End Of An Era: Saying Goodbye To John Perry Barlow

from the pioneer dept

I was in a meeting yesterday, when the person I was meeting with mentioned that John Perry Barlow had died. While he had been sick for a while, and there had been warnings that the end might be near, it’s still somewhat devastating to hear that he is gone. I had the pleasure of interacting with him both in person and online multiple times over the years, and each time was a joy. He was always, insightful, thoughtful and deeply empathetic.

I can’t remember for sure, but I believe the last time I saw him in person was a few years back at a conference (I don’t even recall what conference), where he was on a panel that had no moderator, and literally seconds before the panel was to begin, I was asked to moderate the panel with zero preparation. Of course, it was easy to get Barlow to talk, and to make it interesting, even without preparation. But that day the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir (for whom Barlow wrote many songs — after meeting as roommates at boarding school) was in the audience — and while the two were close, they disagreed on issues related to copyright, leading to a public debate between the two (even though Weir was not on the panel). It was fascinating to observe the discussion, in part because of the way in which Barlow approached it. Despite disagreeing strongly with Weir, the discussion was respectful, detailed and consistently insightful.

Lots of people are, quite understandably, pointing to Barlow’s famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (which was published 22 years ago today). Barlow later admitted that he dashed most of that off in a bar during the World Economic Forum, without much thought. And that’s why I’m going to separately suggest two other things by Barlow to read as well. The first was his Wired piece, The Economy of Ideas from 1994, the second year of Wired’s existence, and where Barlow’s wisdom was found in every issue. Despite being written almost a quarter of a century ago, The Economy of Ideas is still fresh and relevant today. It is more thoughtful and detailed than his later “Declaration” and, if anything, I would imagine that Barlow was annoyed that the piece is still so relevant today. He’d think we should be way beyond the points he was making in 1994, but we are not.

The other piece is more recent I’ve seen a few people pointing to is his Principles of Adult Behavior, which are a list of 25 rules to live by — rules that we should be reminded of constantly. Rules that many of us (and I’m putting myself first on this list) fail to live up to all too frequently. Update I stupidly assumed that was a more recent writing by Barlow, but as noted in the comments (thanks!) it’s actually from 1977 when Barlow turned 30.

Cindy Cohn, who is now the executive director of EFF, which Barlow co-founded, mentions in her writeup how unfair it is that Barlow (and, specifically his Declaration) are often held up as the kind of prototype for the “techno-utopian” vision of the world that has become so frequently mocked today. Yet, as Cohn points out, that’s not at all how Barlow truly viewed the world. He saw the possibilities of that utopia, while recognizing the potential realities of something far less good. The utopianism that Barlow presented to the world was not — as many assume — him claiming these things were a sort of manifest destiny, but rather by presenting such a utopia, we might all strive and push and fight to actually achieve it.

Barlow was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the Internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more. As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter: “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.’?

Just yesterday, before I learned of Barlow’s passing, we officially launched a new website, EveryoneCreates.org, which discusses just how ridiculous the myth — pushed by the RIAA and MPAA and their friends — that there’s some sort of “war” between “content and tech.” According to that narrative, the internet has done much to harm content creators. Yet, everywhere we look, we see the opposite. How content creators have been enabled by these technologies to create, to share, to distribute and, yes, to make money from their creations. Barlow was one of the first, if not the first, content creators from the “old” world, to wholeheartedly see the promise of the internet, and spent his life dedicated to making the internet such a powerful place for all of us content creators.

Either way, this is an end of an era. We’re in an age now where the general narrative making the rounds is, once again, touching on the moral panic of how terrible everything in technology is. Barlow spent decades teaching us about the possibilities of a better world on the internet, and nudging us, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, in that direction. And, now, just at a point where that vision is most at risk, he’s left us to continue that fight on our own. The internet world has many challenges ahead of it — and we should all strive to be guided both by Barlow’s principles and his vision of constantly pushing to mold the technology world into that world we want it to be — not ignoring the negatives, but looking for ways to get beyond them and expand the opportunities for the good to come out. It will be harder without him being there to help guide us.

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Comments on “End Of An Era: Saying Goodbye To John Perry Barlow”

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Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

His voice will be missed

Shaping the future requires the voices of many, with many different viewpoints — all blended together in a chorus that we hope provides wisdom and guidance. John’s voice was clear, articulate, persuasive, and insigthtful; I sometimes disagreed with him but never doubted him.

“Fare thee well now, let your life proceed by its own design
Nothing to tell now, let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.
Fare thee well now, let your life proceed by its own design
Nothing to tell now, let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.”

(“Cassidy”, written with Bob Weir circa 1971)

Jeff R says:

Of course the content gatekeepers in the RIAA and MPAA who think that they are the only real creators see a war.

They have outlived their usefulness in an era where the actual content creators and audiences don’t need them to connect with each other.

There is a war.. against gatekeepers and rent-seekers. Which is why they correctly view themselves as losers in that war.

Genevieve (profile) says:

In paragraph 4, you say … “The other piece is more recent, and I’ve seen a few people pointing to it. It’s his Principles of Adult Behavior, which are a list of 25 rules to live by”.

Barlow wrote “Principles of Adult Behavior” back in 1977, for himself, on the occasion of his 30th birthday. It’s actually one of his older works – not more recent. Just for point of reference in his development as a writer and essayist. He was already wiser at 30, than many will be in their lifetime.

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