John Perry Barlow

Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as John Perry Barlow in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]

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If there are parallels between the American West’s wide open spaces and the newest frontiercyberspaceJohn Perry Barlow is the one to tell you about them. This 48-year-old Wyoming-bred former rancher is a cyber-activist and writer who, with his Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is working, in Barlow’s words, “to civilize cyberspaceby keeping civilization out of cyberspace.” 

That cheerful anarchism, and that jaunty way with a paradox, are essential Barlow, who’s a bit of a paradox himself. “[I'm] probably the only former Republican county chairman in America willing to call himself a hippie mystic,” he's written; and between penning articles on virtual reality, computer security, and the global impact of “connected digital devices”the Netfor magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000, he writes songs with those veteran cosmic cowboys, the Grateful Dead. 

Barlow’s fascination with cyberspace, and with maintaining individual freedom there in the face of the increasing threat of corporate control symbolized by the controlled-access “information superhighway,” has nothing to do with nerdy technophilia. “I hate computers,” he says. “Telepathy would be better.” Clearly, what draws Barlow to cyberspace is its ability to connect humans“cyberspace may be closer to community than suburbia,” he claimsand to put them into a wholly new realm. 

“I’m trying to understand cyberspace as a place,” he says. “I want to discourage people from making simplistic assumptions about this place where we can't even take our bodies.” One assumption that particularly rankles him is that law as we know it can regulate the electronic commonwealth, and the EFF is working to reconceive issues like copyright and intellectual property rights in electron land. “If there are no bodies,” he insists, “then identity, locale, and law all turn into new things. After all, legal structures develop like geology, while technology goes along fast.” 

But technology isn’t the only thing that’s changing at a gallop. “I don’t think government as we know it will exist in 50 years,” says Barlow. “We’ll have what I call ‘ad hocracies’ to solve specific problems. Everywhere the rigid, top-down Prussian-army model is going to give way to the Italian-government modeldisorder that works.” 

The prospect of a benign chaos in the outer world, a lively and individualistic cyberworld, and greater and greater computer-aided communion among humans encourages Barlow in his peculiar form of political “activism.” “How do I further this process of transformation? I relax,” he deadpans. “I go places and am calm. If you’re heading somewhere where everything is new, the best tactic is to try to enjoy the ride.”