John Perry Barlow is dead. Your unacknowledged soulmate, he was what everyone would call an internet pioneer, understanding early cyberspace’s potential. During his varied and colorful life, he collected many friends, among them Grateful Dead singer and guitarist Bob Weir, John F. Kennedy Jr., Timothy Leary, and Vice President Al Gore. His A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is at once an angry, defiant, hopeful document, and is mandatory inclusion in anthologies covering what we understand as the net’s birth.
Internet Pioneer John Perry Barlow’s Legacy Is This Obituary
“The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences [….] Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive,” wrote Emerson of French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Such praise leaps out in demand of an update to our age, and Mr. Barlow’s words are best read aloud to get a sense of those mid-19th lauds.
“Governments of the Industrial World,” Mr. Barlow begins his famous anti-entreaty, “you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
The junior lyricist of the Grateful Dead, as he often referred to himself, was royalty at gatherings of weekend counter-culturalists. His hymn to the burgeoning cyber community was itself written at a time and place of intense irony. While cypherpunks toiled in virtual obscurity and often outside the law, Mr. Barlow had access to wealth and power.
A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace continues, “We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Irony and Inspiration
At some point he befriended then-Vice President Al Gore, and was frequent guest on Air Force II to such jaunts as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. That would be where the irony comes. Amidst global government minders in 1996, indeed his patrons, he managed to work out what some have called a founding document of more radical internet ideologies. There is little doubt his essay lit fires under many who would go on to found the cryptocurrency revolution.
“You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces,” he spat. “You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.”
His admirers are diverse; Ann Coulter, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange all counted him as an influence. In particular, the ethos contained in Mr. Barlow’s manifesto would show up again in many of Mr. Assange’s most passionate arguments regarding an open and unfettered internet space. Mr. Snowden would embody Mr. Barlow’s words.
More than mere philosopher, he helped to found the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990, an advocacy and policy group he’d continue with until his death. Prior, he directed the legendary online board Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), bringing together techies, writers, and musicians. Much later, he would lend his imprimatur as emeritus fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and found the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which now counts Edward Snowden as its president.
Anecdotes about him touching the lives of everyone can be found in the startup days of Wired magazine to earlier hacker conferences and in the Dead song “Cassidy.” Mr. Barlow died in San Francisco in his sleep.
What are your thoughts on Mr. Barlow’s life? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Author: C. Edward Kelso