John Perry Barlow has died, age 70. When I was writing Technobiophilia I often referred to his ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, written in 1996. Mentions of his contribution to the development of the idea of ‘cyberspace’ are scattered throughout the book, but here’s an excerpt about the way it became a foundational narrative not just for the internet, but for the United States. It’s followed by the 1996 Declaration in its entirety.
Have we created ‘a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace’? Your thoughts are welcome.
Cyberspace as a foundational narrative
‘Cyberspace did not appear … from nowhere,’ wrote the London-based Islamic scholar Ziauddin Sardar in 1995. It was ’the conscious reflection of the deepest desires, aspirations, experiential yearning and spiritual angst of Western man’. He saw it as ‘the American Dream writ large’, marking the dawn of a new ‘American civilisation’.
It was also a reflection of the need for a foundational story with which to understand the new world of the internet. Historian David Nye explains that in the early days of colonisation there were no technological creation stories, but after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the former colonies began to re-imagine themselves as a self-created community and it was then that technology became an important part of the national narrative. Two hundred years later when the frontier re-opened in the form of cyberspace, that foundational narrative would weave itself back in and battles over territory were inevitable.
One of those leading the way was John Perry Barlow, born in Sublette County, a former fur-trading community in a sparsely-populated area of Wyoming, who later became a California adoptee. He might be the only countercultural internet pioneer who was also a cattle rancher, a career he combined with writing lyrics for The Grateful Dead and being an advocate for internet freedom through the Electronic Frontier Foundation. No one, writes Andrew Kirk, better captures the world of hybrid politics, technophilia, environmentalism and western regionalism than Barlow. He was also responsible for coining the term ‘electronic frontier’ and for being the first person to migrate the term ‘cyberspace’ from Gibson’s cyberpunk writings and apply it to virtual space. ‘Imagine discovering a continent so vast that it may have no end to its dimensions’, he wrote ‘Imagine a new world with more resources than all our future greed might exhaust, more opportunities than there will ever be entrepreneurs enough to exploit, and a peculiar kind of real estate that expands with development.’ Cyberspace, in its present condition, he believed, ‘has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.’
Passionately protective of this new territory, he was infuriated by the 1996 Communications Decency Act which embodied a first attempt to regulate pornographic material on the internet. Emailing from a fastness somewhere in Switzerland, he dashed off the lengthy ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ which seized the opportunity to declare the freedoms which seemed to be ‘natural’ to the internet. ‘Our identities have no bodies,’ he wrote, ‘so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge’. And ‘We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth’, a world where ‘anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity’. Most importantly, Barlow stressed what many at the time saw as the trump card of life in cyberspace: ‘Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.’
From Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace, Sue Thomas, Bloomsbury, 2013. See book for references.
A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.
by John Perry Barlow, 1996
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.
You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.
Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.
In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us.
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.
In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.
Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.
These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.
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.
February 8, 1996