Mike Godwin remembers John Perry Barlow
It’s the nature of having known John Perry Barlow, and having been his friend, that you can’t write about what it means to have lost him Wednesday morning (he died in his sleep at the too-young age of 70) without writing about how he changed your life. So, I ask your forgiveness in advance if I say too much about myself here on the way to saying more about John.
I can and will testify that I had a life before I met John Perry Barlow. At the beginning of 1990 I was finishing up law school in Texas (only one more semester and then the bar exam!) and was beginning to think about my professional future (how about being a prosecutor in Houston?) and my personal future (should my long-term girlfriend and I get married?).
That was the glide path I was on before Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, together with software entrepreneur Mitch Kapor and Sun Microsystems pioneering programmer John Gilmore, decided to start what would shortly be known as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). EFF disrupted all my inertial, half-formed plans and changed my life forever. (I didn’t, for example, become a prosecutor.) And John Perry Barlow was the red-hot beating heart of EFF.
I’d been feeling tremors in the Force before EFF even had a name, though. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I’d found ways to persuade people, including my university, to give me access to internet-capable accounts and services so that I could see the rest of the digital world as it was then represented in Usenet. I’d been a BBS hobbyist in the 1980s, but I thought I’d exhausted the BBS scene in Austin and wanted to know more of the larger digital world. Thanks to Usenet, over the Christmas break before my last semester of law school I’d become friends online with Clifford Stoll, whose book “The Cuckoo’s Egg” detailed how he had detected and helped thwart a foreign plot to hack into U.S. academic and research computers. Cliff had included his email address in the book and, as we so often did in those days, I just fired off a note to him and got to know him.
At about the same time, at my girlfriend’s urging, we spent a couple of days in San Francisco at MacWorld Expo, where I first met Mitch Kapor, who wore a Hawaiian shirt and demo’d what became for years my favorite Mac application, On Location. Other things were happening as well, and my computer-hobbyist nature— never too far in the background during my law-student years—kept me attuned to what seemed to be happening in the larger world which, as I would have framed it back then, seemed to reflect a convergence of my interests in constitutional law and cyberspace.
Just a month or two later, I came across the March 1990 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and there on the cover was this colloquy edited by Jack Hitt and Paul Tough titled, “Is Computer Hacking a Crime? (Harper’s theoretically makes a download of that old article available, but the links don’t work. You can find a transcribed version here). I wasn’t a subscriber, but I knew I had to read this. And there was Barlow – whose name I didn’t recognize – along with luminaries like Stewart Brand (former Merry Prankster, later the founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and The Whole Earth Review), Richard Stallman (founder and chief visionary of the Free Software movement that gave birth to the Linux operating system) and my new friend Cliff Stoll. They all had lots of opinions about computer hacking, but the participant whose words spoke most clearly to me was Barlow:
“BARLOW [Day 1, 11:54 A.M.]: Hackers hack. Yeah, right, but what’s more to the point is that humans hack and always have. Far more than just opposable thumbs, upright posture, or excess cranial capacity, human beings are set apart from all other species by an itch, a hard-wired dissatisfaction. Computer hacking is just the latest in a series of quests that started with fire hacking. Hacking is also a collective enterprise. It brings to our joint endeavors the simultaneity that other collective organisms — ant colonies, Canada geese — take for granted. This is important, because combined with our itch to probe is a need to connect. Humans miss the almost telepathic connectedness that I’ve observed in other herding mammals. And we want it back. Ironically, the solitary sociopath and his 3:00 A.M. endeavors hold the most promise for delivering species reunion.”
This was a guy who really got it! A guy who recognized the itchiness in my brain compelling me to stay up nights finding ways to get into campus mainframes back in the 1970s, that had me tinkering with Apple II computers, with PCs and with Macs in the 1980s, and that had driven me to join the global Usenet conversation in just the last few months. Barlow saw that what we were doing with computers now (that is, in the 1980s and 1990s, at the dawn of the public internet) was essentially human—that human beings, being what they are, couldn’t stop themselves from doing it. And look at the line Barlow draws in this contribution (his first in the public colloquy in Harper’s)–it’s a line connecting human beings’ invention/discovery of fire (or “fire hacking”) with our use of computers to communicate with one another. “This is important, because combined with our itch to probe is the need to connect.” We miss our “almost telepathic connectedness.” And, as Barlow wrote, “we want it back.”
During my law school years—as well as the year I took off to serve as editor of the University of Texas student newspaper, The Daily Texan—I’d relied on computer BBSes to stay connected with people outside my studies, outside my work. Yet I’d begun to recognize that computer communications were just the same kinds of speech that our Constitution and Bill of Rights were meant to protect. I tried to persuade a favorite professor to let me write a research paper, for credit, on the First Amendment and computer bulletin boards. The professor (an immensely well-regarded First Amendment scholar, and deservedly so) shut me down, essentially saying that First Amendment doctrine was all settled, and that computer bulletin-board systems didn’t really alter fundamental questions about, say, publisher liability or what counts as speech or the press. Barlow, speaking in the Harper’s-sponsored forum on the WELL’s conferencing system, had seen something in the nascent online world that my professor had missed, and that I’d already had inklings about.
You also see in Barlow’s participation in that Harper’s forum certain long-term traits that sometimes bugged those of us who loved him. Barlow frequently yielded to the temptation to utter oracular pronouncements, to jump to conclusions before he’d done the reading. In what started out as a minor contretemps with “Acid Phreak” and “Phiber Optik,” participants who championed the exploratory hacking of computer systems—especially those of corporate giants—Barlow wrote this:
“BARLOW [Day 19, 9:48 P.M.]: Let me define my terms. Using hacker in a midspectrum sense (with crackers on one end and Leonardo da Vinci on the other), I think it does take a kind of genius to be a truly productive hacker. I’m learning PASCAL now, and I am constantly amazed that people can string those prolix recursions into something like PageMaker. It fills me with the kind of awe I reserve for splendors such as the cathedral at Chartres. With crackers like Acid and Optik, the issue is less intelligence than alienation. Trade their modems for skateboards and only a slight conceptual shift would occur. Yet I’m glad they’re wedging open the cracks. Let a thousand worms flourish.”
To which Phiber Optik responded with this:
“OPTIK [Day 10, 10:11 P.M.]: You have some pair of balls comparing my talent with that of a skateboarder. Hmm… This was indeed boring, but nonetheless: [Editor’s note: At this point in the discussion, Optik — apparently having hacked into TRW’s computer records — posted a copy of Mr. Barlow’s credit history. In the interest of Mr. Barlow’s privacy — at least what’s left of it — Harper’s Magazine has not printed it.] I’m not showing off. Any fool knowing the proper syntax and the proper passwords can look up credit history. I just find your high-and-mighty attitude annoying and, yes, infantile.”
Barlow was stunned, just as you or I would have been, to see TRW’s version of his credit history—including its errors—published online. But the next thing he did was brilliant, and it’s not something anyone else would necessarily do. As Barlow recounts it in an article he wrote later that spring:
“I’ve been in redneck bars wearing shoulder-length curls, police custody while on acid, and Harlem after midnight, but no one has ever put the spook in me quite as Phiber Optik did at that moment. I realized that we had problems which exceeded the human conductivity of the WELL’s bandwidth. If someone were about to paralyze me with a spell, I wanted a more visceral sense of him than could fit through a modem.
“I e-mailed him asking him to give me a phone call. I told him I wouldn’t insult his skills by giving him my phone number and, with the assurance conveyed by that challenge, I settled back and waited for the phone to ring. Which, directly, it did.
“In this conversation and the others that followed I encountered an intelligent, civilized, and surprisingly principled kid of 18 who sounded, and continues to sound, as though there’s little harm in him to man or data. His cracking impulses seemed purely exploratory, and I’ve begun to wonder if we wouldn’t also regard spelunkers as desperate criminals if AT&T owned all the caves.”
This is where you see one of Barlow’s great gifts, fully as much of a talent as his lyrical wordsmithing. Barlow saw past his own feelings of fear and uncertainty and reached out to the human being behind the hacker handle, and found, in Phiber Optik, someone who deserved, in Barlow’s view, more admiration than fear. As he wrote about it in 1990, “The terrifying poses which Optik and Acid had been striking on screen were a media-amplified example of a human adaptation I’d seen before: One becomes as he is beheld. They were simply living up to what they thought we and, more particularly, the editors of Harper’s, expected of them. Like the televised tears of disaster victims, their snarls adapted easily to mass distribution.”
Barlow also wrote this:
“Months later, Harper’s took Optik, Acid and me to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant which, though very fancy, was appropriately Chinese. Acid and Optik, as material beings, were well-scrubbed and fashionably-clad. They looked to be dangerous as ducks.”
They looked to be dangerous as ducks. I’d have given a toe, or maybe even finger, to have written a sentence that apt.
Barlow’s larger insight—that maybe our sense of the threats of computers and the internet and the first generation of human beings to grow up with super-duper computer skills was just another iteration of our human fear of change and the new—informed Barlow’s co-founding of a new civil-liberties organization, originally pitched as the “the Computer Liberty Foundation.” The other co-founders—Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore, themselves breathtakingly remarkable people just as much as Barlow was (here I first typed “as Barlow is” because he still feels so present)—recognized that “Computer Liberty Foundation” was a bit clunky. Barlow, the poet who’d also been a rancher in Pinedale, Wyoming, coined the name that stuck: Electronic Frontier Foundation.
EFF, which was then primarily just Barlow, Kapor, and Gilmore, eventually decided they needed an in-house lawyer to help with the legal cases that were bubbling up with increasing frequency. I’d already been active in publicizing those cases, starting as a law student, then as a recent law graduate, even as I was studying for the Texas bar exam. Marc Rotenberg, then head of the Washington office of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, had reached out to me as a possible staff member; CPSR was the recipient of EFF’s first grant for cyberspace legal research, and they needed to staff up. Rotenberg flew me to EFF’s first big press conference—this at the Washington Press Club—and it was there that I met Kapor (again) and Barlow for the first time. I got to hang out with these guys not just that day but also in the evening at a dinner meeting that included other people who’d later be EFF supporters and even board members. The main thing I remember from the dinner meeting is talking to Barlow—he’d called himself an “information mystic” (I think he was just trying out the term for size), and I piped up about Claude Shannon and information theory and my understanding of information as something more scientific than mystical. Of course, Barlow already knew about Shannon, about Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the “noosphere,” about Aristotle’s precursor concept of “substantial form.” I knew instantly that I would get along with this guy.
I got recruited, not just by CPSR, but by EFF, and I became EFF’s first staff counsel (and, in fact, EFF’s first full-time employee). The nine years I spent at EFF were my first nine years as a lawyer, and every single one of those years was a year of revelation, always informed by Barlow’s openness, adventurousness and willingness to grapple with new problems and new ideas.
Ultimately, Barlow didn’t think every looming problem in cyberspace was no more dangerous than a duck. Like the rest of us at EFF (which began to expand in the following years), Barlow recognized the fear of encryption technology, the fear of computer-facilitated copyright infringement, the fear of “cyberporn” as the kind of neophobia so common in eras of technological change. When Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996, which would have imposed massive censorship on the now-blooming internet, he channeled the anxiety all of us were feeling into his crafting of “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”
I confess I didn’t much like this Declaration when Barlow shared it and later published it. With what Barlow admitted was “characteristic grandiosity,” the Declaration asserted that traditional, terrestrial governments “have no sovereignty where we gather” (that is, in cyberspace), and that “the global social space we are building” is “naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose upon us.” By then I was already deep in my work for EFF on the constitutional challenge to the Communications Decency Act, and the hard fact that haunted my days was how fragile this new global social space was, and how little independence of the tyrannies it might ultimately have.
I was missing the forest for the trees. The simple fact is this: Barlow inspired a new generation of lawyers and activists to devote time and energy into preserving the great new world the internet and other digital technologies was giving us. As I wrote earlier this year in an essay for Cato Unbound:
“Here I must share some late-breaking news from the 1990s: the actual cyber-activists of that period (and here I must include myself) did not interpret Barlow’s cri de coeur as political philosophy. Barlow, best known prior to his co-founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a songwriter for the Grateful Dead, was writing to inspire activism, not to prescribe a new world order, and his goal was to be lyrical and aspirational, not legislative. Barlow wrote and published his “Declaration” in the short days and weeks after Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, a telecommunications bill that aimed, in part, to censor the internet. No serious person – and certainly not the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations that successfully challenged the Communications Decency Act provisions of that bill – believed that cyberspace would be “automagically” independent of the terrestrial world and its governments. Barlow’s “Declaration” is best understood, as Wired described it two decades later, as a “rallying cry.” Similarly, nobody thinks “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “America the Beautiful” or “This Land Is Your Land” is a constitution. (And of course the original Declaration of Independence isn’t one either.)”
Barlow had written his own inspirational anthem, and I’d like to think he’d particularly appreciate my comparing it to Woody Guthrie’s great song.
I can say one more thing about Barlow—about seeing him once again, for the last time in person, when a couple of friends and I visited him in spring of 2016 at John Gilmore’s house, where Barlow was continuing his long efforts at recovery from a heart attack and other problems that had reduced his mobility and energy but had not diminished his fundamentally optimistic outlook—optimism not just for himself and those he loved but for all of us. It was good to talk to John Perry Barlow that evening, to chat about nothing in particular, to reminisce a little. I had loved the man pretty much from the start and, circumstances being what they were, it was not the simple love of hero-worship from an adoring fan. Instead, it was the complicated, tricky love for someone with whom I got to share so many great moments of my life over many great (and not-so-great) years. It’s the love you end up having for lifelong friends, or for family members you’ve occasionally quarreled with over the years, but with whom you’ve shared so much, and with whom you’ve been able to do so much good work, that even when you disagree with them, you know ultimately all will be forgiven.
I can tell you what it felt like to sit down and catch up a bit with John Perry Barlow that last time. It felt like coming home.