Originally published in Business & Technology, 1999.
No Dippy Hippy
John Perry Barlow used to write lyrics for the Grateful Dead, now he’s charting your online future. James Mortleman jams with the Cyberspace crusader…
Whether you know it or not, John Perry Barlow has almost certainly altered your consciousness. And before you sniff at the suggestion that some self-proclaimed “hippie mystic” could possibly shape your ideas, consider that until Barlow used novelist William Gibson’s term Cyberspace to describe the digital domain of the Internet in 1990, very few had thought of such a place existing outside the pages of science fiction. Nowadays the notion that the Net is a virtual social space - rather than just a collection of connected computers - is largely taken for granted.
A lucky coinage? You might think so were it not for the fact that, also in 1990, Barlow (along with Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus) set up what has become the Net’s most successful civil liberties organisation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF has galvanised global opposition to governmental attempts to impose draconian legal constraints on the Internet - and it boasts a number of successes, most notably with regard to the US Government’s failed Clipper chip and Communications Decency Act proposals. More recently, the EFF cracked the Government-approved DES encryption algorithm in under a day, illustrating the need to allow the use of stronger encryption technologies. And its Blue Ribbon Campaign for Free Speech Online has made the EFF Web site one of the four most linked-to on the Net.
Not only that, but Barlow’s Cyberspace Declaration of Independence, penned in 1996, has become one of the most widely reproduced and distributed electronic documents on the planet (if not the most). His expertise on computer security, online copyright and other matters digital is sought by business and academia alike: he travels the globe giving lectures, writes for Wired, works as a consultant to industry (“same mission, better pay”) and since last May has been a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Clearly the erstwhile Wyoming cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist defies the stereotype of the ‘head-in-the-clouds’ hippie.
Indeed, for a digital guru Barlow is refreshingly down-to-earth. Although he travels a lot, he still spends at least a week a month at home in Pinedale, Wyoming - “partly to deal with the atoms that continue to enter my life whether I want them or not” but mainly to stay part of a social culture he knows and loves. “It was a terrible moment in my life when I first left Pinedale, went away to school and realised that most Americans didn’t seem to come from anywhere at all outside of Television Land and Generica - they didn’t have an accent, they didn’t have a culture. I’m still living where I was born, which is kind of an unusual trait in an American. Not only that but I’m still living in the place where my great-great-uncle was the first European to spend a winter.”
This idea of culture is equally evident in Barlow’s attitude to the Internet. “The reason I take overweening pride in having named Cyberspace,” he says, “is that by doing so I created a metaphor for understanding that phenomenon which made it seem to people more like a place. That made it easier for them to understand it was also a political arena, with its own issues of governance and its own identity that had to be defended.”
So does he consider himself a politician? “Of course I do. Practically everything human beings do is politics. I just have a different set of methods which I think are more appropriate to the current condition and they’re based on being able to change consciousness by appropriately placed metaphors. The right metaphor is worth 1,000 White Papers.”
Barlow’s love of metaphor is not limited to the political; his conversation is littered with colourful imagery. His vision to set up the EFF on a then little-known Internet was “like putting a dot of wet paint on a balloon that’s about to be hyper-inflated - sooner or later that dot will be very big”; trusting the Government to control your privacy is “like trusting a peeping tom to install your window blind”. And unlike some interviewees, who self-consciously pepper their conversation with soundbites purely for the benefit of a quote-hungry press, Barlow speaks with genuine spontaneity, evidently relishing the richness of the English language.
Our conversation turned to the Nuremberg Files, an anti-abortion Web site recently forced to shut down after an Oregon jury ruled that the site - which published the names and home addresses of abortion doctors and crossed out those who had been murdered - amounted to an illegal ‘hit list’. Would the EFF be defending the site’s right to freedom of speech? “We’re having a painful internal struggle about this and I’m not sure what we’re going to do yet. I know what I want us to do but I’m not sure that I’ve got the rest of the organisation with me on this.”
So would he venture a personal opinion? “Something like this really tears at me because there’s this terrible tension between one of my values, which is freedom of expression, and another, which is the ability of individuals to determine their own level of privacy. But there’s always going to be that tension between privacy and freedom of expression and I’m not, and never have been, in agreement with the general European response to this problem - which is to regulate privacy by governmental proclamation.
“I’m a free speech absolutist. I still believe that the answer to hate speech is love speech, and an even playing field for ideas to combat one another. That’s partly out of a conviction that I think human beings are basically good given the opportunity. So, as much as I would rather not, I think we should support these people’s right to free speech. I find them no less loathsome than I would have expected, but the fact is I now know them as human beings. They are no longer abstractions to me in the way that they would make other people abstractions, namely abortion doctors. I used to have a bumper sticker on my car which sort of sums up why I don’t think they should be censored. In England it probably would have worked, because you have a much better sense of irony than in America (where it didn’t). It read: ‘Death to the intolerant’.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if Barlow’s total reluctance to sanction censorship of extreme views also sprung partly from a recognition that to many people, some of his own ideas could themselves appear extreme. Take his thoughts on intellectual property: “That’s not a phrase I use. I think it’s an oxymoron. There’s something so audacious and arrogant about claiming that one owns ideas that I am deeply offended anyone would assert that right. Nothing is thought in isolation. Everything that human beings do with their minds is part of a massive collective process in my opinion,” he asserts.
It is certainly not inconceivable that the expression of such views could lead to calls for censorship from organisations fighting against the piracy of, say, software, music or video. At the very least, he’s hardly popular with the likes of the Business Software Alliance and the Recording Industry Association of America. But the reason they might well want Barlow silenced is that his views aren’t just those of some crank, but that he has produced a well-thought-out response to our current models of copyright and intellectual property (set out in his essay The Economy of Ideas) with a cogent explanation of why they are irrelevant and unworkable in the digital age.
“In an information economy where you have dematerialised human expresion, the characteristics of the value exchange in that relationship - and I think that it is more like a relationship than a thing - is very different from the way it has appeared to be since the invention of the printing press,” he says. “Then you could treat human expression more or less as if it were the same thing as a toaster - because the economy was based on the material object in which the stuff was contained. Now there’s no container, except in the most abstract sense.”
Barlow believes that not only is the notion of copyright outdated, but that it is not necessary. “Actual economic protection is based on some commerce between attention and point of view. That has already been working well, without copyright legislation, between all those folks who make their living with their minds in whatever context,” he says. “For example, lawyers and doctors don’t feel the need to copyright their work because the real economic protection lies in the space between them and those who are interested in what they’re doing. They have an economic interest in increasing the distribution of what they have already done because it will increase the value of what they haven’t. One of the things I didn’t get across very well in The Economy of Ideas and I’m now trying to get across is that I wasn’t just talking about what would be good for humankind in some old hippie way - I’m talking about what is economically good for anybody who wants to make their living with their mind.”
Many would argue Barlow’s proposed replacement model for intellectual property is not yet sufficiently well thought out. (Is the work of doctors and lawyers really comparable to, say, the work of artists and musicians? Why should they not continue to benefit financially from a work long after that work has been produced? What sort of protection do they have against becoming incapacitated?) Nonetheless, it is harder to dismiss his argument that in the digital age the law is physically unable to protect copyright in the same way it once could.
“Ask an average group of folks - which I do on a pretty regular basis - how many people in the room do not have any unauthorised software on their hard disk. I don’t care how recondite and starchy the crowd might seem, you never see more than 10% of the hands go up. Any time there is this great a disparity between social practice and law, it is not social practice that changes. The law may already be irrelevant.”
There are, of course, technologies that can protect people’s ideas and privacy in Cyberspace, such as strong encryption, and Barlow is all for their use. He believes people should have the right to determine their own level of privacy, and should have access to the technologies they need to do so. But when it comes to his own privacy, he is not so precious. Barlow’s ideas, and his online ubiquity, have made him something of a cyber-celebrity. “I get more AltaVista hits than Mick Jagger which pleases me in a certain way,” he chuckles.
“Fortunately you’re English, so you can appreciate this irony: for a defender of other people’s privacy, I am extremely uninterested in my own. I am seeking a world where we are all sufficiently comfortable with ourselves and who we really are, and are living in a society which is sufficiently tolerant, so we can be as visible as I am and still be alright. I make myself as visible as possible essentially on the premise that the only way one can change the world is to make himself an example of what he would have us become.”