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.


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.

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  1. OT: Check out the sweet live stream of the space suit in a sports car set to Sammy Hagar.

  2. These words "You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts."
    Let us recall them, even though he like all of us have flaws, that is a damn libertarian statement.

  3. Barlow's overall politics shifted to a more standard Obama-supporting sense that big government was a necessary and important counterpoint to corporate power...

    Yeah. Counterpoint.

  4. So just to be clear, John Perry Barlow didn't have illegitimate children with his slave mistress?

    1. Field slave: Man this sucks! Breaking my back all day in the hot sun! What's it like being a house slave?
      Sally Hemings: well...

    2. Who was, probably, his deceased wife's half-sister.

  5. Freedumb!

    Widespread technology issues with the state's new pot-tracking system have kept marijuana growers and sellers scrambling since last week, and store managers say they're beginning to worry about increasingly sparse shelves.

    Washington state requires marijuana products to be tracked from seed-to-sale, or from when its planted to when it's sold to a pot user, through what it calls a traceability system. Last Thursday, the state switched to a new contractor, MJ Freeway, to provide a new software and data hub for traceability.

    The transition to Leaf Data Systems has been anything but smooth, frustrated pot growers and sellers say.

    "Right now, it sort of seems like the whole industry is a wreck statewide," said Steve Lee, who owns two marijuana stores with his wife and is also a city councilman in Kennewick.

    1. The punny names make this seem even more like parody.

  6. This must be heaven, tonight I crossed the line.

    RIP brother

  7. "Telecom-style regulations of the internet will create "mayhem," said John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Unlike Barlow, the EFF supports the FCC's net neutrality rules.
    Barlow suggested the net neutrality rules do the exact opposite of one of their main goals -- to protect free speech online by requiring ISPs to treat all traffic equally. "As soon as you allow any government anywhere the ability to impose regulations on the internet, you are doing ... great harm to advance the right to know," he said."

    I thought it was Barlow, shame on me.

    1. Treating the Internet like a power utility means that ISPs can be allowed to charge by usage, the one thing Net Neutrality supporters hate the most.

      "OMG! They're going to charge us more for watching in HD!!!"

  8. Oh how times have changed. The millenials can't wait to give government full control over every single packet.

  9. Just a 'just sayin'.
    Quite a few of the RE agents in my 'hood are women (do we need QUOTAS???), and they all have ads in the 'hood rag.
    And if you were to contact one of them to handle your property, and she showed up, you'd do a double-take from the person in front of you to the photo in the rag.
    I did a search to find out if he had ended up supporting NN (and as mentioned above, he did not), but the image at the top was from a LONG time ago.
    No need for vanity shots; we can stand it.

    1. Quite a few of the RE agents in my 'hood are women

      Hook a brother up

      1. Interested in wymyn aged 60 or so?

  10. Way back, I was a deadhead, but did not know this was the same John Barlow as their lyricist. RIP

    It's a shame, however, that he later caved on his libertarian instincts to support Big Government. I don't see how it is any sort of "counterpoint" to big corporations. For one thing, big corporations would likely not even exist with their government-granted privileges. And, last time I checked, corporations could not take my money at gunpoint without me deciding to buy anything from them, nor would some corporate employee get nothing worse than extra paid vacation if he decided to shoot me and my dog because he "felt unsafe."

    1. It's a shame, however, that he later caved on his libertarian instincts to support Big Government.

      Set up like a rolling pin.

      1. Bowing pin, whatever fucking technilogy

        1. Bowing pin

          that too..

          1. "It gets to wearing thin
            They just won't let you be"

            You know, they did nail some libertarian concepts in their songs. How about this line:

            "And the heat came 'round and busted me
            For smiling on a cloudy day"

            Only idea missed there was the heat shooting a dog while they're at it.

            1. "Ooo, freedom
              Ooo, liberty
              Ooo, leave me alone
              To find my own way home"

  11. 'I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us"

    There's someone at the door. It's Dianne Feinstein, Angela Merkel and Mark zuckerberg.

  12. The wired article you linked to was pretty terrible. The author agreed with himself, disagreed with himself, agreed with himself, disagreed with himself, agreed with himself then finally disagreeing with himself decided that freedom of speech is great but...

    "The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but"

  13. RIP. He was an important voice for digital freedom in the day.

    Don't agree with the idea that big government is a counterpoise to large corporations. In fact, it's an enabler and direct cause. How anyone can fear business within orders of magnitude of government truly befuddles me. It disturbs me that libertarians get corrupted into some level of statism by these fears.

  14. I first heard about him on an episode of This American Life. Pretty powerful segment:

    Blew me away that the dude that founded EFF wrote songs for the Dead. Interesting life.

  15. He sounds like he was a great guy. He even managed to overcome and rise above a background writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

    I mean, can anyone quote a Grateful Dead lyric based on having heard it sung by the Dead?

    1. Driving that train, high on cocaine,
      Casey Jones you better watch your speed
      Trouble ahead, trouble behind
      And you know that notion just crossed my mind.

      1. That's them? Shows how much I know.

        Still, it's not John Milton. I mean, compare those Grateful Dead lyrics with Milton's classic "Me So Horny."

        1. Like unto Jove with mortals, I appear without warning
          I am as perverted as Amnon, because me so horny

  16. I used to like EFF, then they got all pro net neutrality and screwed it all up. Used to be about civil liberties online, now it's about welfare for nerds. Glad John kept his morals intact during the the Obama years when so many of his peers did not.

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