
The people who own the technology, no matter where it came from, are going to use it for their own benefit. That’s not such a profound lesson, but it’s true.
Well it’s something that we’ve forgotten in our idealism about tech, except in the last few years.
As a historian, I was always astonished that the people who controlled the internet and built these huge companies could claim that their only desire was to serve the public good, that they had these utopian visions. But everything we’ve seen over the last five or six years shows that that’s not the case.
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