Night As Frontier: Colonizing The World After Dark

by Murray Melbin

Why read this book?

Studying frontiers, the reasons they form, the people that create them, and the early rules that govern them, can provide a recurring recipe for innovation. The lessons we learn from one frontier are applicable to future frontiers.

We can expect human beings to act in similar capacities for similar reasons. And so, when I came across this book I was fascinated by the premise. Nighttime as a frontier.

I wanted to read this book because I believe it can be useful to understanding the digital frontier that creates sovereign individuals. A new class of people. The author did a fantastic job comparing the parallels of the nighttime to other frontiers. Now that I’ve read it, I see similarities in some of the conclusions and rationales drawn by settling the night with the digital frontier.

It’s an important book for anyone that is seeking to pioneer a new product, service, industry or way of life. Especially true for the budding group of Sovereign Individuals.

Below are some of the notes I took with my comments interspersed throughout.

Notes from Reading:

The Biological Impact and Value of Time

Human beings evolved in a 24 hour cycle of light and darkness. We developed a biological clock through this cycle in tune with light. Human hormones are regulated by light. As a result, we natrually operate within daytime hours. The invention of consistent gas fueled lighting paved the way for us to explore the nighttime. (I’ve written elsewhere about this. It’s a topic worth reading up on as we spend more time exposing ourselves to artificial light. Light exposure has biological consequences.)

“This extension across all hours of the day resembles our spreading across the face of the earth.”

Thinking of night as a frontier reframes how you can think of night. It becomes an area of opportunity. A new territory with resources to exploit for profit. A territory for people to explore that is less populated than fully populated daytime. Less population in this case means less competition.

As humanity became industrialized, time became a more valuable resource. As processes were optimized, it became clear that time was itself valuable. And so, as a society, we pushed production into the night to eliminate time as a bottleneck.

“we cannot pass time from hand to hand like money, but we can transfer activities from time to time.”

Night Pioneers & Their Frontier Living

The people that live and operate in the night are unique from daytime people. Similar in a sense to how pioneers, colonists, and people living in remote locations were to the rest of civilized society. They have different motivations and needs.

Light Technology Enabled Exploitation of Night‘s Frontier

Once society began to consistently control and produce sources of light we were able to explore the night. The invention of gas and electric lighting especially gave a sense of permanence and control to the exploration of night as an opportunity.

But lighting technology by itself was not the cause for people staying awake longer and exploring the night. It simply made the exploration possible.

“Enablers are useful rather than forceful.” Technology isn’t the cause for change but it helps and make it possible.

Why Explore the Night Frontier?

There were many different reasons to explore the night and they varied on an individual level. On a societal level, control of artificial lighting allowed for shift work to take place at mills and factories on a large scale.

Before control of lighting, work had to stop as the sun set. With artificial lighting, production could continue into the nighttime.

The value of the night is therefore primarily time itself. Time’s value lured entrepreneurs to profit from the ability to eliminate time as a bottleneck. This is why digital frontier is so powerful. It gives a person the ability to expand the time they can earn money into a full 24-hour opportunity across multiple time zones. (Thinking digitally, a book sold in India while the author sleeps in America exploits time.)

“As entrepreneurs were earlier drawn to newly accessible wealth in the land, they were now attracted to the promise of fortunes in the night.”

As land can have resources taken from it, so too can nighttime can become valuable by what you’re able to produce in it.

In many situations, factory equipment was so expensive that it needed to be run non-stop at all times to make the investment worthwhile.

“We live in an era that insists upon rapid response no matter what hour.”

“In emphasizing speed, modern society created its own condition of limiting capacity: the deadline. “

This meant moving operations into nighttime.

What’s It Like Working on the Night’s Frontier?

But most people still don’t work at night. The rate of work is much lower.

“as space becomes scarce, people will disperse in time even in households. In Hong Kong persons who work at night rent their beds to other people for sleeping while they are at their jobs.” (This particularly interesting. As with using the night, these frontiersmen are especially good at maximizing the value of their limited resources.)

“in the early stage of expansion many organizations and individuals are daunted by the inconvenience and the isolation of the night.”

Patterns of Frontiers

Why does a person decide to work in the night? They are the same causes of all frontiers, “responses to economic opportunities and quests for relief.”

Working at night is less crowded than during the day. But as with any colony, nighttime communities grow as they become successful. Success attracts new ventures and achievers seeking to capitalize on growing opportunities.

Like all frontiers, the first movers are unique operators. But the people and organizations that follow are usually similar to what they’ve always been. Services that appear to provide for the needs of the operators. This is an interesting lesson, although new opportunities arise, our fundamental needs usually don’t change. We can expect similar secondary growth to take place across all frontiers.

“Nighttime activity, since it stems from the same forces that promoted geographic expansion in the past, should look like a land outpost, behave like one, and follow the same course of development.” Frontiers have traits in common.

Expansion to a frontier comes in waves. First by a few individuals, then larger groups and supporting services. Then development on a larger scale. “In each stage the participants created a distinctive life-style.”

But expansion of frontiers is never consistent. It takes different amounts of time for different reasons. You can’t expect growth and expansion to happen on any specific timeline.

BUT, “sizable portion of the ventures were formally sponsored. Commercial, governmental, and religious organizations promoted new settlements.” This is true of most frontiers. An example: the Portuguese in their exploration of India. There is usually some form of major investment that provides funding and assumes large portions of the perceived risk.

The people that take on this type of risk, whether financially or by entering the frontier alone are the ambitious type either with nothing to lose or seeking to take on risk to level up exponentially.

“Young people are more numerous on the outer fringes because they are less enmeshed in various social obligations.”

A Foothold in a New Frontier

“if the pioneer group that moves beyond the outskirts gains hold, it will change the environment to be more hospitable to others.”

People move to new frontiers for many reasons. To improve their financial opportunities because they are otherwise disadvantaged. Or, they move for a unique set of freedoms otherwise not available to them in traditional and standardized society. “Frontiers allow more individualism because the constituted authority and rules implied by familiar settings are absent.”

It’s clear that the search for these opportunities goes beyond traditional borders. Some view it as an opportunity to break into an industry they may otherwise not have had access to.

“The first outposts beyond a society’s margins are detached.”

And as these frontier communities take hold they have different characteristics from the communities they left behind.

There is less status and hierarchy and a relaxed sense of rules.

“The frontiersmen not only enforced their own law but also chose which laws they would obey”

Many frontiers operate on a decentralized power structure and are historically known for their wild west style of outlaw and danger. Communities form around a sense of mutual defense and comradery to alleviate lonliness.

An interesting point, “former hunters and trappers found a new occupation by becoming guides to safe passage through the wilderness”. This is especially true in the formation of the digital frontier in the form of modern gurus, selling courses and tools for surviving and thriving on the web.

Sense of community is strong but unforgiving on frontiers.

“A frontier that is mature enough to have its own momentum and strength will exert influence on the main community. Outpost and core begin to find that some of their interests are incompatible.” This seems true in current events with the Epic games vs Apple/google disputes on platform fees.

Some Final Quotes

 “insights usually outrun vocabularies”. This resonates deeply with me. As we enter a more immersive digital age, our unique ideas and experiences will outrun our vocabulary for describing them.

“A frontier is an edge of expansion and development… and to recognize this is to obtain a coherent explanation for its varied features: the kinds of people up and about after dark; what brings them there; why they are more helpful and friendly than daytimers; the beginnings of their political efforts; the reasons for the stir after midnight in such diverse places as food stores. … and the slow realization that public policy might be applied to time itself.”

“Persons who leave the main settlement and move to its margins are guided by a combination of leaving a situation they feel is somehow undesirable and responding to prospects in another.”

“Night offers an exit from troublesome interpersonal situations, a way to evade certain social groups or daytime’s crowds and pace in general.”

People that are struggling under the confines of normal society. But as is true of most frontiers, not everyone that seeks them out is a good fit for that lifestyle.

In closing, I really enjoyed this book. It was surprisingly easy to read for content that at times could have been very heavy. I recommend reading it if you’re interested in intellectual frontiers.

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