RIP John Perry Barlow, warrior for digital freedoms

John Perry Barlow, who died yesterday, was one of the great early visionaries about the potential of digital: and its terrible risks.

We’ve just lost one of the great early thinkers about the internet, and I think we should pause to pay our respects. John Perry Barlow wasn’t a technologist – he was a musician. He wrote songs for the Grateful Dead. But he fell in love with the potential of the internet to be a great creative force, even as he worried about its ability to do great harm.

These twin forces within him led him to write the famous declaration of the independence of cyberspace while in the middle of a dance and quite drunk at the World Economic Forum:

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.

On a more practical level, he was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which has spent over 25 years fighting for our freedoms in digital space.

Aspiring to the best, lest the worst come to be

The emergent themes of NEXT, through the years it has been shaped by Martin, Ina and Monique, could be summed up as: “aspire to the best in digital, defend against the worst”. Those who knew him well argue that his declaration was designed to do just that. Cindy Cohn of the EFF wrote:

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.’”

Former colleague and NEXT speaker Cory Doctorow wrote of his friend:

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.

The battle for digital freedom continues

I was lucky enough to see him speak at the short-lived Le Web London conference, back in 2013. My live blog notes that he finished his talk with this:

Barlow doesn’t expect the battle for digital freedom to be won in his lifetime, but he will stay faithful to the fight. He wants to do his very best to be a good ancestor.

Whether or not you agree with his views, I think we can all agree that he has managed that.