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.
Continue reading RIP John Perry Barlow. The rancher who made cyberspace his territory.