A Symposium for John Perry Barlow

John Perry Barlow, who passed away in 2018, penned two influential essays early in the web’s evolution A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net. It’s easy in retrospect to make fun of some of Barlow’s claims:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

or how about this painfully wrong prediction?

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

But as Cindy Cohn notes in Inventing the Future: Barlow and Beyond:

In talking about the Declaration at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) many years later, Barlow admitted that when he stepped out of a party at Davos to write it, he was both a little drunk and trying desperately to channel Thomas Jefferson. So maybe some of the sweeping rebukes are just trying to match his original bravado.

Moreover, Barlow was not nearly as utopian as one might imagine. He was, after all, one of the founders (in 1990!) of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which has worked to make the words true.

The symposium is of mixed quality. Cory Doctorow’s contribution is quarrelsome and weak. James Boyle’s overview and description of the WWW, however, is excellent:

Berners-Lee imagined a republic of ideas built on a vision of language.The whole thing had a whiff of Harry Potter magic.To click on the hyperlink was to summon its referent.The name was the magical command for the presence of the resource, as though every footnote animated itself, went to the library and brought you back the relevant book. To write a web page was to build a transporter of the mind. The link was a reference to the resource, a map to the place where the resource was held and a vehicle to take you there. Each new document wove the network a little wider and tighter. That’s why they called it the world wide web. And its architecture was “distributed.” Anyone could build the web—as if we could all wander outside our houses and build the Eisenhower freeways of the mind ourselves, draw the maps that chronicled those freeways, assemble the cars that traveled along them and then construct the libraries, bookstores, shops, coffee houses and red light districts to which they journeyed. All done through a decentralized process that required neither governmental permission, nor authentication of your content—for better or worse. Better and worse.

I’d also point to Imaginary Bottles on copyright by Jessica Litman and Yochai Benkler’s A Political Economy of Utopia? as excellent. Here’s Benkler:

What the past quarter century has taught us is that there are five basic failure modes of commons-based strategies to construct more attractive forms of social relations.

  1. Companies and countries can usually sustain focused strategic efforts for longer and more actively than distributed networks of users…
  2. Distributed social relations can themselves develop internal hierarchies and inequities (the Iron Law of Oligarchy)…
  3. Distributed open communications have provided enormous play for genuinely hateful and harmful behavior, such that we find ourselves seeking some power to control the worst abuses—the power of the platforms we want to hold democratically accountable, or the power of countries to regulate those platforms for us…
  4. More fundamentally, as long as we live in a society where people have to make money to eat and keep a roof over their heads, markets produce stuff we really like and want. For all the broad complaints about Amazon, it has produced enormous consumer welfare. More directly, for all the romanticization of fan videos and remix, the emergence of subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime has been a boon to professional video creators and underwritten a golden age of professional video entertainment and narrative, both fiction and non-fiction.
  5. States are still necessary to counter market power, provide public goods on a sustained and large-scale basis by using coercive taxing and spending powers, redistribute wealth,and provide basic social and economic security for the majority of the population.

The symposium is here.


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