Yesterday, I participated in a memorial symposium John Perry Barlow's at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. It was amazing to see so many old friends that I realized I had missed so dearly. It really felt like Barlow was in the room - he was the energy that united us. It also reminded me of the roots of the Internet and how different the culture of many of the founders was from the Silicon Valley. It gave me hope that we still have a fire in our belly to continue the fight for freedom and liberty that John Perry Barlow embodied and inspired everyone with.
I was allowed to make a few comments. The video of the whole event is worth watching. This is the speaker lineup in the order they appear:
Brewster Kahle, Founder & Digital Librarian, Internet Archive
Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Cory Doctorow, celebrated scifi author and Editor in Chief of Boing Boing
Anna Barlow, daughter of John Perry Barlow
Mitch Kapor, Co-founder of EFF and Co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact
Pam Samuelson, Richard M. Sherman Distinguished Professor of Law and Information at the University of California, Berkeley
Trevor Timm, Executive Director of Freedom of the Press
Edward Snowden, noted whistleblower and President of Freedom of the Press Foundation
Shari Steele, Executive Director of the Tor Foundation and former EFF Executive Director
John Gilmore, EFF Co-founder, Board Member, entrepreneur and technologist
Steven Levy, Wired Senior Writer, and author of Hackers, In the Plex, and other books
Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab
Amelia Barlow, daughter of John Perry Barlow
I've taken a bit of editorial license - below are my rough notes of what I was going to say which are roughly what I said or meant to say. :-)
I met Barlow in the summer of 1990 when my mother had moved to LA and we were installing my sister in college in Palo Alto. Timothy Leary, who I had met in Japan and who would later adopt me as a god son, drove us from LA to San Francisco to introduce us to his community there. (He didn't have a drivers license.) He threw a party for us at the Mondo 2000 House to introduce us to his SF community and Barlow was there.
This was 1990 - before WIRED, before the web. It was all about Cyberpunk - leather jackets, CDROMs, weird drugs, raves, VR. South Park was a needle park, and Toon Town used to have raves around there. I remember raves advertising "Free VR." Silicon Graphics computers were being used to make amazing rave flyers that eventually inspired the design for WIRED Magazine. All that started in South Park and and was the genesis of the gentrification that transformed the neighborhood to what it is now.
Cyberpunk was a sort of new punk rock - meets the hippies, meets computers and the proximity to Haight-Ashbury, Silicon Valley and Berkeley created this weird sub-culture where a lot of this Internet stuff started.
Timothy Leary and Barlow had many differences, but also had a lot of similarities. They were my mentors.
They both had an amazing sense of humor, optimism and hope. This wasn't the optimism of giddy investors during a bubble. Rather, it was the optimism and humor that I sense in the Dalai Lama and others who have become self-aware through meditation, mind-expanding drugs or whatever brings you close to understanding true nature and reality. It's that peculiar zone where you see all of the suffering, the injustice and just how fucked up the world can be - and you face this challenge with a fundamental confidence in human beings and a sense of humor.
Timothy Leary used to say, "Question Authority and Think for Yourself."
Barlow's manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, was a great example of that. It was a rallying cry for a new generation - for us. I remember when we were starting out, it felt like if we could just connect everyone and give them a voice, we'd have peace, love and fairness.
Today our dream of the world that Barlow wrote about seems like a distant dream. Barlow was obviously aware of the twists and turns that this path has taken.
Barlow said, "My belief in the virtues of giving all humanity a voice did not take into account what would happen if you gave every one of a billion people his own virtual soapbox and street corner. Everybody's talking and nobody's listening."
Barlow also said, "I'm not sorry I wrote it. One day, I still believe, it will seem true."
We're having to climb some mountains and suffer some bad weather. It almost feels like the winter of 1846 for the Donner Party. But he gave us a compass heading.
I also believe, as Barlow did, that one day it will seem true. But to make it true, it will require organizing, action and tenacity.
In addition to a compass heading, Barlow helped us organize, think and act, and he fueled us with hope, humor and optimism even in our darkest moments.
We are in one of the darkest moments in global and American history that I remember.
I was born in 1966. I don't remember 1967 because I was just a 1 year old. But in 1967, we had the Detroit Street Riots which some called a rebellion (I guess if you squash it, you get to name it). It the worst incident of its kind in US history killing 43 people and burning down 1,400 buildings as the National Guard was called in to stop it. It was also the year that The Grateful Dead's debut album came out and Barlow introduced them to Timothy Leary at Millbrook. 1967 was also the year of the Summer of Love that kicked off the Hippie movement.
The Hippies and the Grateful Dead fought against the Vietnam war and the racial tensions with songs, love and humor.
The Parkland kids and the collective movement they've inspired, the #meetoo and TimesUp movements are two of the most powerful movements of the day. The TimesUp movement is headed to overturn centuries of patriarchal power. There is another wave coming. It feels different from the Hippie movement, but it feels like we're once again on the following the compass heading Barlow gave us - to overthrow the established and ossified power structures and more importantly the paradigms that feed them. There is a feeling of rebellion and revolution in the air. I believe that now more than ever, it's important to remember Barlow's elegant balance of humor, love, optimism and kindness that so magically integrated with his activism, power, confidence and resolve.
I want to finish with the last two sentences from his manifesto.
"We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before."
This is our compass heading.