John Perry Barlow died three years and one day ago, at the age of seventy, having lived a rare and singular life. Anyone familiar with him knows the drill — cattle rancher from Wyoming, poet, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, over-user of the prefix cyber.
Twenty-five years ago today, Barlow dashed off an email to some friends, colleagues, and conspirators decrying the signing of the Communications Decency Act as some kind of shackle on his beloved cyberspace. Calling it “A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace”, Barlow was firing a shot, of sorts, or at least staking a claim for not just a new frontier but a new kind of social contract.
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.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
The decades have not been kind to the declaration — who even says “cyberspace” any more, or thinks of the internet as a place that is, or could be, separated from people. The distinction between IRL and online has blurred to the point of uselessness.
Joshua Benton has performed a thorough fisking for today’s anniversary, and Andy Greenberg’s takedown for Wired from 20161 is also worth a read. It’s not just in hindsight that Barlow’s thesis looks weary — essayist Reilly Jones wrote a thorough rebuttal that same year, which is far more prescient than the Californian Ideology and techno-utopianism of dotcom boosters.
There’s so much about Barlow’s premise that isn’t just creaky or cringeworthy from the vantage of today, but basic facts are just wrong. He declares his precious cyberspace to be free of government because it stretched beyond sovereignty, a view he held decades later, when of course it was the government who built the infrastructure in the first place! And the very law that inspired his yawp in the first place has allowed the internet to flourish, largely free of (American) government interference.
The stakes in those early days were also incredibly low. Despite his lofty rhetoric, so many of the battles online were over things like copyright and DRM. To be sure, the EFF was right to resist the corporate influence of the internet, but the absolutism also allowed a new generation of corporations to take hold of the internet, now largely controlled by a very small number of unimaginably wealthy private companies.
Think of some of the mission statements of the household tech names — “to make the world a more open and connected place”, “to organize the world’s information” — or slogans like “the free speech wing of the free speech party”. These are direct descendants of Barlow and his fellow utopians, and while the world may be more connected it’s hard to argue we’re more free because of it.
Barlow’s admirers, or at least his defenders, insist the manifesto was really about possibility, a vision “for what an internet could be”. That’s certainly true but it doesn’t absolve anyone of the responsibility of what is. This idea that 25 years ago was some idyllic time — and I’ll admit I shared a great many of the techno-utopian fantasies — isn’t just wrong but it’s exactly backwards.
What Barlow was declaring wasn’t independence from the “giants of flesh and steel” but from the work of politics. He signed his email with his location at the time “Davos, Switzerland”, where he was literally partying with the global elite at the World Economic Forum. That kind of blinding privilege and ahistorical thinking is what we should be on guard against.
That Wired, founded during the same heady days of wide-eyed internet optimism as Barlow’s manifesto, would turn out against the cyber-declaration must’ve stung just a bit. ↩︎