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Feb. 8, 2021, 9 a.m.

25 years ago today, the internet declared its independence — for better and for worse

Tech utopianism and tech hubris appear more thoroughly intertwined today than ever, and John Perry Barlow’s cyberlibertarian visions echo in the policy debates of today.

One way to measure the quality of your life is how many twists and turns fit in between the commas in the first line of your obituary. By that measure, John Perry Barlow lived a good life. Here’s the top of his Times obit, published three years ago today:

John Perry Barlow, a former cowpoke, Republican politician and lyricist for the Grateful Dead whose affinity for wide open spaces and free expression transformed him into a leading defender of an unfettered internet, died on Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 70.

But it was something he wrote more than two decades earlier that truly cemented Barlow’s place in the Internet pantheon. Twenty-five years ago today, he wrote (and emailed to about 600 friends) “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” — the ur-document of tech utopianism, tech exceptionalism, and tech arrogance. You can read it here, or watch him read it some years later.

At the time, it read as a cri de coeur for a bold new generation of leaders who’d marry the countercultural ambitions of the 1960s to the tech-fueled exuberance of the 1990s. Today, it looks more like the DNA that produced many of today’s economic, political, and informational distortions.

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.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

When Barlow wrote these words — in frickin’ Davos — he was part of a newly empowered elite that understood technology and could wield it in their interests. Of course he wasn’t interested in being told what he could or could not do. It’s a very short leap from Barlow decrying all governance as tyranny to Peter Thiel wanting to seastead his own ocean micronation where no nation’s laws could touch him.

Also, cyberspace very much was a “public construction project,” created, funded, and built by a national government.

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.

Who exactly is “we,” here? Barlow’s libertarian vision could only imagine Government and Industry as powers, not that the internet’s wide-open spaces would encourage the massive conglomeration of power into a few trillion-dollar companies born in cyberspace. If Google or Facebook causes a “real conflict,” when “there are wrongs,” what is the mechanism available to the average user with an Android phone in his pocket?

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

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.

Barlow doesn’t seem to see any conflict between these two ideals — that, say, “there will be no racial prejudice in cyberspace” is in real tension with “there will be no restrictions on Nazis saying and doing racist things in cyberspace.”

In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us.

The irony, of course, is that the main source of opposition to that 1996 bill today is over Section 230 — a creation of government that explicitly protects the interests of technology companies by eliminating their liability for crimes committed by their users on their platforms. (Today is also Section 230’s 25th birthday.)

You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

If you really can’t separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat…you end up with a lot of people googling “mesothelioma” because they can’t breathe.

Today, this sort of cyberlibertarianism remains in style in a few corners of the technology industry, but for the general public, the shine is off that apple. As with “the air that chokes,” there’s a growing acceptance of the fact that unfettered spaces generate what economists call negative externalities; your right to spew poison into the air conflicts with my desire not to die of cancer. (Andy Greenberg had a good piece at Wired five years ago, on the declaration’s 20th anniversary, on how poorly it had aged.)

His Times obit noted that Barlow’s cyberlibertarian ideas derived in part from growing up on a ranch in Wyoming: “There are a lot of similarities between cyberspace and open space. There is a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up.” (Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture goes deep into the linkages between a certain post-hippie western back-to-the-land-ism and the utopian neoliberalism of the early internet.)

But while a remote Wyoming ranch might seem like a place defined by individual initiative and distance from “Governments of the Industrial World,” the reality is far different. Those lands were cleared of their indigenous inhabitants by the military force of the United States. They reached private hands by act of the federal government. The lands were populated by federally regulated railroads, their mineral wealth extracted via government contracts. Wyoming’s first constitution said that all sources of water were “hereby declared to be the property of the state”; hell, more than 40 percent of the state is still owned by the feds. If you appreciate the unspoiled beauty of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, or Bighorn Canyon, they exist today because the government declared that no one could strip-mine them out of existence.

In 1995 — a year before Barlow’s declaration — Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron called this mix of “libertarian politics, countercultural aesthetics, and techno-utopian visions” the Californian Ideology. It’s been an incredibly powerful force in creating the world we live in today — for better and for worse.

Photo of John Perry Barlow in 2007 by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 8, 2021, 9 a.m.
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