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Tech Utopianism And Our Walled Gardens: Is It Time For A Jailbreak?

Feb 12, 2018

John Perry Barlow, who died last Wednesday at 70, was one of those unusual figures whose obituaries find no point of common agreement. An Internet evangelist who once wrote song lyrics for the Grateful Dead, Barlow was also a poet, activist, cattle rancher and corporate consultant, whose peripatetic career defied easy summarization. Billboard wrote about his music career; Wired about his Internet activism; Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune about his boyhood on the Bar Cross Ranch. Barlow, louche and charismatic, had an astonishing number of friends, and their testimonials suggest a man with a taste for the good life and a certain facility for bulls***. No one seemed certain of Barlow's place in history, or how to answer the tougher questions: Is Barlow's utopian futurism still relevant? Was his work as an activist defensible? Was his music any good? But as writers struggled with the complicated legacy of John Perry Barlow, most readers, I suspect, had a different question: Who?

Don't worry: Unless you enjoy suing the government, or were in the tapers' pit at Fillmore in 1976, you are forgiven for not knowing who Barlow was. Born in Wyoming to a family of cattle ranchers, Barlow showed early promise as a writer, garnering a significant advance for his first novel shortly after graduating college. He never finished it, instead discovering LSD and living for a time on an Ashram. Although he retained, throughout his life, the laconic drawl of a cattle hand, Barlow's intellect and charisma permitted him access to an extraordinary range of acquaintances, including Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead. In the early '70s, when Weir was feuding with the Dead's primary lyricist Robert Hunter, Barlow was temporarily brought in to replace him.

The resulting paeans to lost Americana never got much radio play, and are not among the Dead's best-known work. Hits like "Box of Rain," "Friend of the Devil," "Casey Jones," "Touch of Grey" — those were all written by Hunter. Barlow's most durable song is probably "Cassidy," the closing track on Weir's solo album Ace, which later became a Grateful Dead touring staple. An evocative ballad of bereavement and renewal, "Cassidy" tells of a grieving daughter whose inheritance is the reborn Earth:

Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac

I can tell by the way you smile, he is rolling back

Come wash the night-time clean

Come grow the scorched ground green

Weir has requested this song be played at his funeral.

Unknown in popular culture, Barlow became a cult celebrity among the Dead's touring fans. This fascination was reciprocated, as Barlow believed the Deadheads could be the countercultural replacement for the disappearing tradition of the family ranch. But, seeking to connect with them, Barlow found he was too close to the band. "I couldn't really just go out in the parking lot and study the Deadheads, because I was too big a deal," he said in a 2014 promotional interview. "Soon as they found out who I was, then I wasn't getting a straight read."

A friend suggested to Barlow that he contact fans online. It was 1985, and Barlow, not a computer person, did not know what "online" was. But he wangled an Internet account out of a Stanford academic — they were not available to the general public at the time — and began to anonymously visit Deadhead forums on Usenet, one of the earliest hosts for Internet discussion. Despite an apparently fatal lack of any STEM education, Barlow grasped the technology's potential. "I had a religious experience upon encountering what was a very small online environment," he said. "I felt that what I was looking at was something profoundly different than anything that had happened in the history of the human race."

Those early Deadhead newsgroups weren't yet being used to share music; MP3s were a decade away from public adoption and downloading a compact disc on the standard 300-bit-per-second connection of the time would have taken the better part of a year. But the forums were being used to facilitate the cassette-tape trade of Dead live shows (including, of course, bootlegs of "Cassidy" — Barlow, like the rest of the Dead, encouraged this). Soon, anti-establishment '60s sentiments were appearing elsewhere online, including Stewart Brand's Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link ("The Well") which became the community of choice for both Barlow and Grateful Dead fans.

By 1990, Barlow was a well-known Internet presence. Unusually for the time, Barlow was neither a programmer, nor an academic, nor a businessman. He was just a guy who made forum posts. But in that year, concerned with growing federal encroachment on the Internet — in particular, a Secret Service raid on the headquarters of a role-playing game publisher prompted by a bulletin board post — Barlow co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, two independently wealthy technology entrepreneurs he'd befriended through the Well.

Over the next 28 years, the EFF became the predominant modern digital civil liberties organization, mounting a combative defense of the rights of Internet users. Those rights included an absolute stance on the dissemination of information — including pornography, hate literature, classified documents and copyrighted material. These aggressive postures brought attention and increased fundraising power, and, in time, the EFF evolved into the digital version of the ACLU, filing dozens of federal lawsuits to counter what it saw as governmental overreach and lobbying against congressional attempts to regulate online discourse. Barlow became the EFF's outspoken herald, styling himself a "cyberlibertarian."

In 1996, in response to the Telecommunications Reform Act, Barlow published the "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," a document that proposed that the Internet was a realm beyond the rule of sovereign law. Barlow's "Declaration" was modeled after Jefferson's, and written in similarly windy language: "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind," it read. "You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

Whatever fame Barlow had achieved as the lyricist for a dozen deep cuts on Grateful Dead solo projects was surpassed by the wide dissemination of this document. I read it at 18, and accepted its brash proclamations as uncontested fact, as did many others of my generation. Even before the Declaration appeared, in February of 1996, the first MP3 files were beginning to appear on those same Usenet forums where the Deadheads long had trafficked. By the end of 1996, the pirated files had jumped from Usenet to college campus servers, spawning a generation of unrepentant buccaneers. After my freshman year at college my mother questioned me about the legality of file-sharing — I told her, "Mom, it's the Internet. The rules don't apply."

For a while, they didn't. Barlow played a significant role in that. The EFF took the side of the file-sharer, filing a series of legal challenges to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, particularly a provision that effectively granted corporate rights holders the power to subpoena the identities of suspected pirates without obtaining a court order. (That piece of unconstitutional legislation had passed the senate by a 99-0 vote. At times, it seemed, the EFF advocates were the only ones paying attention.)

The EFF won that battle, and several other similar ones, preserving, for a time, the ability to file share against a federally-funded campaign. But they lost in the end. To hear a lawyer tell it, the key decision was MGM v. Grokster, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that held peer-to-peer platforms liable for facilitating the transfer of copyrighted files. Attorneys from the EFF had argued otherwise. They lost 9-0.

The unanimity of legislative and judicial opposition to file-sharing was, perhaps, not over its moral greys so much as the black-and-white danger it presented to companies whose bottom line was reliant on copyright.

Barlow, who had earned his money as a songwriter, took cyberlibertarianism seriously, pushing for the maximization and preservation of digital freedoms, even against his own economic interest. This meant confronting the dilemma of the digital economy: if information was instantly reproducible at no cost, only by creating barriers to open communication between private individuals could the now-artificial scarcity of copyright be maintained. A true cyberlibertarian — and perhaps we should call him an anarchist — Barlow took the extreme position, denying that the state had the authority to limit peer-to-peer communication. This necessitated an abandonment of the concept of intellectual property, even if that proved corrosive to both the profit margins of large corporations and the meager income streams of small songwriters, including Barlow's own.

I don't imagine even Rand Paul would agree with this argument. Neither did many of Barlow's friends in the music world, who (correctly) perceived the EFF's defense of file-sharing as an assault on their livelihoods. Following Grokster, peer-to-peer was abandoned by mainstream capitalists, yet file-sharing survived, taking root in the underworld of the torrent networks. Driven, in part, by an unexamined acceptance of Barlow's ideals, cyberlibertarianism persisted in to the late 2000s, even as the music industry collapsed, artists suffered, and thousands of jobs were permanently lost.

Ultimately, a new wave of technology achieved what the government could not. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, I purchased one the day it came out. Holding it in my hand for the first time, I felt, as Barlow once had, that I was looking at something profoundly different than had ever happened in the history of the human race. The irresistible seductions of its brushed aluminum casing and its glowing touchscreen convinced me to divest myself of petty concerns about freedom and privacy. Facebook, then supplanting MySpace as the predominant social network, and later Spotify, with its exhaustive library of music, brought an end to the open Internet.

Ironically, the men behind these technologies often subscribed to Barlow's own vision. Steve Jobs was, like Barlow, a shoeless bohemian who dropped LSD. Mark Zuckerberg was a teenage hacker willing to break any number of rules. Spotify's Daniel Ek once ran a peer-to-peer file sharing companye. Publicly, these men parroted Barlow's rhetoric, promising to eliminating barriers to communication and liberate the individual. Privately, they went to Burning Man. But behind appearances were the demands of capital, and those required a more curtailed type of tech freedom.

To that end, these new services all required users to sign an end-user license agreement, ceding, with the thoughtless click of a box, the rights that Barlow and the EFF had spent years fighting to secure. The new services all surveilled their users, aggregating enormous troves of personal data which were then sold to advertisers or secretly shared with government intelligence agencies. The new services seemed to make time disappear, keeping users locked in for hours, even against their better judgment. And it was all voluntary. There was nothing the cyberlibertarians could do.

Barlow remained publically optimistic about the potential of the Internet, but, watching his later speeches, one can sense the growing disappointment. He continued to argue against government intrusion and corporate surveillance, and promoted the actions of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. He spoke bitterly of the EULAs, those long, confusing contracts that everyone digitally "signed" but no one ever read. Although he never abandoned his Declaration, he conceded that, even in 1996, the Internet he'd described was more aspirational than actual. By the time of his death last week, Barlow's cyberlibertarian Utopia was as fictional as Narnia.

No one would draft his Declaration today. Former believers like me worry about the psychological cost of social media addiction, of vast and unaccountable corporate data repositories, of panopticons of government surveillance, and of artificial intelligences that will obsolesce the human. Tech-pessimism is ascendant; tech-optimism, to that extent it exists at all, has been bleached of political coloration, persisting only in the uncritical adulation of a few fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs.

In 1985, Barlow had gone online as a way to mask his celebrity. Today he'd be invited to promote it. So let's ask again: what is his legacy? On Spotify, "Cassidy" has 350,000 streams. Not terrible, but "Box of Rain" has ten million. The EFF will continue its court battles against the government, but unless they can somehow undermine the tyranny of the EULA, their work will become increasingly irrelevant. File-sharing is descendent dying, and the Internet that Barlow declared independent from government is now mostly used for surveillance, advertising, persuasion and control.

Barlow's legacy, perhaps, is to remind us that the Internet we have is not inevitable, and that once, not too long ago, a different set of values reigned. Collectively, we abandoned those freedoms for the glow of the touchscreen, the browsable media library, and the fleeting satisfaction of an algorithmically-sorted, refreshable timeline. Written out like that, it seems like an unfair trade. "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace," Barlow once wrote. Lately, it feels more like a prison. Maybe it's time for a jailbreak.


Stephen Witt is a writer and the author of How Music Got Free, a narrative history of music piracy.

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