Internet freedom bard John Perry Barlow missed a big threat
John Perry Barlow, a Renaissance man lyricist for the Grateful Dead, was also a co-founder of the digital-rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a poet, and a rancher. While I didn’t personally know him and am mostly drawn to the Garcia/Hunter regions of the Dead’s oeuvre, I concluded long ago that Barlow didn’t merely participate in his chosen vocation du jour; he excelled at it.
Barlow, who died February 7 at age 70, following years of poor health, has been given a wide collection of honorific titles by his prominent circle of acquaintances. Steven Levy, his friend at Wired, eulogized him as “the Bard of the Internet.” This one is particularly apt.
The bard does not simply tell people what to do; he inspires them to want to do it themselves. He is a bravery amplifier who uses words and songs and visions of greatness and monstrosity to motivate others to respond.
The role of the bard might seem ludicrous at first. As a Dungeons & Dragons character type, the bard struck me as a bit of joke, compared to the more established fighter, mage, cleric, or thief. As an obnoxious 12-year-old, I would make jokes about needing to protect against “off-key singing.” In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bard is parodied via the hilarious “Sir Robin’s Minstrels,” who become a throwaway joke when they are eaten.
But with some additional years and perspective, I can more fully gauge the importance of the role of rallying the troops in the face of danger. The bard does not simply tell people what to do; he inspires them to want to do it themselves. He is a bravery amplifier who uses words and songs and visions of greatness and monstrosity to motivate others to respond.
Key to the bard’s success is a shared vision and common goal, for it is impossible to rally a collective response, if there are no unifying themes or common threads that will resonate. It is here where Barlow was mostly successful, even if we did not end up with his “ideal outcome,” as Levy puts it.
Inspired by the technologists and writers who populated his world, Barlow envisioned an emerging space to continue the gains of the Enlightenment, absent of the meddling papercuts of government intervention. It was a space separate from conventional political and geographic boundaries and influence. It was a place where individual freedom could flourish, and personal expression could not be quelled, equal parts hippie counterculture, hacker culture, and libertarian perspective rolled up into a neat, clean cyberland of self-determination.
Barlow’s vision and articulation of such a space motivated others to claim rights that transcended the “weary giants of flesh and steel.” The resources that conferred power to traditional governments played no role in this new social construct.
That’s basically what he says in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Governments of the world often disagreed, so to make this declaration a reality, he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization with the resources and teeth to fight for rights and privileges he imagined we could claim from first principles.
Tremendous resources are expended for the execution of ludicrous ideas, and for the dissemination of noise and nonsense. It is hard to stay focused on the legitimate threats we now experience on a daily basis.
We continue to enjoy many rights online because of the time and attention that the EFF has spent rallying people around them. The man who feared George Orwell’s vision served to amplify the bravery of the denizens of cyberspace, spurring them on to fight the attacks on privacy that he knew would come. Subsequent revelations highlight how important it was—and still is—to keep fighting government intrusions.
These attacks from the government were only part of the evolving cyberstory, however, and perhaps not the most daunting threat we face in our digital lives. Corporations have snuck in self-serving legal protections and the foundations for a surveillance state that would have made Big Brother blush.
The reporter April Glaser takes Barlow somewhat to task for missing out on this other threat. She connects the failure to fight the intrusion of corporations back to his libertarian, anti-regulatory politics, and his cozy relationships with Silicon Valley tech titans.
It is easy to miss this other threat. Organizations bearing smiling faces and other pleasure triggers do not typically make credible villains. The world embraced Orwell because it could relate to his warnings. Neil Postman reminds us in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the menacing face of autocratic control is only part of the problem:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.“
It is impossible to look critically at what the Internet has become, and not see how correct Huxley was and how big of a hole there was in Barlow’s manifestos. Tremendous resources are expended for the execution of ludicrous ideas, and for the dissemination of noise and nonsense. It is hard to stay focused on the legitimate threats we now experience on a daily basis.
The platform “of mind,” a Platonic place of reasoned exchanges and deliberate collaboration free from government intervention, has become toxic and stultifying; it is a shadow of what we imagined it might—and still could—be.
In his Cyberspace declaration, Barlow hints at a coherent online culture and capacity to self-correct: “Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.”
It is not clear what he thought this governance entailed, nor how it would proceed, nor even which values would drive it.
We owe a great amount of thanks to the multitalented visionary who sang us songs and told us stories to inspire us to come together to protect what is ours. But as we see the fractious, abusive, and hostile space that our cyberworld has become, we need a new rallying cry—and perhaps a new bard with a new vision and demand for action.
Part of that push will be to find the commonality and threads that may still, somehow, bring us together. Without common ties, it will be impossible to work together to fight for what we could rightfully claim as an “ideal outcome” safe from both governmental and corporate malevolence. We must heed the frightening specter of Orwell, but we also need to be reminded about what we risk as we become ever more entertained, sated, placated, tickled, poked, and rendered playfully with cat eyes or dog ears.
In his passing, John Perry Barlow would remind us that it is no longer his job. Who will be our new bard? Who will amplify our bravery and inspire us to claim what we believe already to be ours?
Fare thee well now, let your life proceed by its own design
Nothing to tell now, let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.
—John Perry Barlow, “Cassidy“