John Perry Barlow is one of those fascinating figures that American culture regularly produces to our great benefit and occasional consternation. Born in 1947 in Wyoming, he ran his family's cattle ranch for 17 years. Unique among Equality State ranchers, his words filled the ears of millions, because he wrote lyrics to the music of his childhood buddy, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. (Among his credits are "Estimated Prophet," "Hell in a Bucket," and "Throwing Stones.") Barlow and Weir met in the early 1960s at a Colorado prep school for, as Dead biographer Dennis McNally gently described it, "boys with behavioral problems."
In the '80s, Barlow became fascinated by the new world opening up through personal computers, and he helped popularize the term and concept of cyberspace. Barlow took his way with words -- and the objections to authoritarianism that lead boys to display "behavioral problems" -- and launched the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990 with his computer industry pals Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, and John Gilmore, an early employee of Sun Microsystems. EFF is a San Francisco�based political advocacy and legal action group dedicated to preserving and extending liberty in cyberspace. Barlow is currently its vice chairman.
In its first major case, EFF gave legal support to Steve Jackson Games, an Austin-based company that had been raided -- and had all its computers stolen -- by the Secret Service, which was seeking hacked telephone security documents. This case helped establish the principle that electronic mail, like personal papers, cannot be seized without warrants. Since then, EFF has played a vital role, through legal action and political agitation, in fighting attempts to mandate government access to all encrypted computer communications, stymieing efforts to restrict the free sale and export of cryptography, and battling laws such as the Communications Decency Act, which would have restricted speech on the Internet.
In 1996 Barlow became the Thomas Jefferson of the wired generation by authoring the doc forwarded 'round the world, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." In it, he famously declared to all governments that cyberspace was "naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us....Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here."
Barlow no longer runs that Wyoming ranch, and these days he calls himself "a free agent and peripheral visionary." His 1994 Wired essay on the future of copyright in a digital world, "The Economy of Ideas," is taught in many law schools; his songs are sung wherever devotees of free-flowing jam bands, from the Dead to his new collaborators String Cheese Incident, gather to celebrate. (These two sides of his persona are not unrelated: Barlow's views on intellectual property were influenced by his experience with the Dead, who famously allowed audience members to tape their concerts and openly encouraged trading, though not selling, of the tapes. By all accounts, this actually expanded the band's audience and profits.)
Barlow recently surprised many of his libertarian friends by announcing that merely living a bohemian libertarian lifestyle was no longer sufficient. For most of his public career, Barlow had emphasized staking out one's liberty in your personal life and in the arena of ideas, not the scrum of partisan politics. Now he feels very differently: He believes that the combination of George W. Bush and the rise of "plutocratic" corporations requires direct political engagement, and that getting rid of Bush overrides any other personal or political concerns.
With characteristic unpredictability, Barlow is set to become the star of a new reality TV show, tentatively titled Walking Time Bomb. It will chronicle extensive attempts to improve the health of Barlow, the titular self-abusing 56-year-old man. It is currently scheduled to air on the Discovery Channel in January.
In March, Barlow met with me in the beautiful loft apartment of a friend of his in downtown Austin. A man of many unfixed addresses, he was there to speak at South by Southwest, the well-known annual music, movies, and technology conference. He wore a tight black T-shirt with an image of a skull with familiar mouse ears. We sat on the couches forming an L in a back corner and talked for a couple of hours about being a libertine, and libertarian, in physical, mental, and political flux, while still exhibiting "behavioral problems" in the eyes of the material world's authorities.
Reason: You are becoming a reality TV star. What's that all about?
John Perry Barlow: I got talked into allowing my body to be the data set for a medical documentary/reality show being put together by the Discovery Channel and Canyon Ranch [a high-end spa and wellness center]. They wanted to showcase all the things you can do with virtual body imaging of physical systems, all the data you can assemble about what goes on in a body, and talk about the aging process and stopping the effects of long-term abuse on a middle-aged body.
I've been systematically mistreating myself for so long it was going to take something this heroic to turn things around. How often do you get well-funded financial entities to pay for your very expensive rehabilitation? They've been scanning me with everything you can imagine -- electron beam scanners and CAT scanners and MRIs -- and assembling all this information so I can see my own nervous system, my own cardiovascular system, in three dimensions. I can also examine the data being generated on a hormonal and endocrinological level, which creates a better sense of the soup that runs you and where levels should be in that soup and how you can alter them with diet and exercise. I make a really unlikely health nut, but I'm suddenly into it.
They'll be filming me for five months. The interventions are all behavioral, not surgical or biotechnical. It turns out you can do a hell of a lot simply by changing the way you eat and exercise. They are feeding me drugs, and drug-like foods, and food-like drugs, and hypervitamins. So now I'm not smoking, not drinking, going to the gym, not eating refined carbohydrates. I'm much happier about the sight of leafy green vegetables than I used to be.
There are an awful lot of people like me because of the baby boom. Most of the people in my age cohort pretended to be 17 all along, to our detriment. We are not 17, and now it becomes demonstrably obvious we are not. The fact that we pretended we were has added wear and tear on our system.
Reason: Does it make you have second thoughts about your lifestyle libertarianism?
Barlow: No. I'm still strongly opposed to antismoking laws, strongly opposed to any law that regulates personal behavior.