RIP John Perry Barlow, 1947-2018On February 8, 2018 by Ilene
I met John Perry Barlow in 1999, and I was awestruck: here was the legend whose Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace had profoundly changed my life, making me realize that the nascent internet that I’d dropped out of university to devote my life to could be more than a communications tool: it could be a revolutionary force for good.
Within minutes of meeting Barlow, he’d put me at my ease, with his larger-than-life magnanimity, his whisky-gravel voice, his dry wit, and his endlessly genuine curiosity. When I took at job at EFF a few years later and Barlow became my kinda-sorta boss, I discovered the immense joys (and inarguable frustrations) of working with him: Barlow challenged received wisdom, made you revisit your assumptions and look at problems sideways and upside-down to get the lay of them. I argued with Barlow a lot, and lost more than once, and was always better for it.
In the decades since had the enormous honor and pleasure of becoming Barlow’s friend: trekking across the Playa with him at Burning Man, speaking alongside him at conferences on three continents, writing him into a novel, making his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace the McGuffin of a short story, asking him to write an introduction to one of my books, bringing him to my class for a guest lecture, and, just recently, helping to raise money to defray his medical bills after he became terminally ill.
As EFF’s Cindy Cohn — who introduced me to Barlow — writes, Barlow has been recently vilified as a naif who failed to foresee the power of the internet to control and censor, to troll and dox, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Barlow wrote the Declaration and co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation precisely because he foresaw those possibilities: he saw that the world would be remade by general-purpose networks tied to general-purpose computers, and that unless we committed ourselves to making that network free, and fair, and open, that it would give the powerful and wicked the power to exert unprecedented, near-total control over our lives.
Today, Barlow is dead, and his vision is vindicated: the risks Barlow foresaw (along with other EFF founders like John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor) are more imminent than ever; the organization that he started and the movement he kicked off has never been more badly needed.
I find it hard to believe that I’ll never talk to Barlow again, but I’m sure I’ll never stop having dialogs with him in my mind, as I’ve done so many times over the years. Barlow has a way of taking up residence in your thoughts, and I know he’ll never leave mine.
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 the former: “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.’”
Barlow’s lasting legacy is that he devoted his life to making the Internet into “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth . . . a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
John Perry Barlow, Internet Pioneer, 1947-2018
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