Cognitive Dissident

John Perry Barlow, the man who popularized the term ‘cyberspace’, discusses the Total Information Awareness project, online activism, file sharing, and the prospect of a digital counterculture.

Image: Associated Press/Wide World Photos

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Does the government need a search warrant to read your private email? Do you have a right to anonymity online? Is computer code protected by the first amendment? On all three counts the answer is yes, and for that you can thank the Electronic Frontier Foundation — and by extension, John Perry Barlow — for staking out those rights in court.

The EFF is a digital civil liberties union, co-founded by Barlow in 1990 to fight for free-speech and privacy rights in cyberspace. Of course, back then, ‘cyberspace’ wasn’t exactly a household word. You can thank Barlow for that, too.

A self-described “classic boomer,” Barlow is still best known for his first career, songsmithing for the Grateful Dead, with classics like “Cassidy,” “Estimated Prophet,” and “A Little Light” to his credit. After a go as a back-to-the-land cattle rancher, Barlow, 55, is now starring in a digital third act, one that may well fulfill his ultimate aspiration: “To be a good ancestor.”

When I first met John Perry Barlow, he was sporting a black ascot, a turquoise pendant, and a hands-free cellular device that dangled, secret-service style, from his left ear; he was wired and buzzed, working the unabashedly geeky crowd at the EFF’s holiday open house in San Francisco’s Mission district. Afterward, I pressed Barlow for his take on the Total Information Awareness project — the Bush Administration’s Big-Brotherish effort to preempt terrorism by analyzing our purchasing habits and other previously private data — as well as his thoughts on Internet activism, file sharing, and counterculture in the 21st century. What do you make of the Total Information Awareness project?

John Perry Barlow: I was just writing a spam to my friends last night about its “all seeing eye” logo [The logo has since been changed – Ed.]. Looking at that logo, you’ve got to wonder if they aren’t just engaged in some massive prank on us. It’s hilarious — straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Can you beat it? It’s fortunate that this is so stupefyingly funny.

MJ: But do you think that we run the danger of laughing it off and missing the danger of it?

JPB: I don’t think so. I think that humor is part of what saves us from despair. The Total Information Awareness project is truly diabolical — mostly because of the legal changes which have made it possible in the first place. As a consequence of the Patriot Act, government now has access to all sorts of private and commercial databases that were previously off limits.

MJ: Is that what they’re hiding behind?

JPB: It’s a combination of the Patriot Act and a Justice Department directive that was issued in May by John Ashcroft. Now I believe that this invasion of privacy is just as unconstitutional as its ever been, but nothing is unconstitutional until somebody’s taken it to court and proven it.

MJ: Do you think the goal of preempting terrorism through data-mining is feasible, from a technological perspective?

JPB: The thing that spooks me about the Total Information Awareness program is that that it’s inside DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. And unlike the CIA or the NSA, DARPA has a great track record of actually going out and making big technology happen — because they’re small, they’re light, they’re anti-bureaucratic, they’re engineering minded. And Poindexter may be a convicted felon but he’s a very, very smart guy. So where while I’d like to say there’s no way that this is going to happen under any other circumstances, I’m less assured of that at the moment.

MJ: Somebody said that this is going to lead to them finding a lot more haystacks than needles.

JPB: [Laughs.] That’s absolutely true. If you have the Total Information Awareness project working, it might be relatively easy to find everyone who had bought more than a ton of fertilizer and 500 gallons of diesel in the last year, which would be a great way of spotting potential Tim McVeighs — but it would also spot half the farmers and ranchers in America. But having spotted them, it couldn’t toss them out until it’d exposed them to the next layer of search. And the important thing to think about there is that they’re no longer just looking for terrorist activity, they’re looking for any kind of criminality at all — which includes what I consider to be cultural crimes, like say marijuana smoking.

The terrifying new reality that we’re dealing with here is the fact that all data are now open to government scrutiny. All these things that have previously been sacrosanct and private are now available. And what’s more frightening is that if you are managing one of those databases and the government says that it wants access to it for a completely open-ended search you are criminally liable if you if you tell the people in your database that the government is doing so. The whole dive shop thing [in June of last year], the government requested the records of everyone in the U.S. taking diving lessons] was exposed because one solitary dive shop owner in Los Angeles had the guts to come forward and say “Hey, we’re not going to give you our database. And furthermore we’re going to go to the press.”

MJ: TIA hopes to root out terrorists by monitoring — among other things — our purchasing habits and travel records. But looking at this kind of data mining in the commercial sector, it’s clearly an imperfect science. I keep reading stories about how somebody’s TIVO thinks he’s gay because he watched one too many Sex in and the City’s. Can we possibly expect better from the government?

JPB: They’ve already done some of this inferential searching — and the way they’re going about it is enough to give you pause.

MJ: Part of the Homeland Security Bill is something called the “Cyber Security Enhancement Act” under which “malicious” hackers can be sent to prison for life.

JPB: It’s ridiculous, dangerous, grossly unconstitutional, and it’s perfectly in keeping with what this administration’s been doing across the board. This is an administration that has recently reserved to itself the right to kill American citizens anywhere on the planet for the mere suspicion of membership in Al Qaeda. That’s really quite and awe-inspiring breakthrough. And the astonishing thing is that the American people are nodding along in their stupor and saying “Yeah, well, whatever it takes to stop terrorism.” I’m so disappointed in my countrymen.

MJ: What do you think it will take to knock people out of that stupor?

JPB: What it’s going to take is for some of these initiatives to actually start affecting people out in the ‘burbs. But they’re so insensate at the moment, that one wonders how much it will take to effect them. Right now, it’s very easy for your standard suburban television idiot to assume that this is all about people who are not like him. And his rights are not involved. By the time he finds out that his rights have been involved, they may have been so thoroughly eroded that he may never be able to get them back. But you as the Navajo say, “It’s impossible to awaken a man who is pretending to be asleep.” And I think that mostly what America is doing is pretending to be asleep.

MJ: Do you really think that — that your average American is well aware what’s going on?

JPB: Aware in some way that’s subject to massive denial. We’re aware but feel ourselves to be so helpless that we can’t even summon up the necessary energy to drive five blocks to vote against it.

A Digital Counterculture?

MJ: At the EFF party, you and R.U. Sirius were talking about being part of a counterculture without a name, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about what you meant by that.

JPB: It occurred to me recently that I’d been a member of every counterculture that had been available throughout my conscious life. I started out as a teenage beatnik and then became a hippie and then became a cyberpunk. And now I’m still a member of the counterculture, but I don’t know what to call that. And I’d been inclined to think that that was a good thing, because once the counterculture in America gets a name then the media can coopt it, and the advertising industry can turn it into a marketing foil. But you know, right now I’m not sure that it is a good thing, because we don’t have any flag to rally around. Without a name there may be no coherent movement.

MJ: What would be the organizing principles of this counterculture?

JPB: Well, for starters, that practically everything that this administration is doing right now is fucked. [Laughs]

MJ: I’ll make sure we print that.

JPB: Of course you’ve got to have a more intelligent response than that, but it’s hard for me to rise above it. I think the counterculture believes that there are ways to manage being the world’s most powerful country that involve creation of consensus — ruling by virtuous example rather than by force of arms. Managing the world that has fallen to us to manage in a way that it has some morality. I think that that counterculture is very concerned about the completely unchecked ability of multinational corporations to roam the planet and serve their hungers without any meaningful regulation now. That counterculture probably agrees that mass media are bad for you, particularly television. I suppose drugs are an element. And it appreciates irony — as opposed to the administration, which clearly has an irony deficiency.

MJ: What little resistance there is right now in terms of an antiwar movement seems to be organizing online. Is that a good thing?

JPB: Actually I’m discouraged with the role of the Internet in the antiwar movement. Because so far what I see happening is that cyberspace is a great place for everybody to declaim. There are a million virtual streetcorners with a million lonely pamphleteers on them, all of them decrying the war and not actually coming together in any organized fashion to oppose it. It strikes me that existing political institutions — whether it’s the administration or Congress or large corporations — only respond to other institutions. I don’t care how many individuals you have marching in the streets, they’re not going to pay attention until there’s a leader for those individuals who can come forward and say I represent the organization of those individuals and we’re going to amass the necessary money and votes to kick you the hell out of office. Then they pay attention. But not until. And so right at the moment it would strike me that the Internet is counterproductive to peace.

MJ: I’m rather shocked to hear you say that.

JPB: Well, I’m rather shocked to say it.

MJ: Is it that people just leave their anger online?

JPB: You vent online and then you dust your hands off in satisfaction and that’s the last you do. And I’m as guilty of this as anybody. Though in fairness I can point to EFF as being an example that that’s not all I do.

MJ: Who got the future better: Philip Dick, George Orwell, or Aldous Huxley?

JPB: All of those guys were talking about the present, that’s what science fiction writers really do. I’ve been struck lately rereading Brave New World and 1984 at the extent to which both of these visions, which would seem to be completely contradictory, have turned out to be true and in fact complementary. You have the totalitarian thought control and language modification of 1984 going on: I mean, consider the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” — completely Orwellian in use. And at the same time you have something like the feelies from Brave New World which are the soporific media message that puts everyone to sleep. Both of those things are happening simultaneously. The totalitarian message is being transmitted while you’re zoned out in front of the television watching the feelies, high on soma — which is some combination of Prozac and Budweiser.

MJ: I was reading an old roundtable you did with Harper’s, and I was struck by how optimistic you were then.

JPB: Somebody came up to me after a talk I gave recently in London, and he said to me that there’s something entertaining about watching a pathological optimist try to be pessimistic. [Laughs.] And he had a point. I’m basically an optimistic person. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about groundless hope — which in some respects may be the only kind there is. If your hope has good reasons attached to it, then maybe it’s just a form of planning. I think that election was a consequence of people becoming hopeless. If people had hope they’d vote.

MJ: Is it true you used to be a Republican?

JPB: Yeah, actually, until embarrassingly recently. There is, in small numbers these days, though it used to be larger, a libertarian wing of Republicanism that fit my political beliefs pretty succinctly. But that was before George Bush II and the Christian fascists took over.

To Share or Not to Share?

MJ: As a former lyricist still making money on royalties, what are your thoughts about online file sharing?

JPB: You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who is more passionate about the belief that sharing music is good for you as a songwriter and good for humanity as a whole. The best thing that ever happened to the Grateful Dead, from an economic standpoint, was giving away our music.

MJ: In terms of bootlegging?

JPB: It wasn’t bootlegging. We let people tape our concerts and distribute the tapes. And that became the first example I can think of viral marketing. The record companies certainly didn’t know how to market us. So we became self-marketing through our tapes.

MJ: And that helped you economically?

JPB: No question. And it makes sense that it would. Because economic success in an information economy depends not on scarcity, but on familiarity. You can be the greatest songwriter in the history of song and if 10 people are the only ones who ever heard your songs, it doesn’t matter.

MJ: But what if 100 million people can get it online and nobody pays you a cent.

JPB: But it doesn’t tend to work that way in practice. Despite the fact that Deadheads had better recordings of all of our songs than we were putting out commercially, just about all of our albums have gone platinum over the years. Having the noncommercial version of information does not appear to operate genuinely as an inhibition against getting the commercial version. And also there are other ways of conducting commerce other than selling material objects with information on them. Performance for example. That’s where most of the money is.

All of this stuff about ‘piracy’ is fomented entirely by the record and film industries to perpetuate business models that are completely disadvantageous to both the creator and the audience. They are the biggest pirates in the deal. But unfortunately, they have made huge amounts of campaign donations and essentially created all the government that money can buy. And they have Congress. Congress is passing laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which make it so you can’t break open the bottles that they’re pouring your knowledge into. They directly contravene the right to know. The right to know, I think, though it may not be explicit in the Constitution is every bit as important as the right to speak.

MJ: Quick response: Does Google have too much power?

JPB: I would say not — given that they don’t seem to be using it in a way that is monopolistic or apt to consolidate that power. Their power is based entirely on the fact that their software is better than anybody else’s, unlike say Microsoft.

MJ: Phish, the band.

JPB: My reaction to that is changing. My first reaction was I’ve been there, done that, with better. But I think they’ve evolved, and I’m eager to hear them now that they’re back together.

MJ: Would you clone yourself?

JPB: The idea that a clone is you is ridiculous. A clone is no more you than an identical twin is you. And even less so, because a clone is born in a different part of time. But, yeah, I’d probably clone myself.

MJ: Favorite obscure website.


MJ: Worst piece of digital legislation?

JPB: Oh God, there is so much competition for that but I would say the Patriot Act taken in all of its digital dimensions. Otherwise I would say the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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