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John Perry Barlow: An Appreciation

Updated Thursday, 22nd February 2018

John Perry Barlow, who died on February 7th, helped shape how we think about digital rights. Here, the OU's Mike Richards introduces a short obituary by John's friend, Cory Doctorow.

John Perry Barlow Creative commons image Icon Joi under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

Governments of the Industrial World, 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.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

John Perry Barlow, Davos, Switzerland

February 8, 1996

John Perry Barlow had many careers – including cattle rancher and lyricist for The Grateful Dead. However, he will be most remembered as a digital rights activist and champion of free speech. His Declaration was written just as the public began to engage with a primitive, sluggish, expensive Internet. In 1996, when the Declaration  was published, there were perhaps 36 million Internet users. Today, there are 3.7 billion – more than half the people on the planet. In 1996, Amazon was just seven months old; in Stanford, California, two unknown students called Larry Page and Sergey Brin were working on a search algorithm called BackRub which they would eventually rename as Google; and Apple was a failing computer company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Barlow was one of the first people to promote the idea that the Internet allowed goods and services to be copied indefinitely at almost no cost. In 1994, Barlow wrote The Economy of Ideas, for WIRED magazine; saying “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.” He had predicted the business model that would turn Facebook and Google into two of the World’s largest companies.

Barlow’s Declaration came as a response to early attempts to police the Internet. A number of countries, most notably the United States, introduced laws favouring large companies that had the effect of crushing freedom of expression. By contrast, Barlow saw the internet as an invention that would bridge cultural divides, a place where politics, race, religion and economic arguments would be irrelevant.

In 1990, Barlow co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which continues to fight governmental overreach on the Internet. Barlow passionately believed that the Internet offered the potential for: “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth . . . a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Barlow knew that this new technology could also be used for harm but was always optimistic that the benefits of universal, free access to the would far outweigh its harmful aspects; "I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls 'turn-key totalitarianism.'”

John Perry Barlow died aged 70 on 7th February 2018. OU Visiting Professor and John’s friend, Cory Doctorow, wrote us a short piece about John’s life and why he remains so important:


John Perry Barlow died peacefully in his sleep on February 7, 2018, at the age of 70, in the midst of global turmoil about the nature and destiny of the information systems he had devoted his life to improving.

Barlow had lived an odd and adventurous life, scion of a rural political family; cowboy-poet at an American liberal arts college; lyricist for the legendary jam band The Grateful Dead; co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a charitable pressure group); and biotech entrepreneur devoted to using single-celled organisms to convert sunshine and sewage into useful fuel.

Barlow was famous several times over, but one of his landmark claims to fame was the 1996 "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace," a piece of soaring, poetic rhetoric demanding that the internet be treated as a place where humanity could make common cause, where ideas could be debated and improved, where bridges could be built and walls demolished.

Twenty-some-years on, Barlow and his Declaration became a punching bag for a certain species of historical revisionist, a new crop of techno-dystopians who insisted that Barlow -- and the people he inspired, and the organisation he founded -- were hopelessly naive to think that the internet would automatically be a force for good, rather than the trolling, surveillant, controlling cesspit of crime, racism and harassment that we struggle with today.

But I knew Barlow. Reading his Declaration changed the course of my life when I was just starting out as an internet developer in the early 1990s, and when I met him and went to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I had the incredible and inspiring opportunity to affirm my first impression of his philosophy: the internet would only be a force for good if we committed ourselves endlessly to that cause, and otherwise, it could go horribly, horribly wrong.

Barlow -- and his pioneering colleagues like Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore -- founded EFF because they were simultaneously excited about the power of the internet to remake the world for the better, and starkly terrified about how badly it would go if no one took responsibility for fighting for it.

Barlow understood that "information wants to be free" wasn't an anthropomorphising statement about the desires of an abstraction like "information" -- it was a shorthand for "*PEOPLE* want to be free, and in an information society, freedom for people is impossible without a free, fair and open information infrastructure."

The internet is not and never was the most important fight in our world: addressing racial and gender bias, averting climate catastrophe and addressing gross income inequality are all far more important than the internet ever was. But the internet is the terrain where that struggle will be waged -- which makes the internet fight the most foundational one, the fight on whose outcome all the other fights ride.

Barlow understood that -- and he inspired generations that will come after him.

John Perry Barlow on OpenLearn

During the filming of the OU/BBC co-production The Virtual Revolution, John Perry Barlow took out time to record some exclusive material for OpenLearn:

 

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