Thursday, February 08, 2018

Remembering John Perry Barlow

Long before the time when I first read him speaking good sense about what was then becoming known as cyberspace (in the early 90s), I first heard John Perry Barlow 'speak' through his lyrics for songs written in collaboration with Bob Weir. Cassidy remains one of my all time favourite songs. While Weir's melody is hauntingly beautiful, it is the way the lyric renders the lives of people who were deeply significant to Barlow that has always stood out most for me. The way he cuts to the core of deep things so clearly and economically, blending force and beauty.

Chris Bigum pointed Michele and me to Barlow's 1995 interview with Nat Tunbridge in Australian Personal Computer when we were all working together on the idea of mindsets in relation to the uptake of new technologies in education. In this interview Barlow makes what we believe to be the original reference to a distinction between "natives" and "immigrants" with respect to understanding the internet and life online. [Prefiguring Justin Trudeau, Chris and Michele and I opted for "insiders" and "newcomers" in place of "natives" and "immigrants" as ways to distinguish the mindsets; but the distinction itself was pure Barlow.] Barlow was arguing that to think about virtual space/internet space/information space in the ways we have become accustomed to thinking about physical space is a fundamental misconception.

If what Barlow was arguing back then, almost 25 years ago, is a little better and a little more widely understood today than it was then, it is nonetheless still inadequately understood and applied within such important spheres as law, commerce and education. For the sake of posterity, and for expressing our appreciation of John Perry Barlow and our sense of loss at his passing, we will recall here a couple of gems from 1995.

Within the paradigm of physical or material space, said Barlow, controlled economics increases value by regulating scarcity. In the economy of virtual space, however, the opposite holds. To quote Barlow, with information it is familiarity, not scarcity, that has value. With information, "it's dispersion that has the value, and it's not a commodity it's a relationship and, as in any relationship, the more that's going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship".

He said that several years before talk of "relationship technologies" got any traction.

And with respect to pornography on the internet, a hot topic in 1995, Barlow simply rejected the strategy of trying to apply gross filters. Filters would not work, he said, because "Netspace" cannot be controlled that way. The more elaborate the filter, the more elaborate will be the search to find ways around it, and the more powerful these resistances become. He advocated more local and individualized filters that work on the principle of people taking responsibility for their choices. "If you have concerns about your children looking at pornography, the answer is not to eliminate pornography from the world, which will never happen; the answer is to raise them to find it as distasteful as you do".

Pornography may be yesterday's issue, but Barlow's principle holds for a raft of parallel issues today. It's not Barlow's fault we've learned next to nothing of importance about such matters over the past quarter century.

He gave it his best shot, and it could not be expressed any better today than he expressed it way back then: in the beginning.

Rest in peace, John Perry Barlow. You were truly special and your wisdom will be greatly missed.

Lyric to "Cassidy"

I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream
I can tell by the mark he left, you were in his dream
Ah child of countless trees
Ah child of boundless seas
What you are, what you're meant to be
Speaks his name, though you were born to me
Born to me, Cassidy

Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac
I can tell by the way you smile, he is rolling back
Come wash the night-time clean
Come grow the scorched ground green
Blow the horn, tap the tambourine
Close the gap of the dark years in between
You and me, Cassidy

Quick beats in an icy heart
Catch colt draws a coffin cart
There he goes and now here she starts
Hear her cry

Flight of the seabirds
Scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly

Faring thee well now
Let your life proceed by its own designs
Nothing to tell now
Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine


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