Individuals from the furthest corners of cyberspace gathered Saturday to celebrate EFF co-founder, John Perry Barlow, and discuss his ideas, life, and leadership.
The John Perry Barlow Symposium, graciously hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco, brought together a collection of Barlow’s favorite thinkers and friends to discuss his ideas in fields as diverse as fighting mass surveillance, opposing censorship online, and copyright, in a bittersweet event that appropriately honored his legacy of Internet activism and defending freedom online.
Thanks to the magic of fair use, you can relive the Symposium any time by visiting the Internet Archive. Video begins at 48:00.
After a touching opening from Anna Barlow, John Perry Barlow’s daughter, EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn kicked off the speaker portion of the event:
“To me, what Barlow did for the Internet was to articulate, more and more beautifully than almost anyone, that this new network had the possibility of connecting all of us. He saw that the Internet would not be just a geeky hobby or toy like ham radios, or only a military or academic thing, which is what most folks who knew about it believed. Starting from the Deadheads who used it to gather, he saw it as a new lifeblood for humans who longed for connection, but had been separated.”
While the man himself may not have been present, Barlow’s connection—and influence—was palpable throughout the Symposium, with a dozen distinguished speakers and hundreds in attendance conversing, delivering remarks, and offering up questions about the past, the present, the future, and Barlow’s impact on all of it. The first speaker (and EFF’s co-founder along with Barlow), Mitch Kapor, told the audience: “I can feel his generous and optimistic spirit right here in the room today inspiring all of us.”
Barlow’s genius, said Kapor, was that in 1990, while most Internet usage was research- and military-based, he “absolutely nailed the Internet’s essential character and what was going to happen.”
Pam Samuelson, Distinguished Professor of Law and Information at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that Barlow’s 1994 treatise on copyright in the age of the Internet, The Economy of Ideas, has been cited a whopping 742 times in legal literature. But he didn’t just give lawyers an article to cite—Barlow helped the world understand that copyright had a civil liberty dimension and galvanized people to become copyright activists at a time when traditional notions of information access would be shaken to their core.
Trevor Timm described Barlow as “the guiding light” and “the organizational powerhouse” of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which he co-founded with Barlow in 2012. On the day the organization launched, Timm recalled, Barlow wrote: “When a government becomes invisible, it becomes unaccountable. To expose its lies, errors, and illegal acts is not treason, it is a moral responsibility. Leaks become the lifeblood of the Republic.” His hope was that the organization would inspire a new generation of whistleblowers—and the next speaker, Edward Snowden, made clear he’d achieved this goal, telling the audience: “He raised a message, sounded an alarm, that I think we all heard. He did not save the world, none of us can—but maybe he started the movement that will.”
The speakers answered questions on Facebook privacy, their disagreements with Barlow (of which there were many, ranging from the role of government overall to whether copyright was alive or dead), and what comes next in our understanding of the web. Cory Doctorow, EFF Special Advisor and emcee of the Symposium alongside Cindy Cohn, answered this in “Barlovian” fashion: “We could sit here and try to spin scenarios until the cows come home and not get anything done, or we can roll up our sleeves and do something.”
EFF’s former Executive Director (and current director of the Tor Project) Shari Steele began the second panel, discussing Barlow’s deeply-held belief in the First Amendment, insistence on hearing opposing viewpoints, and interest in bringing together diverse opinions: “That’s how he thrived...He was always encouraging people to talk to each other—to have conversations where you normally maybe wouldn’t have thought this was somebody you would have something in common with. He was fascinating, dynamic, and helped us create an Internet that has all sorts of fascinating and dynamic speech in it.”
John Gilmore, EFF Co-founder and Board Member, invoked French philosopher and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose ideas Barlow specifically referenced in his writings. Barlow’s interest in mind-altering experiences, like taking LSD, said Gilmore, wasn’t just related to his love of the Internet: it came from the exact same place, an interest in creating the “great collective organism of mind” that Barlow hoped we might one day become.
Author Stephen Levy, the writer of Hackers, thought that though Barlow may be well known as a writer of lyrics for the Grateful Dead, he will possibly be even better known by his words about the digital revolution. In his view, Barlow was a terrific writer and a master storyteller “capable of pulling off a quadruple-axle level of nonfiction difficulty.” His gift was to be able to not only “explain what was happening to the out-of-it Mr. Joneses of the world, but to encapsulate what was happening, to celebrate it, and to warn against its dangers in a way that would enlighten even the...people who knew the digital world—and to do it in a way that the reading was a pure pleasure.”
Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, described Barlow’s sense of humor and optimism—the same “you see when you talk to the Dalai Lama.” Today’s dark moments for the Internet aren’t the end, he said, and reminded everyone that Barlow had an elegant way of bringing these elements together with activism and resolve. His deep sense of humor came “from knowing how terrible the world is, but still being connected to true nature.” Ito also touched upon Barlow's groundbreaking essay A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace as a crucial "battle cry for us to rally around," taking the budding cyberpunk movement and helping it become a socio-political one.
The second panel fielded questions on encryption, Barlow’s uncanny ability to show up in the weirdest places, and how we can inspire the next generation of Barlows. Echoing EFF’s mission of bringing together lawyers, technologists, and activists, Joi Ito said that we will need engineers, lawyers, and social scientists to come together to redesign technology and change law, and also change society—and that one of Barlow’s amazing abilities was that he could talk to, and influence, all of these people.
Twenty-seven years later, EFF continues to work at the bleeding edge of technology to protect the rights of the users in issues as diverse as net neutrality, artificial intelligence, opposing censorship, and fighting mass surveillance.
Amelia Barlow, John Perry’s daughter, thanked the “vast web” of infinitely interesting and radical human beings around the world who he cared about and cared about him. “Never before have you been able to draw more immediately and completely upon him—and I want you to feel that,” she said, before reading his now-famous 25 Principles for Adult Behavior.
As Anna Barlow said in her opening remarks, Barlow’s adventures didn’t stop in his later years—they just started coming to him. Some of the most brilliant thinkers in the world showed that this will remain true even while his physical presence is missed. Perhaps the Symposium was one step towards creating the “great collective organism of mind” that Barlow hoped to see us all become. And at the very least, Anna said, he doesn’t have to be bummed about missing parties anymore—because now he can go to all of them.
Cory Doctorow closed the Symposium with a request:
“This week—sit down and have the conversation with someone who’s already primed to understand the importance of technology and its relationship to human flourishing and liberty. And then I want you to go varsity. And I want you to have that conversation with someone non-technical, someone who doesn’t understand how technology could be a force for good, but is maybe becoming keenly aware of how technology could be a force for wickedness.
And ensure that they are guarded against the security syllogism. Ensure that they understand too that we need not just to understand that technology can give us problems, but we must work for ways in which technology can solve our problems too.
And if you do those things you will honor the spirit of John Perry Barlow in a profound way that will carry on from this room and honor our friend who we lost so early, and who did so much for us.”
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