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To Be At Liberty

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To Be At Liberty

An Essay for Public Television

Text by John Perry Barlow Video production by Todd Rundgren

Let me tell you where I'm coming from.  I grew up on a ranch near Pinedale, Wyoming, a very free town not far from the middle of nowhere.

It was the kind of place where a state legislator could actually say, "If the English language was good enough for our Lord Jesus Christ, it's good enough for our school children."

Though surely a hick town, it was also a real community.  There was a lot of trust.  Neither the locks nor the lawyers got used much.  People knew each other and tried let one another be.  After all, they'd come to that wild and remote place to be free.  Liberty was a fierce practice among them.  That it might also be a legal guarantee seemed irrelevant.

It seems to me that elsewhere in America liberty is far more a matter of law than practice.  The Bill of Rights is still on the books and they'd have a hell of a time putting you in jail for just saying something, but how free are we?

Whatever the guarantees, I believe liberty resides in its exercise. Liberty is really about the ability to feel free and behave accordingly. You are only as free as you act.

Free people must be willing to speak up...and listen.  They can't merely consume the fruits of freedom, they have to produce them.

This exercise of liberty requires that people trust one another and the institutions they make together. They have to feel at home in their society.

Well, Americans don't appear to trust each other much these days. Why else would we employ three times more lawyers per capita than we did in 1970?

Why else would our universities be so determined to impose tolerance that they'll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony?

Why else would we teach our kids to fear all strangers? Why else have we become so afraid to look one another in the eye?

We have come to regard trust as foolishness and fear as necessary.  We live in terror that the people around us might figure out what we're actually thinking.

Frankly, this America doesn't feel very free to me at all.  What has happened to our liberty?

I think much of the answer lies in the critical difference between information and experience.

These days we view most of our world through a television screen. Most of our knowledge comes from information about things, not experience with them.

Let me return to Pinedale for an example.  Those folks killed each other pretty regularly, but there wasn't much fear. They knew each other, and if somebody got shot, it wasn't too hard to figure out why.

Homicide was not abstract. It was a familiar threat, like wild horses or winter.

And you also knew that today's opponent might be the only person along to pull you out of a snowdrift tomorrow.  So tolerance and trust were practical necessities.  Living more or less safely in a world we understood, we found liberty an easy thing to keep.

But elsewhere, as I say, the average American's sense of the world has likely been derived by staring at it through the one-way tunnel of information.

What the media's taught my fellow citizens is that all the world is dangerous in some irrational, non-specific way. Terrorists are everywhere. Nature is in open rebellion. Making love can kill you. Your fellow humans are liars in suits, thugs, zealots, psychopaths, and, mostly, victims who look a lot like you.

Television amplifies the world's mayhem and gives you no way to talk back. No way to ask "Is this the way the world is?"  Just as right now it's giving you no way to argue with me.

Why does television prefer terrifying images?  Because it lives on your attention.  That's what television is really selling.  And scaring the hell out of you is, like sex, one of those really efficient ways to get your undivided focus.  To gain it, they flood your living room with images designed to hit your fear glands like electricity.

So we have erected a glowing altar in the center of our lives that feeds on our terror, and Fear has become our national religion.

We ask the government to defend us against the virtual goblins that stream from the tube, and the government has obliged us.

For example, in 1992, a total of two Americans died in terrorist attacks. Not what I'd call a major threat. But our fear of them is so real that we spend tens of billions a year to protect ourselves from terrorism. For many Americans, making the car payments depends on keeping this fear alive.

But you cannot build a society of general trust in an atmosphere of general fear. The fearful are never free.

If we are to fight back - if we are to regain the courage necessary to the practice of liberty - we are going to have to stage another kind of revolution.  We need to find a new means of understanding the world that takes no profit from our fear.

We need a medium that, like life itself, allows us to probe it for the truth. We need, in essence, to cut out the middlemen and speak directly to one another.  Indeed, we need a place where we can share information unfiltered by the needs and desires of either Big Brother or the Marketing Department down at Channel Six.

Such a medium may be spreading across the planet in a thickening web of connected computers called the "Internet."  Through the Internet I can already get a personal connection with people all over the globe, learning from those on the scene what's really going on.  Through the Internet I can publish my own understandings to whomever might be interested, in whatever numbers.

During the War in the Persian Gulf, I was able to get minute by minute reports from the laptop computers of soldiers in the field.  The picture they presented felt far more detailed, more troubling and ambiguous, than the mass hallucination presented on CNN.

The Internet is also creating a new place...many call it Cyberspace...where new communities like Pinedale can form. The big difference will be that these Cyberspace communities will be possible among people whose bodies are located in many different places in the world.

Direct communication should breed understanding and tolerance.  Our fears will be far easier to check out.  We may begin to understand that these distant and sometimes alien creatures are real people whose rights are directly connected to our own.

I imagine the gathering places of Cyberspace, some as intimate as Pinedale's Wrangler Cafe, some more vast than Tienanmen Square.  I imagine us meeting there in conditions of trust and liberty that no government will be able to deny.

I imagine a world, quite soon to come, in which ideas can spread like fire, as Jefferson said, "expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe... incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation by anyone."

If ideas can spread like fire, then freedom, like water, will flow around or over those that stand in its way.  In Cyberspace, I hope that truth will be self-evident.

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