Keynote Essay for the 1994 Computerworld College Edition
by John Perry Barlow
I'm entering these characters aboard the M.V. Matanuska, an Alaskan ferry headed up the Inside Passage, south of Juneau. The fog is so dense that the bow is not visible from the bridge. Morning sunlight pouring in from the top of it illuminates the whole into a blazing haze of featureless glory and peril. The Future.
Almost exactly a century ago, such fog banks were stuffed with stampeders of the last great gold rush on this continent. The flood of raw hopefuls who headed to the Yukon in 1898 were nearly the last Americans to heed the advice of the great newspaper publisher and windbag Horace Greeley, who proclaimed what was probably the motto of the 19th Century when he exhorted: "Go west, young man!"
By that time, the Yukon and Alaska were about as far west as they could go. Already every other North American frontier had been scribbled over with the graffiti of civilization.
Only a few years before, in 1875, my own family...a restless gene which had been farming recently cleared ground since the 1600's...moved into the upper reaches of the Green River Basin of Wyoming and thus deflowered the only frontier available to them without doing something as crazy as heading for the Arctic. There they came to a bewildered halt.
So I grew up resenting that the noble, essentially human, act of plunging off into unassayed wilderness, driven by nothing more rational than vague dissatisfaction and aspiration, would not be mine to undertake. It was the critical part of my inheritance which my forbears had spent.
It turns out I was not quite right about that. Today another frontier yawns before us, far more fog-obscured and inscrutable in its opportunities than the Yukon. It consists not of unmapped physical space in which to assert one's ambitious body, but unmappable, infinitely expansible cerebral space. Cyberspace. And we are all going there whether we want to or not.
We must seek our future in the virtual world because there is no economic room left in the physical one. Not only has all the good farmland been homesteaded long since, but nearly all the work one might do with his or her hands is now being done either by machines or by people from parts of the world where what's considered a living wage is a lot less than you'd likely accept.
So the engines of history have other plans for us. Save a few Amish and survivalists, we have all been swallowed by the cultural superorganism of digital technology, a beast now well beyond anyone's control, and it is slouching off to Cyberspace with us in its belly. Since it's inevitable, I would suggest we make peace with our fate, rather as though we were Jonah setting up a permanent settlement inside the whale.
I did try my personal best to resist conscription as a Knowledge Worker. I spent 17 years running the family ranch in Wyoming before I came to this. I fed cattle every winter morning from a hay sled drawn by four Belgian workhorses. I lived horseback, without lawyers or locks. I made my living from things I could touch, and far too usually smell, very much a creature of the physical world.
But I was as culturally doomed as the Tasaday of New Guinea. Technology had so empowered my competitors with fertilizer, growth hormones, and computerized futures hedging programs, that only a few of us were necessary to feed those remaining Americans who still eat beef. Such atavistic practices as mine were like stone axes against smart bombs.
Yanked from the 19th Century, I found myself, like you, tossed unceremoniously onto the doorstep of the 21st.
So here we are, plunging through the fog, unsure of where we're headed but making excellent time. While I may have serious doubts about being forced to emigrate to a place where I can't even bring my body, I can no longer complain about belonging to the first generation in the recorded history of my family to be done out of a frontier to fling itself into.
This frontier, the Virtual World, offers opportunities and perils like no other before it. Entering it, we are engaging what will likely prove the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire. I have a terrible feeling that your children, by the time they are my age, would be barely recognizable to me as human, so permanently jacked in to The Great Mind will they be.
I could be wrong about this, of course. Sweeping predictions about the future have a way of turning their authors into fools after a few decades. Our envisioned trajectories usually turn out to be a lot more fractal than plotted. The Big Events are never seen in advance.
A few days ago, I passed through Seattle, a place I first visited on the occasion of the 1961 Seattle World's Fair, which also called itself the Century 21 Expo. The Fair was filled with depictions of Seattle at the Millennium, a place where the Space Needle would be more the architectural norm than the quaint artifact it seems today. The chief feature of these projections was a glistening transportation web from Vancouver to Portland around which the citizens would be whisked in 200 mph automatic pods. The only prediction of these which came true was that the Burbs would metastasize the full circumference of Puget Sound.
Absolutely nobody predicted the extent to which little beige bit-spitting boxes would become the substrate of civilization in the 90's. Certainly no one foresaw that the mysterious stuff which lived in those boxes and made them spit their bits would become the economic staple of SeattlePlex. And, even in an event which Bill Gates' prominent Seattle parents surely must have taken a hand in, no one came close to predicting such a thing as Bill Gates.
So, although we should be humble in our projections, and while the present moment is probably weirder than any previous, there are a few things which we can learn from previous frontier settlement.
At the moment it seems that the most important of these is that government will come. Such combinations of unpredictability, massive change, peril, and opportunity as are found on any frontier are to government like blood to a great white shark. This is because government lives in part to diminish unpredictability. The kind of economic free-for-all which smells like opportunity to the freebooter represents another kind of opportunity for the bureaucrat. And over the long run, it has traditionally been the bureaucrat who prevailed.
Thus, if one goes to the Yukon today, he finds very few gold miners (or, for that matter, entrepreneurs of any sort). About seventy percent of the people who are in that economically stagnant region work for some form of government. Most of them are the spiritual descendents of Sgt. Preston, whose real-life Mounty counterparts were dispatched into the economic wilds of Dawson and Skagway to impose social decency on the stampeders.
There is a cycle of frontier inhabitation which has usually gone like this: Misfits and dreamers, rejected by or rejecting society, are pushed out into the margins. There they set up camp and maintain what little order they want in it by unwritten codes, the honor of thieves, the Code of the West.
Despite their usual haplessness, they discover resources and start exploiting them. Burghers and boosters back in the civilized regions hear of these discoveries. Settlers, a milder sort, come in with their women and children and are repelled by the savagery and license of their predecessors, whether mountain men, prospectors, or Indians. They send for troops to secure the frontier for the Rotary Club and the PTA. They elect representatives, pass laws, and, pretty soon, they've created another place which is boring but which at least appears predictable.
Already we can find the usual Christian soldiers massing at the borders of Cyberspace. Whether their instruments of entry are the FBI's Digital Telephony proposal (which proposes to hard-wire the Net for automated surveillance) or the NSA's Clipper Chip (which would allow you to lock your digital door, but only if the government kept a key) or well-meaning legislative efforts ensure equal access to the Net, or increasingly punitive props in the collapsing structure of copyright law, or pure, blue-nosed priggishness, the government is preparing to place this new frontier under the rule of law. Whether the pioneers already there want it or not.
There are, however, some critical differences between this frontier and its predecessors. For one thing, while there was no question that the government in Ottawa had legitimate jurisdiction over the Yukon, the same could not be said of the relationship between Washington and Cyberspace.
Cyberspace, being a region of mind rather than geography, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. There are no national borders. The only boundaries which are significant are those which one crosses by entering a password. The location of those systems is irrelevant.
What difference does it make that the actual whereabouts of a hard disk is, say, California, when one may as easily actuate its heads from a keyboard in Berlin as from the desk it sits on? The Internet is essentially one great machine (or, better, organism) all elements of which are continuous if wide-flung.
Nevertheless, the American government maintains the conceit that someone moving encryption software from a hard disk in California region of that great digital Critter to another in the Berlin region would be engaged in the illegal international shipment of embargoed arms.
Or take the case of a Cupertino, California couple who were recently convicted on federal charges of distributing materials deemed pornographic according to the community standards of Memphis, Tennessee.
In both of these case, a local government is trying to apply its ordinances upon all of Cyberspace, and thus the entire planet. This might work for a time. Because of the American origins of the Internet, Cyberspace seems "ours," rather as Panama once did. This won't last long. As increasing numbers of non-Americans jack in, even such little willingness to submit to Washington as now exists will cease.
And it's unlikely that any new external power will arise in Washington's place. The Internet was designed to survive nuclear ordnance raining down all over it. This required that it be headless and self-organizing. It is thereby as resistant to Washington's efforts to control it as it would have been to Soviet efforts to decapitate it. It is the largest functional anarchy the world has ever known and is likely to stay that way.
Thus, the electronic frontier also differs from its predecessors in that setting up reservations is not likely to suffice for corralling the natives. As digital pioneer John Gilmore said, "The Internet deals with censorship as though it were a malfunction. It routes around it."Furthermore, unreal estate is unlimited. Unlike land, they are making more of this stuff. If you don't like the politics of the system you're on, you can set up your own for the price of a clone and increasingly cheap Internet connection.
There is, in addition, an irresolvable mismatch between the accelerating pace of technology and the changes it will enact upon the terrain of Cyberspace and the geological ponderousness with which the conventional legal structure of any jurisdiction, physical or virtual, can adapt to those changes.
Unfortunately, while governments have been good at imposing limitations, they show little capacity for accepting their own. Personally, I don't believe that government as we've known it as a promising future. I think the terrestrial powers will pursue us into Cyberspace and die of confusion there, thrashing arbitrarily and crushing miscellaneous unfortunates as they do. Like rabid dinosaurs, the fact that they're doomed will not make them any less dangerous.
And while I have some faith that the netizens will eventually find appropriate and effective means for securing as much order as they want, I also expect that various sorts of bad craziness will afflict them for some time to come. Skagway, 1900 might look like a nice place to raise a family compared to Cyberspace, 2000.
It is because of these twin co-evolving perilous opportunities that Mitch Kapor and I founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation back in 1994. At the time, we perceived our narrow purpose as being the protection of digital expression and the enhancement of digital community.
Now EFF's expanding charter extends to resisting the last ditch efforts of the old Industrial Age powers to colonize and subdue Cyberspace, while helping the folks who pass much of their lives there to find practical means for ordering their own affairs. I hope you will join that effort, either with us or by independently struggling toward your own approaches to these problems.
And don't be dismayed. Jack in. Go to Cyberspace, and go with all the adrenaline and goofy optimism which ought to accompany frontier enterprise. As I say, I don't think you have much choice, so you might as well make the best of it.
But don't come to this wild place expecting to civilize it, as I once did. This frontier may well be permanent And, finding bedlam, please don't send for your troops. They will only get in the way of a future which you will have to invent yourselves.
The Inside Passage Thursday, August 11, 1994