Originally published in Verbum Magazine Issue 5.2 - Virtual Reality

John Barlow, interviewed by Michael Gosney

John Barlow is one of the most appreciated individuals on the new media scene. Perhaps it's his affable personality* or his cogent way with words. John views the world from the dual perspective of a down-to-earth rancher and a longtime lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He has recently found himself playing a leadership role on the forward edge of digital media. He cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Lotus founder Hitch Kapor* has been hyperactive on the "cyberculture" lecture circuit, and is writing a book about it all titled Everything We Know Is Wrong to be published in 1992 by Viking Penguin. Verbum's Michael Gosney interviewed him during the SiCGRAPH conference in Las Vegas In August 1991.


MG: In the last couple of years you've been finding yourself in a cultural observer/commentator position with the new computer-culture scene. Might you describe that?

JB: Well you know, this is where the interesting people are. It used to be that you hung around rock 'n' roll because that was where the interesting people were, but I don't think of the standard arts, either music or the quiet arts, as having anything like the creative juice at the moment that I see in the interesting hybrid that's developed between the computer and artists. Its kind of like cross-breeding animals of very different genetic material; the hybrid is a good deal stronger than either of its progenitors. That's what I see here. There's an enormous amount of energy and creative vigor bringing an amazingly expanded sense of the possible. Expanded almost beyond the ability of people to easily incorporate it. I think the most interesting thing that is going on is the gradual recognition on the part of a lot of people that these things are not simply a medium, but a place. A place where we're already spending a majority of our time without even noticing it.

MG: The cyberspace place?

JB: Yeah, exactly.

MG: As I've heard you define it, "Where your money is right now."

JB: You look at the way people lead their lives now and more and more their lives are based on information rather than experience. The input is not hands on. It comes to you from one screen or another. And I have a lot of concerns about that, but I think it's a very interesting phenomenon, and it bears closer watching than anything else that I can think of going on culturally. The other thing about it is that the whole field is sufficiently malleable that I can come in with no experience except 17 years running a cattle ranch and a reasonably acute pair of eyes and actually have an effect on the future in the sense of helping people define the proper metaphors and define the work they do around those metaphors. That's very satisfying.

MG: Certainly your highest-profile tangible activity, other than being a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a co-speaker with Timothy Leary, seems to be your relationship with Mitch Kapor and your activity with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Could you give us a brief description and update on that?

JB: As I say, I think computers are creating a place and it's a place that is fundamentally different from any place that we have ever lived before. And we're moving there without proper thought to the kind of society that we want to build there and no sense of the social contract that's going to apply.

A social contract requires billions of individual human interactions to develop ... and a lot of time. Mitch and I felt that the conditions under which cyberspace is settled have to be kept open and fluid in order for that process to proceed correctly. To that end, we founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The first order of business is to assess the nature of cyberspace. It seems to us that conditions there are completely different. We don't know some very basic things, like what's property and how do you define it and how do you restrict its passage. Because property in this context is different from any kind of property that we're really used to dealing with. For example, copyright and patent only appear to work as well as they do because they're fundamentally vested in physical objects. Copyright worked because it was hard to make a book; as soon as it quit being hard to make a book, it quit working. By the same token, patent works as long as you're doing a transformation of material into an object and executing on a physical plane. When that's gone, then it's a whole new ball game.

We don't have answers to that, we don't know about issues of privacy. Your every commercial move is now recorded. We're either going to give up privacy altogether or we're going to have to come up with some different methods for achieving it. I'm not very comfortable with the idea of government regulation of personal information because I don't want the government regulating any kind of information.

But, there is such a range of issues attached to this. I mean, we originally just thought that what we were going to do was to make certain that everybody understood that the First Amendment applies to digital media, and among our earliest realizations was that the First Amendment is a local ordinance, really. Cyberspace has no national boundaries and the level of personal liberty will tend to fall to the lowest common denominator, which is often corporate rather than governmental. There's no First Amendment in any corporation. One of the things you do when you sign up to work for a large corporation is give up freedom of speech. Seriously.

And so, with all these issues for EFF to deal with, it's a little like you've got a thread hanging out on your sweater — you grab it to pull it out and the next thing you know you've got more yarn on the floor than there was in the sweater and the sweater's still there. We find ourselves dealing with telecommunications policy, with private property law, with civil liberties and a whole range of issues that are extremely complex.

MG: Is the Electronic Frontier Foundation funded by any of the high-tech companies?

JB: Until recently, as you know, we were funded exclusively by Mitch Kapor and Steve Wozniak and John Gilmore. We all felt the instabilities in that system of funding. Over the long term it's not a good way to do it, and it's not fair to ask those guys to pay for things that are in everybody's interest, so we recently started going around to large companies and saying, "Look, there's a necessary nexus between free speech and free enterprise, especially when the item of commerce looks so much like speech that they're practically indistinguishable. You have an economic interest in seeing to it that law develops in a way that will make it possible for you to have an open market in the future."

And they've been pretty responsive to that. We're just now starting to get major corporate support: Sun just gave us $75,000 in workstations. We just had a meeting in Silicon Valley with CEOs from a lot of different companies, and I think we're going to be looking at significant support.

MG: Great. What would be the priorities in terms of activities?

JB: Well, we want to try to define projects they can put money into and also feel comfortable with. I mean, a lot of them are very uneasy about getting into bed with civil libertarians. Unfortunately, we've reached a point in this great land of the free where an affection for liberty bears a certain taint, weirdly enough. So we're putting together projects dealing with telecommunications policies, for example. This is an area where they all have a vested interest and they don't have a sufficient understanding of the regulatory nightmare to try to untangle it themselves. So they're increasingly turning to us to do that.

MG: I see. Are there any government agencies that parallel your activities or that you're relating to?

JB: No. It feels to us like we rushed into an enormous vacuum. That's part of the problem: the vacuum turned out to be so huge that practically any energy we pour into it is a drop in the bucket in comparison to what needs to be done. But so far we're basically the only people in there.

Actually, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility has been there for a while but they're more focused on Star Wars and privacy issues. And they also have a different take on the whole issue of privacy than I do. I mean, they're more comfortable with the idea of trying to regulate personal information. MC: The whole issue of copyright with regard to all this self-publishing and self-production is certainly something hard to deal with.

JB: I just think we're going to have to give up on it. But I think there are still methods to get paid for the work you do with your mind, because ideas are not static. Right now we've got this enormous glut of data which is putting all of society into datashock. But the difference between information and data is a distinction that can only be drawn by the operation of the human mind, applying meaning to the data. There's always going to be a market for people who can stripmine the data and find the ore. And they're going to get paid for the delivery of their opinion in a lot of different fashions, if not necessarily by royalty as it's been in the past.

I think in a lot of cases what you're going to have is writings that get disseminated very broadly but with a premium placed on being the first person to get the information. So it's going to be a matter of where you are in time, rather than a matter of possession. And I don't think we're going to leave the tangible world altogether by any means, because people still like books and they're going to go on liking books. And as long as you're still converting information into something tangible, you've got a point where you can protect it.

MG: What do you think about the whole concept of multimedia?

JB: I'm starting to refer to it as mucho-media, because there sure is a lot of it. You know it's funny: I went to this multimedia roundtable at UCLA and there were assembled the graybeards of multimedia — Negroponte and Sculley and all these wise men gathered together — and it was like there was a giant invisible elephant in the room. I mean they could just smell it. They just knew it was there, but nobody could describe it. Nobody knew how to make a buck from it. And I think that's likely to be the case for awhile. What I think multimedia will be good for is postsymbolic communication between people. Not so much as a publication medium but more like video mail. I think people are going to try to convey their experiences to one another in a form that is more closely parallel to the sense of experience than language is. So I really see multimedia more as a communications form than as a broadcast form.

MG: VideoDesk, Nyron Krueger's thing, is kind of neat. Sharing space with another person, interacting with another person in virtual space.

JB: Right, exactly. But there's a problem there. I went to Xerox Pare and I met this fellow who'd been running their video room project — they had a room in Xerox Pare and they had another one at their research facility in Portland — and these two rooms were totally wired: I mean if you were in one, in a sense you were in the other. You could see everybody who was in both rooms if you were in one. You could hear what they were saying, you could see their body language, you could interact with them. And I asked him, "Well, do you feel that it works?" And he said, "No." And I said, "Why not? What's missing?" And he said "The pranja" The breath.

MG: I think that's a very essential point. Except the extent to which human beings can know each other better through this enhanced communication, and thereby subtler levels of communication can be facilitated.

JB: Right.

MG: You talk to someone on the phone and you can get pretty darn far in knowing a personality.

JB: The phone is a broad band width communications medium. The phone has some real advantages over text.

MG: It has feeling In it.

JB: It has feeling in it, exactly. It can contain a kind of nuance that text rarely delivers. You don't need to tell people on the phone that you're joking. In E-mail, if you don't put a smiley face on there you're in jeopardy of being taken far too seriously.

MG: In general, we seem to be waiting to see what multimedia can be*

JB: Right now, we know what multimedia is. And there's nothing very complicated about it: Multimedia is simply the ability to put pictures and sound into the datastream. And that's all. And we've been able to do that in a lot of different ways for a long time.

MG: But we can interact and edit In ways we never could.

JB: That's right. I think that we're quite a ways off from knowing what this is in the sense of what it will become. Right now I'm perfectly content to see people build tools like crazy if they can figure out a market for them and then let the street find its own uses, as Bill Gibson says. I have a sense that all of this stuff, going back to the cave paintings, is about some Great Work that human beings have been about for a long time. My sense is that we are trying to create Collective Consciousness. Hard-wiring the human Mind, with a capital M. And I have sort of a hippie-mystic vision of that, but every vector I can plot from so many different areas and fields is headed that direction and at a hell of a rate. And I don't know what that's going to be like, that collective organism.

MG: Well in this broad sense, it seems like multimedia is an area that promises to help us get the Big Picture. What are we? Who are we? Assimilate and transmit the picture back to the human organism.

JB: There's some real danger associated with it. Some of the stuff we've done so far, along the line of television, has actually not taken us closer to reality, if there is such a thing, but further away from it. It describes the map and not the territory. If you had any doubt about that, you weren't paying close attention during the war in the Gulf. You had the screen reality that was highly mediated. Where the whole thing was clean, surgical, no problem. And then you had those poor bastards down on the ground who were still another century.

MG: Do you have any thoughts on the artists and their roles and responsibilities in the development of these new media forms?

JB: I think the artist's role is as it has always been which is to explore perception. Coming to deeper understanding of how it is that we go about making the complex thing we call reality. Dramatically enhanced tools are becoming available to pursue that. I think the best thing about virtual reality is that it's the first time we've had a mechanism for studying how reality gets created in the first place. We thought we knew what intelligence was until we set out to make some. And now we don't know very much about making artificial intelligence, but we do know a hell of a lot more about intelligence. I think virtual reality is going to deliver to a lot of people the realization that reality is an opinion and not a fact. And that's a helpful realization, I think. MC: I'm hoping multimedia can strike back at the numbing literalism that the canned media is forcing on us*

JB: Well it's going to go both ways. It's going to make matters worse and better.

MG: The point that it gets to is, what do we do with multimedia?

JB: If you look at it as a medium from the many to the many, if you look at it as a telephone and not a television, which is how I prefer to look at it, then you don't have the imposed spewing of market insensitivity. A hell of a lot of what's wrong with TV is terror of offending anybody out there in this vast market. If you know who your audience is, you know if you're going to offend them or not. So I think in that sense, many-to-many multimedia has the capacity to carry the unvarnished truth a lot more effectively than something that is pitched at 20 million. It's something that costs a hell of a lot to produce. If it's really expensive, chances are it's not likely to be as truthful as if it's sort of loincloth and machete.

MG: Back to the culture, the people who are creating these tools, this melding of artists and software engineers and so forth, do you see any parallels with the kind of rock V roll culture of the sixties?

JB: Oh sure. I don't want to make too much of that parallel because I think that there's something debilitating about a certain kind of sixties nostalgia. It's sort of the re-creation of that golden glittering era, often leaving out a number of side effects that were pretty appalling — then and later. I mean, this is now and that was then. And what's going on now is as interesting to me in a lot of different ways than what went on then. I think what's going on now is subtler, doesn't have the same kind of mass cultural quality; it's much more splintered and individualistic and segmented, and that's okay. There's something inevitably dangerous about mass movements of any sort.

MG: Multimedia and virtual reality technology have started to take on a pop culture kind of dimension*

JB: Oh, yeah. I just recently became aware that what I was looking at was a movement. People are going to look back and talk about cyberpunks in the same way they talk about hippies and beatniks.

MG: So it's really a social movement that people are going to start relating to?

JB: They're relating to it now. They're developing a style and an aesthetic, actually less in the United States than in Japan, Europe and England. We're sort of behind the curve on this one, which is curious because this is where the stuff that it's based on is getting done.

MG: We're also leading the curve.

JB: The mass cultural movement among younger kids is taking place elsewhere, but the tools that they're picking up on are being made here.

MG: Yeah, it's fascinating in that respect. The U.S. culture in general is kind of boring these days.

JB: Well, I don't know how boring it is, but I think the people in general are in datashock. They've been so bludgeoned with this continual hosing-down of information that they don't have any way of incorporating it into their lives. Their lives are confusing and alienating. A lot of people are just sort of hunkered down to the extent that they can be. Personally, I like ambiguity. I like confusion — I look at it as an opportunity. But most folks look at it as a threat. I once had a dream in which Sigmund Freud told me that neurosis was the inability to tolerate ambiguity, and that's actually a pretty good definition. And there's a hell of a lot of that form of neurosis out there, believe me, and it's getting worse. I see a tendency in this country for people to rise up and call for shorter chains and smaller cages. And the trouble is that this is enough of a democracy that they're going to get what they want.

MG: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

JB: No, I just think we live in interesting times.

MG: Like it or not.

JB: Like it or not, and the difference between it's being a blessing or a curse is whether or not you've got sufficient confidence in yourself to surf it. It's like being in heavy white water: If you try to control the situation, you're in big trouble but if you try to interact with it, you're going to be all right.