The internet will miss John Perry Barlow

John Perry Barlow was an pioneer in the fight for a free and open internet, but his unique, larger-than-life legacy was forged by deep contributions to both technology and popular culture.

The internet will miss John Perry Barlow
I, Joi (GFDL) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

John Perry Barlow, who died in San Francisco last week at age 70, was an important pioneer for internet freedom. But he was much, much more than that. He was the kind of Renaissance Man that today’s internet moguls can’t even dream of emulating. And that is a huge loss for the world of technology — and the world at large.

Barlow’s wide-ranging influence

You may not have heard of Barlow, but you’ve probably been influenced by him in a wide variety of surprising ways. For one thing, he was a co-founder — and at his passing, vice chairman — of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is considered “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world.” Back in 1990, when the EFF was formed, Barlow helped popularize the term “cyberspace.” He was a director of the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), the seminal online community, and he was an influential early voice at Wired magazine.

But technology was only a small part of the John Perry Barlow story. He was also a Wyoming cattle rancher and a Republican politician. Most notable for many, he wrote the words to dozens of popular Grateful Dead songs, including “Estimated Prophet,” “Cassidy,” and “The Music Never Stopped.” He took acid trips with Timothy Leary and was a friend to President Kennedy and his wife Jackie, who sent their son John F. Kennedy Jr. to work on Barlow’s ranch in the late 1970s. Barlow worked on Dick Cheney’s 1978 congressional campaign, though he later separated himself from the future vice president’s policies.

Ironically, the fact that Barlow was so much more than an internet pioneer is part of the reason he was such an important figure in the rise of the internet. The wide range of Barlow’s life didn’t distract from his contributions to the internet; they informed and shaped those contributions in ways that many of today’s callow, one-dimensional internet leaders would do well to study and emulate.

The New York Times, for example, noted that his support for the open internet arose in part from his experience with the Grateful Dead’s success with the uncommon practice of allowing fans record their shows rather than strictly limiting recording to official albums. Music industry execs said encouraging so-called “bootleg” recordings would cost the band millions — instead it helped boost fan loyalty and lay the foundation of a multi-decade career, extremely unusual in the fickle world of pop music.

Similarly, his vision of cyberspace as a place where people could find their tribe was no doubt influenced by the community that coalesced around the Grateful Dead, bringing together like-minded folks from across the globe in the physical space of a concert.

Useful lessons for today’s internet moguls

Today’s internet leaders don’t seem to care about any of that very much. They just want to sell you stuff. To them, the internet isn’t a movement or an opportunity to change the world for the better. Instead, it’s a mall, an opportunity to make money, perhaps with some new efficiencies and maybe a nod to “not being evil” or “connecting the world” — as long as that doesn’t get in the way of getting stupid rich faster than ever before possible.

As a friend put it, Barlow never would have started Uber. Perhaps more to the point, Uber founder Travis Kalanick would never have made the internet into the shared, open platform that Barlow envisioned and worked so hard to help create.

For the internet’s sake, for our sake, let’s hope there are more brilliant, passionate, realistic, yet idealistic people like Barlow ready to contribute to a free, open and welcoming internet with room for community and connection as well as commerce. We need that now more than ever, but in the geopolitical and technological climate, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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