John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)

John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)

George Dyson [2.14.18]

John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)

The Barlow Knife
By George Dyson 

John Perry Barlow, one of the Internet’s founding provocateurs, was born on October 3, 1947 and died on February 7, 2018.

 Among my treasured works at the foundations of American history is the 1919 edition of The Tryal of William Penn & William Mead for Causing a Tumult, at the Sessions Held at the Old Bailey in London the 1st, 3d, 4th, and 5th of September 1670, with a dedication by Don C. Seitz “to the memory of Thomas Jefferson which needs frequent refreshing.” For the same reason, John Brockman’s 1996 interview with John Perry Barlow is reproduced below.

The bible of the 1960s, when Barlow gained prominence, was the Whole Earth Catalog, a direct progenitor of the personal computer and Internet revolutions that was subtitled Access to Tools. The Barlow knife was (and is) a rugged pocket knife with two blades, one large and one small. Inexpensive and understated, it was forged from the best American steel. It was no multi-tool but it held an edge like nothing else and was essential to life on the American frontier. George Washington owned one. I dropped my first Barlow knife overboard in 200 fathoms and it hurt.

John Perry Barlow took after the knife. With the small blade he stayed in the background as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. With his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, issued at Davos in February of 1996, he opened the large blade and sliced into the emerging Internet, carving out an entire territory for himself and his brain-child, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The remarkable thing about Barlow’s wild warnings and prophecies is that they weren’t wild enough. He warned that the Government would step in to control the Internet under the guise of controlling pornography, whereas pornography turned out to be one of the greatest and least regulated drivers of the Internet’s uncontrolled growth. He reminded us that “there has always been a relationship between the performer and the audience that hasn't been well mapped,” and that “you would never claim to own your friendships.” Then two of the currently wealthiest plantation owners on the Internet stepped in and became so by doing just that.

In a mere twenty years, we have gone from fears of the Government controlling the Internet to fears of the Internet controlling the Government. 

Keep one hand on your Barlow knife.


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.

Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996).