Remembering Grateful Dead Lyricist And Internet Activist John Perry Barlow

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 12, 2018 1:40 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. John Perry Barlow, an expressive advocate for a free and open Internet, died on Wednesday. He was 70 years old. Wired magazine called Barlow the bard of the Internet. Barlow was also an occasional lyricist for the Grateful Dead, writing songs with the Dead's guitarist, Bob Weir.

In 1990 during the early days of the worldwide web, Barlow cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation to defend civil liberties in cyberspace. In 1996, he issued an influential manifesto titled "A Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace."

But his background wasn't in computers. He was born into a family of Wyoming ranchers and later ran a cattle ranch he inherited from his family for nearly two decades until he sold it in 1988. There are a lot of similarities between cyberspace and open space, Barlow told People magazine in 1995. There's a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up. Terry interviewed John Perry Barlow in 1996.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Do you have two visions of the Internet - one a utopian vision and the other a dystopian vision?

JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Well I have - (laughter), I'm a Taoist, so I have two visions of everything. But...


BARLOW: You know, I think this is a very, very large event in the history of humanity - I mean, the coming of the net. And, you know, the transfer of all of human knowledge into the - into bits is probably the most sweeping technological occurrence since the capture of fire in terms of its long-term capacity to change what it is to be human. So I assume that a lot of things will come as a result of the Internet. And saying is this a good thing or a bad thing is a little like saying is the weather a good thing or a bad thing? You know, sometimes it's sunny and beautiful and grows flowers, and sometimes it rips the roof off your house.

GROSS: So you see the Internet as something that, you know, more than any other technological advancement is going to change what it means to be human. Why not the telephone or television or radio? I mean, why do you think that...

BARLOW: Well, actually...

GROSS: ...The Internet has this great transformative power?

BARLOW: I would say that the telephone is a continuous part of what I'm talking about. I mean, what I think about - I mean, I look at this as the formation of cyberspace. And cyberspace started forming with the telegraph, which was the first time that you could really converse with another human being over a great distance in real time.

And, you know, the first almost face-to-face encounter in cyberspace was when Alexander Graham Bell met somebody named Watson there in 1876. And it's been growing ever since. But we didn't recognize it as being a space until quite recently because it was an end-to-end conversation, or it was a one to many non-conversation, as is the case with broadcast media. And what we had was not what we have now, which is telematic assembly. You could have telematic conversation, but you couldn't have telematic assembly. Now you really do have a social space and a marketplace.

GROSS: You're a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties and cyberspace group. You say that the mission was to civilize cyberspace. What does that mean?

BARLOW: Well, that was the original idea. I mean, you know, I come from the Wyoming frontier - I mean, really very recently settled part of the North American continent. My great-great-uncle was the first white man to spend a winter in the Evergreen river basin and not that long ago. So I - you know Pinedale, Wyo., is still kind of a frontier settlement. And it - I was looking for frontiers. So I when I first got into the world that was being created inside digital media, I was immediately struck by frontier analogies and metaphors - I mean, that this was an unsettled place, that it was filled with sort of wild, woolly characters that were social misfits and able to tolerate very austere conditions and that the railroads were coming, you know, and that the settlers were coming. And so when Mitch Kapor and I started EFF, we were looking to make cyberspace safe for the women and children essentially in sort of a 19th-century Manifest Destiny kind of way.

GROSS: I'm not going to point out the sexist nature of that analogy (laughter).


GROSS: Go ahead.

BARLOW: I said it was 19th century now. And, you know, frankly there were damn few women and children in cyberspace when I encountered it.

GROSS: True, right.

BARLOW: And that was - along with practically everything else besides, you know, smart white guys who can't dance. And, you know, I may be a smart white guy, but I can dance. And I like the company of lots of other kinds of folks. And so I was eager to make it a place where other kinds of folks could be comfortable.

GROSS: Well, I believe before you started the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you were visited by the FBI. What did they want to know about cyberspace?

BARLOW: Well, first of all, they didn't know that there was any such thing. And at that point, neither did I - or at least I hadn't started talking about it that way. But I got a visit from Special Agent Richard Baxter in the Rock Springs, Wyo., field office back in early 1990. And I knew Agent Baxter from before. I'd had livestock stolen when I was still in the cattle business, and he's a pretty good hand with livestock theft.

But in this instance, he was at sea. He was very nervous on the phone. And I hate it when I hear an FBI agent call me up on the phone and not want to talk about why he's coming to visit and be real nervous. That's a terrible sign. And - but he showed up, and he was investigating something that he referred to as the new prosthesis league, which was in fact something that called itself the new Prometheus league.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARLOW: And that was just the - that was the tip of the iceberg. I mean, he had this - somebody had taken a little snippet of Apple's source code for the Macintosh Roms and was shipping it around in a copyright protest - I would say - because of Apple's very proprietary behavior regarding intellectual property. And it posted it at various places on the net. And Apple characteristically had freaked out and had decided that somebody was about to reveal the entire Macintosh recipe and that the Taiwanese would be turning them out in no time. Or at least that's what they told the FBI, and the FBI didn't really know what to do with this. So they were just sort of roaming around like the brooms in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," sweeping miscellaneously.

And Agent Baxter knew through the FBI that I had attended something called The Hackers Conference, which actually had nothing to do with computer crime. It was attended by people like Steve Wozniak, you know, in the old sense of hacker. But the FBI decided that maybe the people who went to The Hackers Conference would know something about this digital terrorist that was going to blow Apple out of the water. And I had to spend two hours with Agent Baxter explaining to him what exactly the crime was before I could tell him that I hadn't been the perpetrator and wasn't likely to know the perpetrator. And I realized then - I mean this was such an "Alice In Wonderland" experience. I realized that what I was seeing was the first incursion of American federal government into this new place.

GROSS: It sounds like this has become like a metaphor for you - of people who are trying to regulate something that they don't understand.

BARLOW: It was one of those conversion moments where I realized that here you have, you know, clueless, well-armed, insecure people roaming around in a place they don't understand, and it scares them. And nothing good can come of this. And now, instead of Richard Baxter, we've got the entire United States Congress coming in and proposing to regulate someplace they've never been, using tools they don't happen to have.

GROSS: How did you first use a computer when you got it? Did you get it knowing that you'd be using the Internet and using it as a way to communicate with people you'd never met?

BARLOW: No, I think I had the - I had the usual misconception about what a computer was. I mean, I thought it was a better form of Wite-Out or a bigger adding machine, which is how most people first encountered computers, I think. I mean, most of the computers in the world are still dedicated WordPerfect servers. And, you know, all they are is a fancy kind of typewriter.

GROSS: And how'd you branch out from there?

BARLOW: Well...

GROSS: You were living - what? - on your cattle farm, right?

BARLOW: I was ranching in Wyoming at that point. And I started to think a lot more about Deadheads and community. I mean, I came from this little town in Wyoming that seemed to be languishing in the demise of agriculture. And I was concerned about the end of community in America because, you know, as far as I'm concerned, as somebody who comes from a small town, it's been largely abolished. I mean, most of America is now Generica. There is very little of the kind of social interaction that I see common in my little town.

And I was wondering what was going to be the repository of community after all those little agricultural towns died off. And I was looking at things like the Deadheads, who seemed to have that kind of - that sense of shared responsibility for one another - you know, the sense of themselves against the collectively adverse. But I couldn't - I couldn't understand how they maintained a sense of continuity given that, you know, they only got together at shows or when the band was on the road. And then somebody told me about The WELL, which is a conferencing system, still one of the best little towns in cyberspace.

GROSS: You're on the board of directors of it now.

BARLOW: Yeah. Yeah. And this was a system that had been set up by Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog folks. And the Deadheads had gone there, and they were using that as their - as their point of continuity. That was their virtual village green. And so I - somebody told me about this, and I got a modem and hooked my computer up to a phone line and logged into The WELL. And lo, there they were. And there it was. And it seemed - at first flush, it seemed an awful lot like a small town, you know, and still has many of those elements.

DAVIES: Internet activist John Perry Barlow speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. Barlow died Wednesday. He was 70. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Clint Eastwood film, "The 15:17 To Paris," about a terrorist attack on a French train thwarted by three Americans. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.