Digerati - Chapter 2

Digerati - Chapter 2

John Perry Barlow [10.1.96]

Chapter 2


John Perry Barlow

THE SAINT (Kevin Kelly): John Perry Barlow is resident senator of cyberspace, and he's probably the first politician to play cyberspace. He basically holds an unelected office: he is in many ways the spokesperson representing the Internet to the outside world, and not to everybody's liking. Barlow is a humanist and in part a mystic, but he is also very technically savvy and eloquent. He has a long career ahead of him as the senator from cyberspace.

John Perry Barlow is cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and a former Wyoming cattle rancher.

John Perry Barlow's writings resonate throughout the Internet and inform many of the debates springing up about freedom of expression and the challenges raised by the medium. John is "The Coyote," a former Wyoming cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist.

Any email from John Perry is a cyber-event. His emails may tell you he is a "Cognitive Dissident," cofounder, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, a group dedicated to preserving civil liberties in cyberspace), and that his home(stead)page is http://www.eff.org/~barlow. Or the email may chronicle Barlow in meatspace‹today he's in France at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, but soon he'll be passing through Amsterdam, Winston-Salem, San Francisco, San Jose, San Francisco, and Pinedale, Wyoming.

He also spends time at the White House. He hangs out with the homeless on the Bowery. He lectures the world's business leaders at the Davos Economic Conference in Switzerland. He tells the CIA what to do. He's as comfortable traveling in Air Force II (probably waiting for an upgrade to Air Force I), as he is participating in an anonymous chat group on the Internet. He knows everybody worth knowing, and that includes an array of world's beautiful and intelligent women.

A woman with whom he was especially close might be mentioned in an email, along with John Perry's late friend and colleague, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead: "In Memoriam, Dr. Cynthia Horner and Jerry Garcia." (Cynthia died of a heart attack in April 1994 on a flight from Los Angeles to New York, just a few hours after John dropped her off at the airport. She was a psychiatrist, vivacious and exciting. They were very much in love and intended to spend the rest of their lives together. She was two days shy of her thirtieth birthday. John was devastated.)

I met Cynthia twice, once in 1993 when John invited me to a meeting of the EFF at an East Village restaurant, and again at a fundraising dinner for the Dalai Lama. John was a changed man. He had gone from being a bit of a grouch to a happy, smiling guy.

Prior to those encounters, John had visited me in Connecticut on two occasions. One visit was to a weekend meeting of the Reality Club, where he was one of three speakers, the others being Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman of Columbia University and biologist Robert Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute at MIT, the discoverer of the oncogene. In his talk, John Perry laid out many of his ideas about what he considers to be a new communications revolution. His talk was well received by the group of luminaries present. (It's probably the cowboy outfit that lets him get away with quoting Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin). He's authored numerous seminal screeds, including "The Economy of Ideas" and "A Declaration of Cyberspace Independence," but is unable to finish his book. (Thankfully, I do not represent him).

My ultimate Barlovian moment occurred at a dinner, when I seated John Perry across from Lord George Weidenfeld, friend and advisor to prime ministers, presidents, and popes. For The Coyote, Weidenfeld was a man who played the game at a global level. As the evening unfolded, I watched and listened to the two raconteurs take measure of each other. I slipped into a state of awe and wonder as His Lordship and John Perry engaged in a ritual I would characterize as the incantation of the names: "Jackie Onassis." " Chiam Weizmann." "Jerry Garcia." "Harold Wilson." "Tim Leary." "Princess Diana" "Teilhard de Chardin." "John Paul II." "JFK, Jr." "Helmut Kohl." "Al Gore." Across the generations, the cultures, a close bond was formed. After coffee, as His Lordship rose to leave, John Perry stood, took his hand, looked at him with admiration and earnestness, and asked, "But, George, don't you think the sixteenth was much a more ironic century than the seventeenth?" 

THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): The big error with information has been mistaking the container for the content. When we started turning information into a product post-Gutenberg, it was easy to think that the product was the book; we set up a huge industrial apparatus to create those objects, dealing with them like other manufactured goods. In terms of distribution, there wasn't a useful distinction to be made between books and toasters. We're still focused on this idea that information is a product, a property, a thing, that it's made out of atoms and not out of bits. We have failed to recognize that information occurs fluidly and interactively in the space between two areas of the mind, and exists only in that sense. Trying to own information in the standard property model doesn't work. Property is something that can be taken from you. If I own a horse and you steal it, I can't ride it anymore, and its value has been lost to me. But if I have an idea and you steal it, not only do I still have the same idea, but the fact that two people now have that idea makes it intrinsically more valuable. It has gained in value by virtue of your stealing it. The fundamental aspect of an information economy is its ability to fight entropy and to increase in value and complexity. We aren't going to be able to fully harness that economy until we start recognizing that.

Data differs from information. You can gather infinite sets of data with machines, but in order to convert data into information, a human mind has to process that data set and find it meaningful. That's the important difference between information and other kinds of products. Products of the physical world are generally themselves, regardless of their context. A toaster is a toaster is a toaster. In the informational world, however, each piece of information draws value from its direct relevance to the area of mind that is finding it meaningful or not meaningful. This is an aspect of information economy that's hard for people to wrap their heads around, because they're so used to having everything reduced to the common physical level.

The next layer is experience, which also differs from information. Experience is the real-time interactive relationship between the sensorium and all the phenomena that the sensorium has available to it, either by means of telecommunications or by means of presence within the context. Every synapse in my body is assessing my surrounding environment, is in an interactive relationship with it, is testing it, is on the alert‹unlike information, which in most cases is something taken from the realm of experience and compressed into a potable format that eviscerates and alienates.

Information is like a life jerky: dried up and not terribly communicative. Through information you come back to the vast set of phenomena that is creating the data in the first place. Experience and the universe itself are intimately bound up with one another. The purpose of the Internet and all its surrounding phenomena is to create a context where experience is universal, and the informational reduction is no longer necessary. It becomes possible for me to ask questions in real time of phenomena that are taking place where my body is not. That's an important distinction, because people tend to develop their map of the world based on information, and most information is being generated by large accumulating engines that have a set of prime directives that are not necessarily in the service of accuracy or truth.

Intellectual property is an oxymoron. The intellect implies a relationship in the sense that if you have a distilled set of meaningful experiences, or the artifact of meaningful experiences, the way in which you communicate those to me, even if you're an old-style broadcaster, is by establishing some kind of relationship with me. In the broadcast model, that relationship was as asymmetrical as broadcasters could make it, and technology was what made it asymmetrical. In reality, if your objective is understanding, you want to simulate experience as much as possible, because that's where understanding comes from. What you want to do is to put yourself in a condition where you can ask as many questions of the information generator, the information source, as possible so that you can fine-tune the perceptions of the information source to match your remaining questions.

There has always been a relationship between the performer and the audience that hasn't been well mapped, but is extremely vivid to me. In the case of the Grateful Dead, for example, the audience was a very active part of the performance. They created the performance, in a sense. They knew what the band was going to play before the band did and almost telepathically communicated that to the band. Things of an informational nature, should be regarded as are love or friendship. You would never claim to own your friendships. You would never regard them as property. An ideal informational exchange is more like friendship than it is like the exchange of physical goods.

People who think that there is a useful reason to stick with the intellectual-property model from the physical world need to think about an environment where there is no discernible difference between the principal article of commerce and speech. As long as you assume you need to contain that article of commerce in a property model, there is no way you can adhere to that model without diminishing freedom of expression. The point of copyright to begin with was to increase freedom of expression and distribution. We've now entered into a condition where it will have exactly the opposite effect.

The EFF defends the borders of cyberspace against hegemonic incursions by various power sources of the terrestrial world. The problem is that most of the major foci of power in the terrestrial world are artifacts of the Industrial Revolution. The nation-state was created to serve the needs and purposes of industry. After the decline of the industrial period, those relatively stable power relationships go up for grabs, and the institutions that feel their power waning will become all the more draconian in their efforts to assert it. That which cannot be held by common consensus is always held by force. We have to gear up for what I think of as a revolution.

Cyberspace is naturally anti-sovereign. We need to prepare ourselves for the efforts of the terrestrial governments to compromise that spirit, which they are now trying to do. Every government trying to control cyberspace is doing so under the pretext of its own cultural bogeymen. In the United States, we're sexually obsessed, largely because our media have been putting us in a constant priapic condition, and our religion and culture have been telling us that it's not OK to have a hard-on. We're in this terrible double bind. There's a huge cognitive dissonance between the images that we're bombarded with and the moral teachings that we're given by our established culture.

In Germany, they want to control cyberspace to keep the skinheads from using it. In Iran, they want to control it to keep people from having infidel conversations or having inappropriate contact between the sexes. Every culture is going to try to use its primary bogeymen to give it an excuse to go into cyberspace and ride roughshod over it. The pornography issue in the United States is nothing but a stalking horse for control.

What we have here is attempted governance by the completely clueless, in a place they've never been, using tools that they don't possess. When I go to Washington I feel like Tom Paine must have felt when he visited the court of King George in about 1770. The audacity of these people to claim moral right to govern an area where they've never even been is stupefying.

THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): Barlow is cyber-coyote. His job is to be out there in the darkness beyond the end of the campfire reflecting back what's going on in the light and reminding us that there is change and chops in all directions.

THE DEFENDER (Mike Godwin): Barlow took the frontier metaphor and enabled us to think about the online world as a place, like the original American frontier‹a place in the process of being settled. At the same time, he observed that it is a place whose "aboriginal inhabitants" are being threatened by the unthinking encroachments of the settlers, and that in cyberspace we must avoid the mistakes we made a couple of centuries ago when we explored and exploited the actual physical frontiers of this country.

THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates): There are some people, like Barlow, who are famous because they're famous.

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): Barlow is one of the more fascinating personalities in cyberspace. A lot of us are pretty dull. If you spend time with Barlow it's a wake-up call. It's an adrenaline rush to have a conversation with him.

THE LOVER (Dave Winer): I don't know what John Perry Barlow's game is. I don't know what he wants out of all this stuff. I guess it's not money, right? He says some outrageous things that are clearly not true and are dangerous. I read his "Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace," which was widely linked to and quoted on the Net around the time when the Communications Decency Act was coming out, and was totally appalled. Barlow implies that they can't get you in cyberspace. It's not true. It's clear that they can get you. People could take risks based on what he's said, and they could end up in jail, dead, or hurt.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): There is a phenomenon that began in the early '80s where people have been sucked into this industry. Barlow was sucked in, and he's nothing if not an opportunist. He has made a niche for himself. Barlow enjoys being close to people in power, and that's not very becoming. He's the kind of guy who likes to fly in Air Force II.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): My first impression of JPB‹and I suspect most people's‹is the now boring cowboy description. Boy, were we all wrong. Although slightly holier-than-thou for a daily dose, he's massively smart, clear, and passionate, and is everybody's strange choice for the conscience of the industry.

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold): John Perry Barlow is an intellectual ecosystem of his own; his uniqueness has a lot to do with his appeal. His acute perception of the political realities of this new medium was crucial in forming what has become an increasingly formidable grassroots political force, of people who believe in free expression because this medium has shown us its power.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Barlow lives on the edge. He survives by being brilliant, iconoclastic, and entertaining to his hosts. He's the life of the party. His verbal skills and wit are legendary. I hope that the battle over Net censorship has given him motivation to stay focused long enough to doing something meaningful with his talent. He runs a great 100-yard dash, but has not yet completed a marathon.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): John Perry Barlow has developed into a marvelous sound-bite man. He's got little jazzy riffs that he probably works on. But he's a lyricist, so I guess that makes sense. He's the poet among this crowd.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.