The metaphor is an easy one, overused and perhaps even a bit overwrought. We are forging into a digital frontier, traveling without guides into an uncharted virtual land where progress and profits are forever around the next bend.
Sound familiar? 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, 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 most of the world's digital centers of gravity have been, and remain, American. Apple and Microsoft. Google and Yahoo. YouTube, Amazon and eBay. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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 America.
Virtual growth of a nation
A digital manifest destiny is playing out, built upon the notion that the United States' outward expansion continues 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," 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.
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 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.
"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."
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.
"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.
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? Is it the combination of creativity and Barnum-style snake oil that matured into the marketing culture? Is it the nation's higher-education system, which has pushed the relationship between technological innovation and entrepreneurialism?
Or 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.
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. "The American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise," he wrote.
That remains the case, even if that field is now composed of an endless stream of ones and zeros 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.