Hit & Run

John Perry Barlow, The Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace, R.I.P.

Co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Grateful Dead lyricist, helped create the notion of "cyberspace" as realm of unprecedented liberty.

|

John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has died. EFF compactly but effectively eulogized him here.

EFF

His most prominent contribution to American political culture is his barnburning 1996 manifesto, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which was a central document helping establish a generic libertarian sensibility in the rising digital culture of the 1990s. (He was not alone in doing this, of course; Wired magazine, a cultural thought leader for that world, was co-founded by libertarian and friend of Reason Louis Rossetto.)

Some of his ringing words from that manifesto that marked him as a Thomas Jefferson for this century:

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.

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…..

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. 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.

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don't exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means.

Barlow's overall politics shifted to a more standard Obama-supporting sense that big government was a necessary and important counterpoint to corporate power (and the kind of general attitude that, well, government is good when it does good things and bad when it does bad things), as he began discussing with me in his 2004 feature interview for Reason. Still, he remained on the side of the libertarian angels when it came to the debate over net neutrality, even as EFF was not.

Barlow knew he was trying to create a cultural myth with his declaration of independence, later saying "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.'"

While the question of exactly how libertarian the industries and industrialists of modern computer tech are, and how on balance its liberatory powers will overcome the surveillance powers of "turn-key totalitarianism" is still up in the air, Barlow's work in staking out the reasons to see what we used to call "cyberspace" and is now just where we all live all the time as properly a realm of total human liberation was a vital building block of the world we live in. (That thought leaders in the "cyber" world are rapidly running away from the idea that, for example, free expression in the world of the internet is a primary good is unfortunate and shows that no ideological battles for freedom are ever fully won.)

Personally, Barlow was a delightfully loving grouch and after we met for that Reason interview, it was always a joy running into him occasionally in the next decade holding court and pontificating at Burning Man, where he was a beloved elder statesman of sorts.

The lyrics Barlow wrote to the music of his childhood chum Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead contributed to some powerful and enduring monuments of American culture; I'd finger "Cassidy" and "The Music Never Stopped" as the best of his best. He did important work as an artist and polemicist, and his songs will be sung both literally and figuratively for a long time to come.