For many, John Perry Barlow’s name might be inseparable from the digital advocacy work he did in the early days of the Internet. But the EFF co-founder’s impact—and adventures—spanned areas as diverse as Hollywood, politics, popular music, and environmental policy. His newly-released memoir, Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times, follows Barlow, who passed away earlier this year, from his upbringing in Wyoming as “ranching royalty,” through to the experience of writing his first song for the Grateful Dead (“Mexicali Blues”), up to the phone calls with hackers in the Legion of Doom that led him to work with Mitch Kapor in creating the Electronic Frontier Foundation—and beyond.
Barlow’s “crazy times” extend beyond his more well-known interactions with the Dead during the Summer of Love and his conversations on the “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link” (AKA the WELL, an early virtual community) during the first years of the Internet. Barlow writes of the time he spent at Andy Warhol’s famous Factory; of traveling on a pilgrimage through India after selling the rights to a novel straight out of college; and of his relationships with people with backgrounds as diverse as Steve Jobs, Timothy Leary, and John F. Kennedy, Jr. He was, it seems, good at being in the right places at the right times with the right people, while doing what he calls, in a typical Barlow-ism, “hanging out with intent.”
As a result, Mother American Night reads like a history of the culture clashes of the last fifty years: offline versus online, rural versus urban, government versus private life. As a rancher who ended up co-founding EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation as well as working as Dick Cheney’s campaign coordinator, one of Barlow’s most impressive qualities was straddling, and bringing together, these sometimes opposing cultures.
For those interested in the early days of digital rights and online culture, and how John Perry Barlow ended up more or less at the center of that scene (as well as a dozen others), Mother American Night should be satisfying—and humbling. Just a few years before writing now-famous essays like “Crime and Puzzlement” and “Selling Wine Without Bottles,” even this giant of the Internet didn’t understand cyberspace when it was first explained to him in what he says was, “a quantity of time and language that embarrasses me to contemplate today.”
It wasn’t just Barlow that didn’t have a handle on the Internet at first. After he came to understand it, and began promoting digital rights, he says that he “had a constituency that was not yet defined by previously formed political views,” and writing in cyberspace made him feel “unbounded.” While we may not feel as unbounded when we post online these days, this was just thirty years ago—and we should remember that we are each members of that online constituency, and we continue to define, and redefine, the space for ourselves, politically and otherwise. For everyone working to protect rights online, Mother American Night is a helpful reminder of just how quickly the online spaces that Barlow helped define thirty years ago have shifted, and can shift again—for the better, if we work for it—wherever we come from, and whatever our background.